Linear Perspective
Drawing/Painting Technique: Definition, Types and History.

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Flagellation of Christ (1450s) (detail).
Piero della Francesca. A painting
which exemplifies the quattrocento
approach to one-point perspective.

Linear Perspective in Painting


Definition and Meaning
Vanishing Point
Types of Perspective
History of Perspective in Art

PUT SIMPLY: The term "perspective" refers to the attempt to depict (on a two-dimensional surface like paper) an image as it is viewed by the eye. It is what lends depth to a painting or drawing. It was mastered for the first time during the Italian Renaissance, by painters such as Piero della Francesca (1420-92).

Lamentation Over The Dead Christ,
(1490) by Andrea Mantegna. A work
which exemplifies the technique of

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Definition and Meaning of Perspective

Perspective is a linear system of spatial alignment which creates an illusion of depth on a two-dimensional flat surface (or on a shallow three-dimensional surface such as a relief carving). It replicates the optical effects of recession, by organizing space and depth from one point of view. Often called Linear Perspective (geometric, mathematical or optical perspective), this system is based on how the human eye sees the world: that is, (1) objects which are closer appear larger, while more distant objects appear smaller; (2) the size of an object's dimensions along the line of sight appear relatively shorter (foreshortened) than dimensions across the line of sight. Perspective drawing is used by representational artists to re-create a natural depth and solidity. It is a highly useful tool for creating realistic art. However, Surrealists or other painters for whom strict replication of the natural world is not important or desirable, may distort or disregard the rules of perspective entirely.

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Vanishing Point

One of the main uses of perspective in painting is to establish the position from which the artist or spectator views the scene. This is done by placing a horizontal line across the notional surface of the picture (the 'horizon line') and a vertical line down it (the 'centre of vision'). Both are wholly imaginary lines, and may extend beyond the edge of the picture for the purpose of construction. Having fixed the position from which the spectator views the scene, the artist proceeds on the basis that parallel lines converge as they recede, and that they eventually meet at what is termed the 'vanishing point' on the 'horizon line'. The artist then draws imaginary converging lines in order to depict how objects diminish in size the further they recede from the spectator.


Types of Linear Perspective

There are several types of perspective in painting, of which the most common are one-point two-point and three-point perspective, classified according to the number of vanishing points in the drawing. One-point perspective is normally used when simple views are depicted, such as a railway track disappearing into the distance directly in front of the spectator. Two-point perspective is typically used to depict two receding views, such as those visible to a person standing at the street-level corner of a building, where one wall recedes (eg) to the left, one to the right. Three-point perspective is typically used for buildings viewed from above, or below. As well as the two vanishing points from our last example, one for each wall, there is now a third vanishing point which reflects how those walls recede into the ground or above into the sky.

Because by definition, a vanishing point(s) can only exist when parallel lines are present in the scene, the absence of such lines means that the picture has no vanishing points - that is, zero-point perspective. This situation exists, for instance, in a natural scene like a mountain range, or a view out to sea - neither of which usually contains any parallel lines. However, zero-point perspective can still have a sense of 'depth': more distant mountains and more distant sailing boats have smaller scale features. The concept of 'atmospheric perspective' - where dust and water vapour suspended in the atmosphere partly obscure our view of distant objects - is also used to depict depth in these natural scenes.

History of Linear Perspective

The techniques of pictorial perspective were discussed during Classical Antiquity, around the 5th century BCE, by the painter Agatharchus of Athensas and others, as part of a growing interest in illusionism (known as skenographia) in theatrical sets and scenery. It was later implemented with no little success in the illusionistic mural paintings at Pompeii. But the value of perspective in art was not simply a matter of aesthetics, it was also a reflection of cultural politics. For example, Egyptian art and Byzantine art - disregarded perspective entirely, in favour of non-naturalistic representation. Thus Egyptian and Byzantine artists adhered to a hieratic scheme of pictorial representation, in which figures were sized and drawn according to their relative status in society. In Chinese painting, perspective was of secondary concern until the era of Qing Dynasty art (1644-1911).

Development of Perspective During the Renaissance

At the beginning of the 14th-century, the great proto-Renaissance fresco painter Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337) introduced linear perspective into his 1305 painting - Jesus Before Caiaphas; but the implementation was contradictory and inadequate.

Indeed, the use of perspective in painting wasn't properly investigated until the era of the Early Renaissance. The process commenced about 1413 when Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), the architect, engineer and sculptor, demonstrated the geometrical method of perspective, by comparing his painting of the Florentine baptistry with a real-life view. His ideas were further developed during the Florentine Renaissance by the painter Masaccio in his fresco paintings like The Holy Trinity (1425) and The Tribute Money (1426), and by Tommaso di Cristofano Masolino (1383-1440) in his work The Healing of the Cripple and the Raising of Tabitha (1425) - part of the Brancacci Chapel frescoes. The scientific details of linear perspective and the correct method of showing distance in painting were also discussed by the Genovese architect and art-theorist Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) - in his treatise Della Pittura (1435/1436) - and by the Florentine sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) - in his incomplete manuscript entitled Commentaries, a work which drew heavily on the 11th century Book of Optics by the Iraqi mathematician Alhazen. Other pioneers of perspective in art included the Umbrian painter Piero della Francesca, who further developed the mathematical principles contained in Alberti's Della Pittura (complete with precise illustrations), the Padua-based Francesco Squarcione (1395-1468) - teacher of Andrea Mantegna - and the Florentine Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) whose obsession with optical perspective is well illustrated in his work Battle of San Romano (1455).

The principles of linear perspective were further explored during the High Renaissance, by artists such as Raphael (1483-1520), in masterpieces like The School of Athens (1518). However, while Renaissance art made a major breakthrough in our understanding of how to accurately depict depth in a two-dimensional picture plane, it remained firmly wedded to the simple one-point perspective scheme, which duly became part of the core-curriculum in academies of fine art across Europe. During the Baroque era, painters like Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669) and Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709) used their knowledge of perspective to build on pioneering work by Andrea Mantegna in order to perfect the illusionistic painting technique called quadratura. This trompe l'oeil method of (fresco) ceiling painting appeared to extend the architectural features of a room into imaginary space.

Two other masters of single point linear perspective are the Dutch painters Pieter Saenredam (1597-1665) and Emanuel de Witte (1615-1692), renowned for their architectural paintings of church interiors.

18th Century Onwards

It wasn't until the 18th century that two-point perspective in art began to be appreciated and explored, notably by artists like the Venetian architectural cityscape painter Canaletto (1697-1768) and Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78), who all tried bold new ways of improving on one-point perspective with its old idea of a central vanishing point. The next major development was Cubism, which appeared in the late 1900s and revolutionized all ideas of three-dimensional depth in painting, by promoting the two-dimensional picture plane. However, the most spectacular advances in linear perspective have come during the late 20th century with the advent of computers. Today, modern graphics software programs can demonstrate numerous schemes of spatial depth and alignment at the press of a button.

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