I am intrigued by the work of Hans Hofmann, whose abstract expressionist work portrays depth in the picture plane through what he calls ‘push pull’.

“Only from the varied counter play of push and pull, and from its variation in intensities, will plastic creation result. … Push is answered by pull, and pull by push.”  (Seitz, W.C. Hans Hofmann  New York: The Museum of Modern Art/Arno Press, 1972 reprint edition pg. 27)

Seitz elaborates on the creation of depth on the two-dimensional picture plane:

“[Hofmann] has shown that the smallest mark, placed on a virgin surface, will establish an immediate tension between its two-dimensional location and an implied position and movement in depth. One touch can therefore transform flatness into space, and yet, by means of a mysterious and beautiful paradox of perception, leave the picture’s surface tension inviolate. Such an effect can be achieved even by an accidental stroke, but it can only be expanded, sustained , and developed by a plastically sensitive artist.” (see reference above, pg 21)

Today’s experiment

As I write this post, I have not yet put brush to paper for my daily watercolor sketch. However, I know what I want to portray. It has everything to do with depth.

As a kid, I was always worried about what was underneath me when I would swim in the ocean. Once, as dusk was approaching, one of my friends suggested surfing. The idea of something swimming beneath me in the dark was terrifying. The image I have in my mind’s eye is the black and white picture of a whale shark swimming beneath Thor Heyerdahl’s raft in Kon-Tiki, a book I read as a kid. The animal was barely distinguishable from the water, but it was there in its massive presence.

How would a ‘plastically sensitive artist’ approach this problem? In yesterday’s post, I noted that both Hofmann and Klee mentioned that the medium that the artist uses is an integral part of the creative process. So the question becomes: how does one approach this problem using watercolors?

Where should I make my first mark? If the subject (the whale shark) is centrally located in the picture plane, how do I make it recede into the depths while maintaining the integrity of the surface of the water (read watercolor paper).

Here’s my game plan: Begin with a central mass of cool blue-gray color; surround the central mass with a bluish red (to advance to the front of picture plane); use blue glazing in the center with red glazing around the periphery.


Stage 1:

I painted the central mass with a green shade of cobalt turquoise, after placing dots of liquid latex to show spots of the marine animal. I surrounded this with French ultramarine, a red shade of blue.

Watercolor Sketch - Abstract Ocean Depth

On the Ocean – Stage 1

Stage 2:

Glazed the central area with phthalo blue.

Watercolor Sketch - Abstract Ocean Depth 2

On the Ocean – Stage 2

Stage 3:

Removed the latex resist, glazed again with phthalo blue; allowed to dry, glazed entire surface with lemon yellow. I then applied more French ultramarine to the outer area.

Watercolor Sketch - Abstract Ocean Depth Final

On the Ocean – Final
4″x6″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block


I must say that this came out opposite to what I had intended. Instead of receding below the picture plane, the central mass (which looks oddly like a cucumber), appears to float above the plane. This is due to the shadowy outline around the bottom part of the mass. Perhaps if I had been able to achieve a uniform wash around the outside of the central form, it would have receded in to depth.

I think I had the right idea, but failed to implement properly. More practice is in order.

2 thoughts on “Depth

  1. Thought you might like this, Jack. Nothing (and everything) to do with depth. “A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.” ~Leonardo da Vinci

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