Nebula Rasa: Exploring the Diaphanous, #5.

Mr Nemo
8 min readMay 6, 2024

By Otto Paans

“Diaphanous” (2024) (Author, AI-generated via



1. Introduction

2. Two Suggestions about the Diaphanous

3. Historical Background

4. Cognitivism and Creativity: A Concise Overview

5. From Cognitivism to Propensity

6. The Work at Work, or, the Effective Present

7. The Diaphanous as Generative Stimulus

8. Conclusion


This essay was previously published in a slightly different form as (Paans, 2024a), except for the Introduction, which was written specifically for APP.

It will be published here in seven installments; this is the fourth.

But you can also download and read or share a .pdf of the complete text of the essay, including the REFERENCES, by scrolling to the bottom of the post and clicking on the Download tab.


5. From Cognitivism to Propensity

Diaphaneity subverts the cognitivist idea that drawings are primarily carriers of information. If an image drawn up during a design process is about clear communication, why do vague and indeterminate image stimulate such powerful creative thinking? Partially, the answer lies in the structure of its semantic content. That is, the image contains contents about which assertions can be made, and which in turn spur reflection-in-action or associative thinking (Schön, 1987). Yet, there seems to be surplus of openness. Diaphanous images invite to indwelling, exploration, or “taking-in-possession.” They set a kind of immersive movement in play and refuse to close or even to reach a conclusion. They are more like spaces that can be inhabited than flat visual representations that can be looked at.

The first thing to notice about the diaphanous in creative processes is the fact that it is moving, dynamic, and layered. Initially, we can regard it as a figure-ground phenomenon (Maas, 2019: pp. 65–67). That is, it is structured in a relatively stable background and an emergent, dynamic foreground. This foreground-background relation causes dynamic relations to emerge. For instance, as per the classic Gestalt test, when we encounter a simple line figure of four vertical lines on a homogeneous background, we inadvertently read them as lanes or columns. Our perception engages in sense-making by applying structural metaphors or visual schemata to the represented content, a skill known as “seeing-as” (Wittgenstein, 2009: p. 204). “Seeing-as” has long been recognized as a design skill that helps in creating various interpretations of a single figure or visual constellation. For example, here is a response by a designer who participated in a protocol study, describing his interactions with sketches:

“I can’t get very far with just thinking about it without drawing something…I tend to overlay when I use pencil…they [i.e., the overlays] are usually pretty similar…these drawings are usually worthless as products so I am not very attached to them. I also do a lot of erasing. I like to erase because I like to have a lot of lines on the page. I like fuzzy stuff. I can see things in it more than I can in harder-lined things. So, sometimes I just get a lot of lines out and start to see things in it. A lot of times I pick up things I think are important. I put down potentials and erase down to them.” (Quoted in Goldschmidt, 1991: p. 129)

However, no matter how useful adding layers and erasing is, this is but a single part of the entire creative process. As Pallasmaa noted, the idea is “plastic” and layered and shapes thinking through visual suggestion and allusion. The fact that material practices like sketching in layers, erasing and working with fluid media like ink or paint leave random marks only adds to their effectivity. Even these seemingly random marks enrich the space in which they appear — or, rather, they define the emerging space. Even a single splash of ink near a sketch sets a complicated visual movement in play — sometimes even before the conscious mind catches hold of it. Such smudges, half-erased lines, marks, blots and random traces function as stimuli in the process of thinking-through-drawing. In particular, the presence of the past in the form of half-erased lines, half-finished sketches, construction lines and scribbles introduce a translucency or diaphaneity that unsettles the drawing, but which also opens it up to new interpretation.

The diaphanous constitutes a visual, generative stimulus that introduces a new creative dynamic in designing. This dynamic goes well beyond reading various interpretations into a sketch or visual representation. It is important to remember that “putting down potentials” is an accurate way of describing the explorative phase of designing. The goal is not to work out ideas, but to experience which potentials emerge, and where novelty appears.

We can see this by turning our attention towards the common design practice of making multiple tracings on semi-transparent sketching paper. By overlayering multiple sketches, the former foreground becomes background and visually fades in relation to a new overlay. As the former foreground starts to play the role of a non-homogeneous background, it becomes part of the new sketch, both as background and as tentatively established point of departure:

The [sketch] paper is not transparent in the same way glass is, but makes the underlying image somewhat foggy and unfocused. By tracing the map, its information is reduced to a play of lines, a graphic pattern that reveals compositional proportions…. It opens the map to new interpretations. As more transparent sheets are superimposed, the image of the background (the initial drawing) becomes more blurred. The previous drawing or design still shines through, but becomes less and less compelling. This strengthens and stimulates the process of choosing, omitting and highlighting. As the uncertainty of what lies beneath grows, so does the freedom of interpretation. (Palmboom, 2002: pp. 35–37)

The old design shines through: it is present in a translucent manner, suggesting itself at the edge of perception, but nevertheless it exerts a certain influence. But because it is not forcefully present anymore, it invokes a play, a re-interpretation, or a reconstruction of its compositional elements.

Figure 2. Overlayering on semi-transparent sketch paper during architectural sketching. (A) visual exploration of patterns; (B) blurring the background and exaggerating remarkable features; [C] formalizing the initial idea into a spatial configuration; (D) abstracted configuration without background. Panels (A)–[C] show how the original drawing becomes increasingly indistinct. Photographs by author.

The earlier sketches in the sequence submerge within the visual and cognitive background without disappearing completely. From the point of view of architectural creation, this is essential. Especially when working on a complex, layered topic, the parameters that structure the architectural problems and questions must be kept on-hand, as it were. They must be cognitively and affectively present in a way that is accessible, yet not dominant. Their influence must be felt, but the creative gesture of designing or thinking further must not be hampered by them. Pallasmaa described how he likes to “dwell” in the “plasticity of the idea,” and therefore works with layered drawings that bear traces of the past. The presence of multiple layers makes the plasticity of an idea tangible and accessible. All the phases of the creative process (conception, insight, evaluation) are as it were present in the drawing.

Insightfully, architectural theorist Marco Frascari described architectural thought as “sedimentation” (Frascari, 2009: pp. 200–212). The many topics involved in developing an architectural idea require time to settle and must be gradually organized in a coherent order. This process is slow and more akin to distillation and precipitation than it is to ceaseless creation. Diaphanous representation allows for multiple layers of an idea to be diffusely present, slowly and dynamically enriching the appearances through which an idea appears. Within the diaphanous, an architectural idea never appears as either monolithic, diagrammatic, one-dimensional, or closed. Instead, it appears as a suggestion, hint, semblance, allusion and even as a playful and gradual unfolding.

To understand the interplay between foreground and background, we introduce an additional notion, developed by the Czech literary theorist Jan Mukařovský. He argued that repeated representation of an object (let’s say a single word or a visual image) foregrounds it, wresting it loose from its context until it acquires an ontologically autonomous status (Mukařovský, 2014: p. 44). Due to its detachment, such an object becomes strange, uprooted and fascinating, even alien in its own right. Once this happens, it appears not as an ordinary object anymore, but it acquires once again individuality, fascination and a phenomenological “depth” that was not accessible when it was submerged in its surroundings. Foregrounding an object played a major role in the artistic strategy of ostranenie, or “making-strange,”[i] that is, creating an aesthetic effect that due to its deliberate strangeness catches the attention and causes an instability or perceptual shift (Paans, 2020).

The diaphanous space of representation seamlessly allows for collapsing foreground into background and the other way around. In this subtle shifting, the image (i.e., the representational object that appears) and what is depicted (i.e., its representational content, its broadly Fregean “sense” or Sinn) merge into one another. When this happens, any clear form of interpretation becomes unstable and fluid. If we follow Mukařovský’s thinking to the end, we see that any element in a drawing can be foregrounded or may collapse the entire configuration of foreground and background altogether. Diaphaneity as visual characteristic enables each element in the drawing to acquire added depth and to submerge and emerge from the texture of the drawing, allowing for a seamless foregrounding of elements. Its blurriness and indistinction suggests potentials and ideas, yet in a way that becomes never fully determined, keeping the creative play active and moving. All this, as Pallasmaa already noted, has a thoroughly material dimension:

The pure expression of ink may be found in the energetic splash, while gypsum’s truth lingers in the formless mass. Like the silhouettes and patterns of mountains, clouds and stars, the plastic results are most often irregular and amorphous. (Sauter and Von Moos, 2022: p. 55)

Forms and silhouettes materially express themselves. A few random blots, vague outlines or indistinct traces suddenly may acquire a possible meaning, emerging from the depth of the surface, becoming form in the process. In diaphanous representations, we encounter a dialectic of becoming-form (Formwerden) and form-fading (Formvergehen). It cannot be emphasized enough that this process is inherently occurent. It subverts the neat idea of a static foreground and background, or a static figure-ground order, as well as the idea that drawings are mere carriers of information. Moreover, diaphanous drawings are inherently open-ended towards a non-conceptual domain (Paans, 2020).


[i] Ostranenie (lit. “making-strange”) as literary technique was first explicitly described in Victor Shklovsky’s 1917 essay “Art as Technique.” Mukařovský expands on that notion in his discussion of poetic language, which introduces a new dynamic in the text.




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Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.