Perspective is a way of representing objects in 3D space – i.e. reality as we perceive it – on a 2D surface as we draw or paint. It gives the viewer an illusion of depth and space. For us today this kind of realistic representation seems natural and obvious. However it was a sensation when it was invented – not discovered: seeing in perspective is an acquired ability (Missfeldt). I think this is a noteworthy thought: not only drawing in perspective must be learned, but also seeing (a picture) in perspective is learned. Today we are surrounded by realistic pictures, not least photographs, and learn to read them at an early age. According to scientific research visual processing in our eyes and brain build on textures, invariance and movement – perspective does not come into it (Missfeldt). Perspective becomes only relevant in the translation of space onto a surface.
Perspective in this sense – one-point perspective with one vanishing point – was first used in the early 15th century by Filippo Brunelleschi (1410) and described in detail not much later by Leon Batista Alberti in De Pittura (On painting) (1436) and others. During the Renaissance and later it was further developed and refined and soon became the major way of representation in western art. It superseded other ways of representation in the west until they were rediscovered during the development of modernism.
The word “perspective” derives from latin “seeing/looking through”. The thought behind this is that the picture frame becomes like a window through which the viewer looks into a three-dimensional space. The objects in this space are constructed with reference to a horizon and a vanishing point on that horizon. Lines perpendicular to the horizon and parallel to the ground merge in the vanishing point. Lines parallel with the horizon remain so. For objects seen edge-on two secondary vanishing points to the left and right are needed. The position of the horizon changes the impression from where we see the scene. A horizon on eye-level seems natural, a horizon high up in the picture gives the impression that we are looking from a vantage point high up (bird-perspective) and one near the bottom that we are looking from a very low view point (frog-perspective). Objects’ shadows can be constructed in similar ways by defining a light source either in front of, to the side or behind the viewer/painter that acts as a vanishing point for the shadow lines. Viewing angles above 60 degrees lead to distortions.
This kind of construction can be expanded to include up to five vanishing points: the central one, two to either side on the horizon, one above and one below the horizon on a vertical axis. The latter two being vanishing points for the vertical lines. For a short description of these check out this website.
Perspective is a way of deceiving the brain into seeing things that are not really there. Patrick Hughes’ reversed perspective pictures show this marvelously. The three-dimensional parts stick out towards the viewer while their painted sides suggest that the image recedes. It is fascinating how the illusion is stronger than the real thing! At least on video, I wonder how it feels to see these IRL.
There are other ways of suggesting space:
Overlapping: The simplest one is probably occlusion, where objects in front of others partly cover objects behind them. This can be found in many cultures such as ancient Aegyptian, classical European, Chinese, Japanese or Medieval art:
The trees are behind the people and the people partly obscure each other. However, there is no actual space in which this scene takes place.
Observe the legs of the three people. They are before the bench. But the way the two men’s legs cross looks strange in our eyes.
In the cave paintings I looked at I could not find this very simple way of describing space. Even if there are many pictures where animals are drawn on top of each other I do not get the impression that this is a representation of space. I get a feeling that it is about something all together different. A synchronicity rather, or its opposite, or an overlaying of different aspects of the same thing. In pictures with many animals and hunters where I do see a group of animals and hunters they do not overlap.
Oblique Projection: Combination of front view (elevation) with side (section) or top view (plan) at an angle. They show one side in plan, section or elevation which would make the others invisible and thus are not realistic depictions. They are early representations of space resembling perspective. They can be found in pictures from classical Greece and Rome, the Near East, India or China as well as the European Middle Ages.
Atmospheric or aerial perspective makes use of the fact that particles in the air filter the light and make objects a long distance away appear bluer and less saturated than ones in the foreground. This technique is widely used in Chinese and Japanese landscape painting. Our brain reads the lighter tone as distance even if the picture does not give many other clues to space.
Relative size: Objects further away seem smaller in relation to ones in the foreground. Widely used in landscape paintings such as this very famous one by Katsushika Hokusai
Focal perspective: Objects in the distance or very close seem less defined and slightly blurred compared to objects in focus.
These last three techniques are combined with perspective to make for realistic pictures.
In modern times stereograms have been developed that let you see three-dimensional pictures by unfocusing the eyes and kind of looking through the picture. Done right the brain interprets the visual information as a three-dimensional picture of seemingly magical depth. The fascinating thing is that once the brain has switched it is possible to move the eyes and take a look around in the “room” that suddenly opened.
Early modernist painters like Cézanne and cubist painters began to move away from realistic perspective representation and instead experimented with a flat picture plane. This process has gone on since then and it seems to me – after having studied for this essay – opened up for new ways of painting/drawing figuratively. Realistic depiction is one way of showing the world in a painting. There are other ways expressing very different things. Earlier European and non European cultures were not interested in showing the world as it presented itself to them visually – that was already there. But maybe how it feels, or how things are connected, or what their place is in the world as humans, or what there is behind the things we see or what it is all about. It is a very interesting thought and one that allows for a new angle on non-realistic pictures. Such as this one that tells a story beyond what we see with our eyes.
Stockstad, M., Cothren M.W.: Art History. Pearson Education Inc., USA 2008 (5th edition 2014)
McNaughton, Phoebe: Perspective and other Optical Illusions. Wooden Books Ltd, Glastonbury 2009
Wehrli, Max (Ed.): Deutsche Lyrik des Mittelalters; Manesse Verlag, Zürich 1955