Student Resource

Spaces Coursework Guide

Busy crowded streets, eerie empty rooms, explore spaces in art


Catherine Yass
Corridors (1994)

There are all kinds of spaces. There are spaces we have built and there are spaces in nature. There are even spaces inside our bodies … what goes on in that space inside your head?! Spaces can be small and enclosed like the space under the stairs, inside a box or even inside a tiny seashell. Or they can be huge and open. Some spaces are crowded and busy – full of people or things. Others are empty and kind of spooky … what happened here? What might happen here?

Crowded spaces

Part of the crowd

Have you ever been in a crowd at a concert, football match or in a busy shopping centre? What does being part of a crowd feel like? Leon Kossoff aimed to capture the jostle of crowded spaces in his drawings and paintings of streets, stations and packed swimming pools. By using gestural brush strokes and marks he puts across a sense of chaotic movement.

Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson
Dance Hall Scene (c.1913–14)

The energy and buzz of a crowded space was also the inspiration for this scene of wild partying by artist Christopher Nevinson. The painting does not just depict the dancers, but puts across the excitement and sounds of being at the dance. We glimpse parts of faces and parts of bodies, but these all seem to merge together and merge with the patterns and structure of the hall itself. Nevinson was part of the futurist art movement. Formed at the beginning of the twentieth century, the futurists were inspired by the dynamism of modern life.

L.S. Lowry also painted crowds in the streets and spaces of our towns and cities. But unlike Kossoff and Nevinson’s mass of figures, Lowry’s work shows the people in the crowds as isolated and separate from one another. Do you think he was saying something about how people can often feel lonely even in the busy spaces of our cities?

People watching: faces in a crowd

Do you enjoy people watching? Artist Raymond Mason did. While sitting in a café in New York, he sketched people passing by on the pavement outside. He used these drawings as the starting point for this sculpture. He modeled the characters he had seen using plaster, and then painted details of the faces and clothing.

The ‘space’ of the café window framed the crowd that Mason saw. By presenting his busy street scene in a box, he mimics the enclosed space of the café window so we too can see the people passing by.

You’ve been framed!

Photographer Martine Franck photographed the crowd waiting for a glimpse of the Queen at her Silver Jubilee celebrations. Franck has cropped the photograph so the figures spill out the top and sides. This emphasises the size of the crowd and the feeling of being trapped in it.

Martine Franck
Greenwich, London (1977)

She focuses on a young girl who looks bored and grumpy. Although out on the street, the girl is enclosed by the squash of people around her and also by the barriers that fence her in.

Andreas Gursky’s Chicago Board of Trade, II shows a busy trading hall packed with financiers trading stocks and shares. Viewed from above, the space is a dense hive of activity.

Gursky created this mesmerising image by taking lots of photographs of the scene. He then merged and manipulated them on a computer. He double-exposed several sections of the photographs making it hard for us to focus, and creating an all-over busy surface. The image becomes almost gestural and abstract like an abstract expressionist painting.

Using abstraction to capture a crowd

Other artists have also used abstraction to put a across the experience of crowded spaces.

Artist Wyndham Lewis packs the composition of his paintings of cities and buildings with angles and diagonals. This suggests the claustrophobic feeling of modern cities. In his painting The Crowd you have to look pretty close to see the people – red stick figures dwarfed by the city buildings.

In Philip Guston’s painting The Return, the cluster of shapes jostle on the canvas like figures in a crowd. The bold colours and short visible brushstrokes seem to make the paint flicker on the canvas. This adds to the sense of jostling movement. Henri Michaux’s ink drawing of gestural marks, although completely abstract, also suggests the movement of a crowded space.

Leon Ferrari’s prints look at first like abstract patterns … until you realise that he is depicting a crowd of people viewed from above. They walk through a busy town square and create patterned trails as they dodge each other.

Spaces full of things

It is not only people who can make a space crowded! Artist Robert Therrien’s RED ROOM 2000-7 is a cupboard-sized room filled with 888 red objects collected by the artist.

Robert Therrien
RED ROOM (2000–7)
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland

The objects range from kitchen utensils and building materials to clothing and electrical appliances. They are so tightly packed in to the room they seem to merge together. They look almost like a large monochrome painting. He places the things that are personal to him, such as his brother’s summer-camp sweatshirt, alongside more generic things. This blend of the personal with the general, and the everyday with the unreal suggests an underlying story.

… a different look at space

Eduardo Paolozzi made a series of prints exploring the spaces inside our heads and bodies. How do they work? What are they full of?

Paul Neagu
Ceramic Skull (1973)

Paul Neagu’s Ceramic Skull 1973 takes a very different approach to imagining what the inside of our heads look like! By dividing the head into small spaces or cells, he suggests the different areas of our brain: spaces for emotions, spaces for thinking, spaces for memories.

Empty spaces

Creating atmosphere

We have seen how artists convey the busy energy of crowded spaces. But spaces with nothing in them … surely not much there to inspire an artwork? Weirdly, empty spaces can often seem full of atmosphere! (They can also sometimes be slightly creepy.)

Vicken Parsons’s empty rooms are created very simply using just a few squares of off-white, grey and spot of colour to suggest walls. Darker grey and black shapes suggest shadows or an open door. There’s almost nothing to them – yet they’re powerful depictions of empty spaces. What might happen … who as just left … who might be hiding around the corner?

Ewan Gibbs
Wall (1999)

Artist Ewan Gibbs uses photographs of hotel rooms from holiday brochures as his source material. Drawing onto squared graph paper with ink, he carefully fills in each square of the paper with a mark or symbol. These marks recreate the various tones (lights an darks) of the photographs. No longer impersonal, bland hotel rooms, the rooms become subtly atmospheric and ghostly.

Catherine Yass’s depictions of empty spaces are very different – full of luminous yellows, blues and greens. She photographed empty corridors and other spaces inside a hospital.

To create these eerie photographs she manipulated the photographic film. Her technique involves taking two photographs of the space and then laying one on top of the other. One is a 'positive' image, the normal form of a photographic image, and the other is a 'negative' image. Yass has explained:

The negative image makes bright areas blue, so bright or transparent areas get blocked by the blue. The final picture is produced by overlaying the positive and blue negative images and printing from that. I think of the space between positive and negative images as a gap … an empty space left for the viewer to fall into.

So as well as photographing empty spaces, Yass’s technique also involves actually using an empty space.

Explore more artworks about empty spaces

Perspective and drama

We usually expect streets to be bustling with activity. When they are empty and you see them stretching away into the distance, they become eerie. Surrealist artists such as Giorgio de Chirico and Tristram Hillier, used linear perspective to create dramatic squares and streets lined with empty arcades.

Contemporary artist Julian Opie has similarly made use of linear perspective to suggest the drama of an empty road stretching off into a wide-open space.

Carol Rhodes
Ridge (1999)

Carol Rhodes also uses perspective to create a sense of a wide-open space in her painting Ridge 1999. But she uses aerial perspective, showing a huge landscape from above. She has created a sense of space and distance by making the details in the distance blurry. The tones (lights and darks) and colours are also not as bright and seem to blend into each other.

Find out more about perspective and how you can use it to create dramatic spaces in our Perspective Exam Help resource.

Spaces that tell stories

Guy Tillim’s photograph shows an empty office space in Congo. It’s basic and the paint is pealing, but otherwise it is functional and neat. Why is it empty? Where are the files and papers? Whys is there one open file still on the table? Although a simple image of a mundane space, the room seems to suggest a bigger story.

Ghost Story 2007 is a video projection by Willie Docherty. The video shows a journey round different spaces in Northern Ireland. The main location depicted in the video is a long empty pathway down which the camera slowly travels. At other times the camera moves through other locations. Thee include a derelict area with lock-up garages, a dark urban underpass and a patch of open wasteland. A voiceover tells stories based on personal memories, often concerning violence, that seem to be connected with the landscapes.

Exploring spaces

Empty rooms with crumbling plaster and peeling paint feature in the self-portrait photographs of Francesca Woodman.

As well as exploring the space within the rooms, she also photographs herself half-hidden under or behind objects, or crouching in corners or fireplaces. It’s as if she is exploring all the possible spaces within the rooms. By partially hiding herself in these awkward spaces she seems vulnerable.

Spaces into sculptures

The artist Rachel Whiteread explores empty spaces by casting them. From staircases to an entire house.

Casting is a process in sculpture where you fill a mould or space with plaster, concrete or molten (melted) metal. All kinds of spaces have been cast by Whiteread: the inside of boxes, the spaces under tables, and even the whole space inside a house! Her casts show us what the inside of spaces look like.

Barbara Hepworth also used sculpture to explore spaces. But rather than being interested in the spaces inside and around objects and buildings, she explored spaces in nature. Wide open views and the contained spaces created by natural forms such as shells, plants and caves were the inspiration for Hepworth’s sculptures.

Look at the three sculptures. They include holes and spaces contained inside forms. Do the shapes remind you of anything?

Dame Barbara Hepworth
Squares with Two Circles (1963)

Hepworth often placed her sculptures in outside locations. By looking through the holes or spaces she included in her sculptures, the viewer can see the landscape behind. These open landscape spaces become part of the experience of looking at the sculptures.

Art made for spaces

Sometimes artists make art for a specific space. They respond to the nature of the space – its size, its location, details of its architecture etc. This type of work is called ‘site specific’ (because its specifically made for a particular site or space). Every year artists are commissioned to make site-specific works for the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain and the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. The artists selected take very different approaches to exploring the scale and structure of the space.

In 2014 artist Phyllida Barlow filled Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries with Dock, a huge colourful installation of structures and block-like sculptures. She used everyday materials such as cardboard, fabric, wood and polystyrene. The unstable looking sculptures contrasted with the solid, monumental architecture of the building.

At Tate Modern in 2006 artist Carsten Holler explored the space of the Turbine Hall in a very different way. Giant slides transported visitors from high up in the space to the ground floor.

The structures of slides emphasised the height and scale of the Hall. By sliding down the slides, visitors could also experience the space on their (very rapid) slide descent!

Have a go!

We’ve pulled together some ideas to get you started on researching your exam project:

Capturing a crowd

Artist Leon Kossoff painted spaces filled with crowds. To make these paintings, he sketched in busy places. This helped him capture the atmosphere of a crowded space. The quick marks and lines he drew capture the bustle and movement of the crowd.

  • Find a bustling crowded space. This could be a street, shopping centre or a school corridor.
  • In your sketchbook try and capture the shapes and movement of the crowd. Your drawing doesn’t have to be detailed, its more important that you capture the sense of what a busy space feels like.
  • Use your sketches to inspire a gestural crowded space painting.
  • You could also take photographs of crowded spaces to inspire you.

Creating spaces with atmosphere

Paul Winstanley
TV Room V (1997)

Empty spaces can be full of atmosphere (and sometimes slightly creepy). Photograph empty spaces. These could be rooms, corridors or empty outdoor spaces such as a playground. Use these as source material for a drawing, painting or digital artwork.

Think of ways of exaggerating the atmosphere of the space.

  • You could do this by adding objects that suggest a story. (If you put a pair of shoes in an empty corridor how does this change the space?)
  • Or you could exaggerate the perspective, change the colours or darken the shadows.
  • If you have picture-editing tools on your computer you could manipulate the image. Look at the work of Andreas Gursky to get some ideas.

Exploring spaces

Francesca Woodman took photographs of herself in empty rooms. She often hid under things, behind things or crouched in corners to explore spaces. She also photographed herself moving around empty rooms.

  • Explore an empty space by photographing yourself in different places and positions in the room. The positions should relate to the spaces in the room. (Such as hiding behind a door or under a chair.) Set your camera on self-timer or ask a friend to photograph you.
  • You could also explore the spaces in an outside area such as in woodland or a park.

Make an artwork for a space

Robert Therrien
RED ROOM (2000–7)
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland

Site-specific artworks are made for specific locations. They are often large-scale ambitious installations for huge spaces. But site-specific art doesn’t have to be big. Richard Wright makes small-scale delicate paintings for the corners of rooms or space above doors. Robert Therrien filled a cupboard with objects to make a site-specific work.

  • Choose a space that you will make a site-specific artwork for. This could be a shed, a cupboard, a locker or even the space under your bed.
  • Start by thinking about the characteristics of the space: its scale, its feel, whether it is light or dark. It might help to photograph it and write down words that describe it. What it is about the space that you find interesting?
  • Plan an artwork for the space. This could be something that contrasts with the space; says something about it; or changes its character. For example if it is a dark space, what happens if you light it up? If it is a functional space what happens if you fill it with something ridiculous? If it is a sad run-down space, how does it change if you play happy music in it?
  • Photograph or film your installation.