Does Using Perspective Lead to Stronger Artwork?

25 Jul 2013

The Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello, c. 1435-55, tempera on wood.
The Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello,
c. 1435-55, tempera on wood.
I'd have to answer with, "I'm not so sure." For me, studying Italian Renaissance and Baroque art meant spending a lot of time talking about how awesome linear perspective was. And I still think it is, to a certain extent. Artists were able to celebrate conquering three dimensions in just two. Practitioners such as Piero della Francesca and Andrea Mantegna illustrated how to masterfully employ the effects of perspective and sometimes emphasized them outright.

The Horizon (Arising) by John K. Grabach, 1935, oil on panel, 42 x 48.
The Horizon (Arising)
by John K. Grabach,
1935, oil on panel, 42 x 48.
But linear perspective no longer holds the same cachet it did five centuries ago. Its conventions are viewed more like tired math equations. Instead of talking about vanishing points and two-point perspective, artists resolve spatial challenges of distance and proportion less rigidly, creating recessional space, atmosphere, and volume with compositional and light choices.

Preacher by Charles Wilbert White, 1952.
Preacher
by Charles Wilbert White, 1952.
Perspective and looser interpretations of it, such as sighting, are still useful for artists to understand, especially when situating objects in space. Yes, extreme perspective makes a painting look artificial (for example, take Paolo Uccello's warring cavalry in his Battle of San Romano series, which look a bit like carousel figurines on a checker board), but searching for how to resolve the illusion of space and distance—as well as how to create believable proportions—is still a compelling challenge that all artists come upon in their practice.
 
How artists meet those challenges today—often using color, texture, line, and shape—all contribute to what the Renaissance artists espoused centuries ago—pushing the boundaries of two dimensions to capture our three-dimensional world. With a digital subscription to Drawing magazine, you'll see how dozens of featured artists situate objects in space using all kinds of effective strategies. Flipping through the pages on my computer, I was struck by how that ability translates beyond genre or medium. It attests to how diversely and skillfully each artist approaches his or her work, and how much there is to learn from seeing that process unfold, which is what Drawing is all about. Enjoy!

With the Passage of Time (Seemingly Unimportant Events Take on Greater Significance) by Debra Bermingham, oil and graphite, 20 x 94 1/2.
With the Passage of Time
(Seemingly Unimportant Events Take on Greater Significance)

by Debra Bermingham, oil and graphite, 20 x 94 1/2.



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Comments

randallimai wrote
on 13 Aug 2010 10:14 AM

Paul Sullivan's comments are helpful, of course, but many recent artists like Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud actually like to use perspective as a distortion of space (aided, one presumes, by newer technology like high-powered telephoto lenses), compressing and flattening, yet not disregarding perspective.  

I personally have found the odd background on the Mona Lisa to be one of the great distortions of perspective.... espectially at a time (as you point out) when the study of perspective was important in the art world.

Nice article.

JerryFuller wrote
on 13 Aug 2010 11:53 AM

I really appreciate these articles- thank you for sharing and inviting input. I believe perspective, like so many other 'formulae' in art, is another tool. Tools should be used by the artist to accomplish his goal. The tools should not be allowed to dictate to the artist. 'Breaking rules intelligently' is what much of art is about, IMHO.

smahancox wrote
on 26 Jul 2013 11:38 AM

As an artist and art teacher (35 years) I find that knowing many ways of thinking about and structuring space on a 2-D surface greatly enriches both the representational and expressive choices an artist can make even at the beginning level.  Casual perspective (size differentiation, overlapping, and placement in the picture plane) and sighting are powerful on-the-spot and thinking tools for any artist.  The greatest thing about mechanical (one point, two point, etc.) perspective is the way it enables an artist to organize thinking and images for the desired effect even when the result does not adhere to all of the technical requirements.  The more we know, the greater our freedom to create what we want.      Sallye Mahan-Cox                                              

on 26 Jul 2013 2:01 PM

"...searching for how to resolve the illusion of space and distance—as well as how to create believable proportions—is still a compelling challenge that all artists come upon in their practice."  

Perhaps the challenge would be easily solved if artists actually used perspective. Perspective is real.   It is everywhere.  With our eyes we see perspective everyday, everywhere, in everything.  Be observant and learn how to use it, then apply it to fit your situation.  Using perspective does not mean your work has to look mechanical.  (Those who successfully twist and distort perspective must still be using it otherwise there wouldn't be anything to twist or distort.)  

Learning the basics, such as perspective, can make a great foundation for producing quality art.  Perspective, properly used, can draw us immediately into the story you are telling.  Whether you create representational art or abstract art, make perspective one of your strongest tools.  Then you will see how you can resolve the illusion of space and distance regardless of how you are applying it.