Space and Substance

John Minton’s illustrations are very striking! I wanted to see more of them, so I bought Elizabeth David’s book Mediterranean Food published in 1950, in which we find Minton’s illustrations that accompany the recipes. Then I decided to draw one of his illustrations – the frontispiece for the chapter on “Substantial Dishes”.

Minton confines himself to the element of line to create a complete scenario: horizontal lines – for the horizon and broken horizontal lines for the sea; curved lines for the curtains; block lines for the chequered floor; diagonal lines for the shadows; cross-hatching lines to convey more shadows. As the viewer looks at the picture, one feels that the light is coming from over our left shoulder, causing the objects on the table to cast shadows.

What really intrigues me, however, is the way Minton has created space. He has done this in different ways. The tent, building and camel at the top of the picture are small in size, creating the illusion that they are in the distance. Further back still, the thin elongated shapes in the ‘sky’, suggest clouds floating high over the horizon line. The top third of the picture then, gives us a sense of depth not through a vanishing point where the lines converge in one place, but through the size of the objects. It is as if we the viewer are inside looking out into the distance, and yet not entirely. Minton might have drawn a window frame with objects either side of that frame to denote what is inside space and what is outside space but he does not do that. Minton draws curtains that drape the top of the picture as well as hanging down the sides – perhaps we are to envisage ourselves inside a tent, like the tent in the distance. However, the solid table and flooring transgress that notion of tent space and seem, rather to indicate the more permanent furnishings of the inside of a building. The bottom two thirds of the picture comprise this scene, and it is the way Minton creates space in this part of the illustration that really fascinates me. The table, spread with dishes of delicious food, takes centre stage: we see the whole top of the table which is drawn with slightly diagonal lines narrowing at the further end of the table. It is as if we have a birds-eye view of the table top – we see the tops of all the dishes and vessels, but this sense of a vanishing point is subverted slightly by the angle of the two front table legs. Those angles cause the table to look rather flattened and raised, and it is Minton’s genius in the way he depicts the floor that exacerbates that flatness. He has drawn black and white chequered flooring, but the angles of the squares are not parallel to the sides of the receding table; rather they are straight vertical lines. This has the effect of lifting up the floor towards the viewer, and flattening the inside space even more. This inside space has different vantage points from the outside space and it is this that is the brilliance of Minton’s illustration here. This non-linear perspective is more typical of non-Western traditions of art and is used to really great effect by Minton.

Space in a picture is created in many different ways and it is quite enlightening to take the time to see how an artist has created the illusion of depth. To be continued…!

For more on the elements of art an artist choses to use see

Published by howtowriteaboutart

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