Unsurprisingly, the correct (graphical) perspective is very important in art. Yet how one uses perspective depends on what you want people to see. It can be an especially useful technique for challenging a viewer’s expectations.
I was still at school when I was introduced to the different ways of constructing perspective. I found the various techniques confusing at the time, particularly the idea of multiple vanishing points from a (physically) fixed point of view. Over a decade later, it is something that I still struggle with.
A little history
The way people perceive perspective on a surface has changed over time. An early use of perspective was to arrange the subjects hierarchically, each figure placed one above the other. This technique was used by the Egyptians, Grecians, Romans and is also frequently seen in early Christian art. This attempt at perspective commonly had the figures overlapped in order to give a semblance of depth as well. Today this technique seems flat and static, but what we expect to see has also changed.
These early techniques eventually gave way to experiments with an oblique perspective that had been in use in Asia from as early as the 1st or 2nd century. This school of thought persisted for almost 1000 years until mathematics entered the artistic field during the Renaissance. Introducing mathematics drove a shift from a perspective with one vanishing point to one with multiple vanishing points.
Yet this shift towards a more ‘realistic’ view meant that the volume of associated theory and complexity sharply increased. It also placed more constraints upon the artist.
Difficulties that arose
During the Renaissance, numerous artists created pieces by implementing complex perspectives. In order to do so they invented devices, like the one depicted below, to ensure that the artist’s view remained in a consistent position with regard to their subject. However, the result meant that the viewer had to stand in exactly the same position as the artist had in order for it to work “perfectly”.
The problems didn’t end there. Despite the stunning results, the process was time consuming and it was still only a mathematical, or perhaps logical, approximation of what the artist saw. Eventually this perceived accuracy became less and less important for expression and artists regained some of their artistic freedom. This only gained speed once artists were no longer required to document the time spent on a commission or to create solely devotional pieces.
Much like the artists who followed their Renaissance counterparts, I chose to ditch all the theory because it was more confusing than it was worth. It simply took more and more time away from actually making art. When I went to a recent Urban Sketchers meeting I realised that, at least in terms of sketching, I had approached perspective the wrong way around. I realised that I first had to look at what was actually there and to see how the space appeared, rather than how theory suggested that it look. It was then easier to apply guidelines, or perhaps suggestions, once I became more comfortable with representing perspective from observation.