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Updated: May 28, 2021

Perspective is a way of presenting three-dimensional objects on planes. Thanks to perspective, painters are able to create an impression of three-dimensionality in a two-dimensional piece of work. Art students train for years to master the skill. And it took centuries of painting to finally invent the correct way of showing distance and spatiality. Let us look closely at the history of perspective.

Usually, when we think of perspective, we imagine linear perspective, it is the most realistic and authentic one, however, that is not the only kind. Before the invention of linear perspective painters used other methods of depicting three-dimensional objects and creating the impression of spatiality.

In ancient times, in the art of the earliest Near Eastern civilisations and cave painting, it was quite common to show depth by dividing a painting into strips. Figures in the bottom strip were the nearest and the higher a strip was placed, the figures it contained were farther from the viewer. That method was often used in paintings depicting animals (cave painting), craftsmen and peasants (Egypt) or soldiers (Mesopotamia). Another way of creating depth was to paint some objects in front of the other ones, so the nearer ones covered parts of those which are farther. It was used especially by cave painters, who presented the game. We can also notice that in ancient Egypt it was popular to use hierarchy scale. The size of the figures in paintings was an indicator of their status. According to the hierarchy, the figures were presented in different scales. For instance, gods were the most important, so they were always far larger than priests or craftsmen and even pharaohs (we can also see that in medieval works). Although all those methods do not give a true impression of spatiality and three-dimensionality, it is how those early artists dealt with showing depth. However, it was not the aim of ancient art. It was rather painting concepts and ideas of objects than painting realistically and creating an actual illusion of those objects being in front of the recipients. It was important to show objects how they were known and to paint their representations in a certain way, often according to the canon.

Aerial perspective or atmospheric perspective is the method of creating depth by decreasing the contrast of objects which are farther from the viewer than those in the foreground. This way of creating the impression of spatiality was used as early as in ancient Greek and Roman paintings, for example in Pompeian Second Style. Aerial perspective was also popular in Chinese and Japanese art, in which further peaks are veiled with fog and it gives a strong impression of them being really distant. Old, Dutch masters are known for using atmospheric perspective as well. The most crucial and nearest parts of pieces of work stand out thanks to their sharpness and high contrast. Farther and less important parts are less prominent and their colours appear to be faded like faraway mountains that sometimes can be seen on the horizon. Leon Battista Alberti and later Leonardo da Vinci described and explained the aerial perspective. The invention of its name is credited to the latter. Although this kind of perspective had been in use for many years before him.

Colour perspective is based on the theory of colours that classifies colours into a warm and cold category. Red, yellow, orange are warm colours, whereas blue, violet, green are cold. However, all colours come in various tones and shades. Using warmer tones to paint objects in the foreground creates an illusion of them being closer and using colder tones for the background gives the impression of distance between. This kind of perspective often occurs simultaneously with an aerial perspective, especially in landscape paintings. Then, the far-off backgrounds, often mountains, are in different, low-contrast shades of blue and violet.

Reverse perspective derives its other name, “Byzantine perspective”, from its frequent usage in Byzantine icons. It is characterised by its placement of vanishing point outside, in front of the plane of painting, contrary to linear perspective. The objects are broadening towards the background and they are narrowing towards the viewer. They converge backwards

However, in pictures that use parallel perspective, objects do not converge at all, all the lines are parallel. It was often used in European medieval and Far Eastern painting. In the latter, the viewpoint used to be high above the presented subject of a piece of work. The objects were presented from the bird’s-eye view.

Although the beginning of widespread use of linear perspective took place in the renaissance, the first endeavours to work out its theory were undertaken in the ancient times. Greek and Roman savants attempted to devise the rules of perspective. In 300 BC Euclid wrote his work titled “Optics”, in which he explains the theory of perspective. However, it is not certain that his rules are accurate. In those works which survived to our times, we can recognise efforts to create a lifelike illusion of depth. Although those works mostly lacked a consistent vanishing point. Anyway, both ancient and medieval European, Islamic or Chinese artists predominantly knew and used that knowledge that the farther an object is placed in a painting, the smaller it should be. But in medieval European art painters often did not try to invent the correct perspective. Paintings were not expected to create the impression of three-dimensionality. Presented scenes were often just two-dimensional and spatiality was not the aim. In the 14th century, Giotto di Bondone and some other artists attempted to paint in the correct perspective. But it was Filippo Brunelleschi, who first introduced the use of correct linear perspective in the early 15th century. He tried drawing Florentine buildings just as he saw them, not how he knew them to be. From that time, the development of linear perspective began. Painters were improving their skills and understanding of it. The first person to create a work on linear perspective was Leon Battista Alberti, who formulated the theory behind it in 1436. The invention allowed painters to paint realistic pieces, that depicted the world in the way that people actually see it. It allowed paintings to be truly three-dimensional and create a really lifelike impression.


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