Since history can remember, artists have attempted to recreate the three-dimensionalities of the world. Aided by tools such as perspective in art, golden ratio, rhythm, variety, line, and the rest of the art’s elements, artists wrestled with Nature and its laws. The word perspective, when applied to art, signifies the accurate depiction of objects from a certain vanishing point on a two-dimensional surface, so that their relative height, width, and position to one another create depth.
So we ask the question - what is perspective in art and how it became such a necessary tool among artists? The obsession to be as accurate as possible in their representation of the world created the need for the perspective in art which aided artists in the representation of both the world and its value systems. Recognizing that the world is not flat and that objects appear smaller or larger depending on the movement and placement, reflected the research in perspective which occurred in the early period of art history. Forming itself as one of the traditional rules of creativity, perspective in art was viciously attacked at the beginning of the 20th-century by the major avant-garde movements, such as Impressionism, Cubism, and Abstract art. Investigating for the new perspective in representing the world, authors rejected the rule of perspective in art and changed the face of creativity forever.
Contrary to the popular belief that Medieval artists rejected the idea of perspective in art and focused on the creation of the flat, beautiful, and easy to understand religious images, paintings of the 13th-century display the understanding of scale. Figures in the foreground were painted bigger than figures in the background but it is here that the analysis of space and depth stopped. During the Renaissance time, known as the period of both revival and humanism, which saw Europe recover from the black plaque, Italian city Florence was defined as an art force in its own right. The famous Medici family ruled the city, employed artists, and architects to reflect the new birth and need for innovation. The produced artworks, churches, and buildings reflect the fusion of science and creativity which aided the authors in their creations and show the understanding of basic perspective in art.
Responsible for the major innovation and one of the main principles of perspective in art, the linear perspective, was Filippo Brunelleschi, the foremost architect, and engineer of the Italian Renaissance. With his experiment using a mirror with a hole, Filippo Brunelleschi offered artists a mathematical system for projecting the three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional surface such as paper or canvas. The linear perspective in art was born.
As one of the two terms used to define aspects of perspective in art, linear perspective is linked to the idea that objects of similar size appear smaller as the distance between the object and viewer increases. On the other hand, the effects that the atmosphere has upon objects as they recede into the distance are referred to as aerial perspective. The talk about aerial perspective in art dips into color theory as it reflects the finding that objects move closer to the color blue tone as they move further away from the public’s eye. The creation of such a distance also reflects the extreme contrast between light and dark, color saturation, and the amount of details within an artwork.
In order to recreate the world as best as they could, artists used linear perspective system which projects the illusion of depth onto a two-dimensional plane by the use of vanishing points to which all lines meet at eye level on the horizon. The horizon line in the system represents the furthest distance from the background. Orthogonal may be drawn from the bottom of the picture plane, which defines the foreground of the space. These points establish the space where the artist can situate his elements, be it figures, architecture or other objects.
Early on, artists only used one vanishing point, and the placement of such central point suggested the value systems of the period and the hierarchal order within the painting. Such is the case in religious paintings, where the point is intentionally placed on Mary’s womb to indicate her place as the mother of Christ. This placement of the vanishing point has religious significance and may not relate to the intention to create a rational perspective space. It took over 400 years to develop the idea of the two vanishing points and today we understand that objects containing parallel lines may have one or more vanishing points.
The first known picture to make use of linear perspective in art was created by Filippo Brunelleschi, but the artist Masaccio was the first painter who demonstrated the result of the new rules of perspective in art. During the Renaissance period, famous artists such as Leonardo, Italian sculptor Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli and Titian employed this artistic method and created some of the most celebrated paintings of art history. This method was further enhanced during the Baroque and the Neoclassical period during which French art scene and its painters produced some of the most important paintings.
During the early 20th-century art rebelled against the traditional understanding of painting. Aiming to develop the new way of seeing the world and to create the new aesthetic of the visual language, Paul Cezanne was the first to question the underlying structure of his subjects. The painter rejected the laws of classical perspective in art which created the hierarchy within the traditional painting and allowed each object to be independent in the picture. He focused on the relationship between the objects rather than on the traditional single-point perspective.
Considered as a truly revolutionary style of modern art developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, Cubism movement was created to reflect the modernization of the world and to further enhance the need for the new approach to looking at things. Simplified geometric shapes, angular, and structural Cubism paintings reflected the interest towards African art, stylization, and abstraction. The shift of the focus from the complete picture to just its parts rejected the traditional understanding of the perspective in art. The focus on color during the Fauvism movement showcased in the paintings by Henri Matisse, displayed the shift in the art’s research. The flat areas of vibrant color, along with the stylization of his figures, didn’t focus on the creation of depth within the picture but instead on form and its simplification. The final blow, so to speak, occurred thanks to Wassily Kandinsky. Defined as the pioneer of abstract art, his shift from "real world" to the geometric shapes and the spiritual aspects of color, completely changed the face of art. From this point on, art didn’t need to reflect the Nature as it is but rather - as it was understood and intimately perceived.
Developed through centuries, the linear perspective method is still used by various designers, architects, and artists today. The fusion of science, technology, and art has provided various digital programs which aid the authors to apply the method and create various 3D digital creations. On the other hand, numerous experimentations with the perception of the space attempt to confuse the notion of the real are reflected in the growing number of illusion art pieces. Considered as one of the methods which explored the way artists presented the beauties of the world, perspective in art is not only a compositional tool but a reflection of the need to understand how does the human eye perceive the space which surrounds us all.
Editors’ Tip: The Art of Perspective: The Ultimate Guide for Artists in Every Medium
Forget everything you think you know (or don't know) about perspective. This book builds an easy-to-follow, ground-up understanding of how to turn a flat painting or drawing surface into a living, breathing, dimensional scene that lures viewers in. No matter how you look at it, it's the ultimate guide to perspective for artists of every medium and skill level. The Art of Perspective offers simple yet powerful techniques for achieving a convincing illusion of depth and distance while it offers engaging and easy to follow step-by-step demonstrations and exercises.
All images used for illustrative purposes only.
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