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Lesson Sixteen – Perspective

It is the ending of summer now. Arte and Zeuxis are sitting in Arte’s garden. Zeuxis sits in his grand chair and Arte lies on the ground. It is hot and humid and black thunderclouds hang menacingly in the sky. But Arte is alert and looks eagerly at Zeuxis.

Zeuxis, looking pensively at the sky: This must be one of our very last lessons on the art of painting, Arte. Summer will end soon and we must part. I will not come back in autumn and winter.

Arte seems not to hear Zeuxis’ words and cuts Zeuxis short: I was beginning to get used to learning from you, Zeuxis. What will this session be on?

Zeuxis: Well, we still have to continue our principles of space. Here comes the subject of perspective.

Zeuxis: When buildings and the interior of rooms were added to landscapes, new challenges arose. The problem was that painters knew that lines that were perpendicular to the standing position of the viewer receded to a far distance, to the horizon. In the beginning the process was not well understood so the horizontal lines that were not parallel but perpendicular to the viewer, and parallel to the ground of a scene, were observed as receding, but not necessarily as converging to a point, so they were drawn as receding parallel lines.
Painters drew these lines parallel to each other because they knew was the case in reality. Indeed, the horizontal lines of windows of a building for instance are seen parallel to each other when a viewer directly faces a building. When a viewer looks at this building from any other position but one right in front, the lines start to slant and to converge. The issue was: how did the lines slant, what was the best way to represent this slanting and thus what was the best way of creating depth.
In the beginning, intuitively, painters used a technique of parallel perspective. We find here again the dilemma of painters that we talked about in the previous chapter. By observation painters could not but have noticed that the lines as seen came together to one point of vision in space. The lines that were parallel in physical reality converged to one point when seen by a viewer from one point. But that was not right, not as their mind knew. How were painters to represent effects of perspective and that in such a way that the viewers could still easily recognise reality?

Arte: The old technique of perspective was thus a parallel perspective.

Zeuxis: Yes. In parallel perspective lines that the painters knew were parallel, remained parallel.

Zeuxis posts his magic screen once more before Arte and shows Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s picture again.

-> Hubert (1365 – 1426) and Jan van Eyck (1390 – 1441). The Three Maries at the Open Sepulchre. Museum Boymans - van Beuningen. Rotterdam. Around, but after 1430.

Zeuxis: A good example is the image of the tomb in Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s picture of the "Three Maries at the open Sepulchre". The left and right sides of the sarcophagus recede to the background, so they are drawn slanting, but they remain parallel. This was a nice example of the preponderance of reason over eye. In the minds of the painters, the lines were parallel, so logically they should remain parallel while receding.

Zeuxis: The horizontal lines of buildings and rooms seen sideways do not remain parallel in the view of our eyes. They converge to a far common point called the vanishing point. This point is at the height of the viewer’s eyes, even if the point lies in the distance. The horizontal line going through this vanishing point is the horizon line. All the objects of a picture are placed between the viewer and the vanishing point.
The Florentine architects Filippo di Ser Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti were among the first to re-discover the mathematical laws of linear perspective, some of the principles of which must have been known to Greek and Roman painters. Linear perspective was immediately for these artists based on the observation that the parallel lines seen in natural scenes converge to a common point on the horizon line.

Arte: I suppose perspective was known from early on in history?

Zeuxis: Yes. Well, that is relative. Alberti wrote in 1436 in his book on painting that he first drew quadrants on the panel. He drew the quadrants in thin vertical and horizontal lines. Then he determined one point, the centre point, and drew lines from all corners of the quadrants towards the centre point. These were the converging lines of perspective. The painter would follow these oblique lines for depicting the horizontal directions of the architectures on the painting. Alberti stressed to paint according to what the painter saw in nature. He did not directly use the word perspective, but the technique that he proposed amounts to a means of drawing monocular perspective with one point of convergence. Alberti also described how the figure of man could be the measure for the heights in the painting, even as the lines approached the centre point and lengths or heights diminished in size.
Another Florentine artist, Piero della Francesca, stopped even with the art of painting to write a treatise on linear perspective, and the Tuscan Renaissance painters experimented in the depiction of various objects in true perspective of nature, using the correct geometrical constructions.
Renaissance painters, who really were among the first to look for illusions on the canvas that in the best way gave viewers a very realistic feeling of Christian scenes, understood linear perspective rapidly. Even a painter as Fra Angelico, who would always enforce the transcendence of his themes and thus position his figures in an idealised setting, had remarked the effects of perspective.

Zeuxis projects Fra Angelico’s painting.

-> Fra Angelico (ca. 1400-1455). The Coronation of the Virgin. Musée du Louvre. Paris. Ca. 1430-1435.

Zeuxis: In the Beate Fra Angelico’s painting of "The Coronation of the Virgin", the patterns of the tiles on the floor as well as the panels of the golden throne behind Jesus converge to one point. Not all is right in this perspective, but the first keen observation of nature was happening.

Arte: You always and only speak of straight lines. Perspective must thus also play on curved and other lines.

Zeuxis: True, Arte. The laws of perspective do not just work on straight lines parallel to the ground but also on curved lines that are at various positions versus the earth. Geometrically correct constructions of perspective of round and irregular forms can be quite complex. Paolo Uccello thus made several drawings in perspective of torus forms that were used in Florentine hats. Linear perspective is the most powerful tool together with the shortening of objects in depth to create space.

Arte: So that must be a geometrical technique.

Zeuxis: It sure is, Arte. Linear perspective is a mathematical system for creating the illusion of three-dimensional space and depth on a two-dimensional flat surface. Linear perspective is geometrically a construction of triangles. For this perspective one needs always two points to define a section of line or segment, and then the vanishing point. The two end points of the segment are connected to the vanishing point. Piero della Francesca in particular was intrigued by this fact that three points formed the essence of perspective and he brought this fact in relation to the Trinity, the concept of one God consisting of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Zeuxis gets a piece of white paper out of his sleeves and draws plate 85 with a black crayon. He explains to Arte how the lines converge to a single vanishing point, which is a point on the horizon to which one views. He shows Arte the road that goes down her house and proves her the effect in real.

Zeuxis: But linear perspective does not just play on the horizontal and vertical segments of reality. Perspective also needs to be applied to all forms of a construction of these forms seen in perspective. Thus it transforms and distorts circles into ellipses. It changes the directions of oblique lines.
This transformation of any form can be deduced from a ground plan and from the relative position of any two points on segments, whether they are straight or curved. Linear perspective also works on line segments that are horizontal, and that is parallel to the lower side of the rectangular frame of a painting. Linear horizontal lines are squeezed together in the direction of the vanishing point.
Powerful linear perspective is created when the perspective of vertical lines is combined with patterns of horizontal lines. One of the most used patterns to create depth in perspective is the ground-based checkerboard pattern. Even the Early Gothic painters like Jan van Eyck applied this pattern, though often only in parallel perspective, to create the illusion of depth. The checkerboard pattern in perspective can also be used in abstract pictures, as for instance Wassily Kandinsky did in a few of his compositions. We saw a picture of Maria Elena Vieira da Silva ("The Theatre of Gérard Philippe"), in which in a similar way these patterns create depth although used in an abstract picture. And then the grid may appear not in ground structures, but in any position, to give a powerful sense of direction.

Zeuxis draws a checkerboard pattern in linear perspective on another sheet of white paper, in plate 86.

Arte: It seems to me perspective is just one more technique for painters to create a strong illusion of volume and especially of depth. Let’s look again at the painting of Canaletto that we showed earlier. Canaletto knew the geometric principles of linear perspective, so he applied it in his picture of the Venetian canal in a grand, spectacular way. A viewer literally sees into the far, has an impression of a very far and wide open cityscape. Yet, this is all flat canvas.

Zeuxis: True, Arte. A presentation of lines that seem to converge to a point forces illusion of depth very strongly upon the viewer. Even when the lines do not represent familiar objects, the effect is powerful. That is why even in abstract paintings, as well as in pictures with object matter, inclined shapes and receding lines give strong illusions of depth. In the first of the following drawings no effect of space is created, whereas some feeling of space and depth is real in the second.

Zeuxis makes two drawings: plates 87 and 88. He explains to Arte that in plate 87 the shapes have no spatial effect to viewers, but the forms of plate 88 do. They seem to be elongated to a vanishing point to a viewer.

Arte: I am astonished how with just simple shapes such illusion can be created. Painters sure can show exactly what a viewer might expect!

Zeuxis: A painting with linear perspective always means a picture in which the painter has taken a pronounced viewer-centric attitude. The picture matter is subordinated to the viewer. The distortion of objects is shown in order for the viewer to perceive more realistically. In early medieval pictures, in which no perspective was used, the scenes existed for themselves. The objects and persons that were drawn seemed to be in a self-sufficient world, and the painters showed this world as it was, for itself. Distance was held between the depicted world and the viewer. The world existed and the narrative existed, could be shown, but did not draw in the viewer into the scenes. The pictures were of course mostly of religious content and it was quite normal that this religious world could be viewed as completely un-linked to the viewer.

Zeuxis shows a Romanesque picture now to Arte.

-> The Ark of Noah; the drunken Noah. Abbey of Saint-Savin. Saint-Savin, France. Around 1100.

Zeuxis: For instance, in the nave of the church of Saint-Savin, the ark of Noah has no perspective. It looks like a flat drawing, for which the interest lies only in the concept of the boat loaded with animals. Presenting the animals and the boat in illusionistic perspective or even in realistic dimension was not important for the Saint-Savin artists, nor was a sense of space and depth important for the narrative. Still, the painters did have notions of perspective as can be seen in another scene in the nave, in which the story of the drunken Noah is shown. Here, Noah is lying drunk in an elliptical almond form, inclined obliquely, a couch that may be round, but shown in an elementary distortion of perspective.

Arte: I understand, Zeuxis. It seems to me that only when perspective is shown in a painting, is the viewer really invited into the scene of the picture. The world is then obviously entirely subjected to the viewer; the world of the painting exists because of the viewer. Thus, perspective creates a powerful link between the viewer, the painting and the painter.
With the discovery of the rules of perspective, painters no longer had to seek how they could represent reality, but how humans directly perceived reality. They did not try to show anymore the nature of the objects, but only how objects were seen. So they came nearer to the natural way of how humans see objects, which is closer to the real world, and yet by doing that they had to use illusion. Because of this reasoning, I understand how it took such a long time before painters accepted or even discovered the concept. I would like to know more about how perspective illusion is drawn, what is the technique?

Linear Perspective with one Vanishing Point

Zeuxis: In what I said previously, I described the basic concepts of linear perspective with one vanishing point. Architects, and occasionally painters also, can use a ground plan of a building to draw a perspective of a building. In such geometrical constructions, only one vanishing point is really needed to construct all the lines of the walls of the structure. The heights of the lines of the walls can be determined by setting the heights at the endpoints of the walls, and so perspective is created also in the lines that do not directly recede to the vanishing point, but in the vertical lines as they diminish in length shown.
Remark that also the reclining lines of the roof in the example of the figure below come together to a vanishing point that lies high above.
This kind of perspective happens when a viewer looks at a scene constantly in one direction, and when the front part is parallel to the viewer. The viewer looks only at one point, and that is the vanishing point.
In paintings that apply linear perspective with one vanishing point only, either all lines converge to that point, or part of the lines are horizontal and parallel to the lower border of the frame, whereas all the other lines converge. Such perspective is always extremely powerful and creates grand illusions of depth. The main reason is that the attention of the viewer is not distracted from the perspective. The viewer does not have to look at two or more directions of space. There is only one effect of creation of space in such pictures, only one depth to perceive, so that effect is obtained in the most direct and obvious way.

Zeuxis projects Canaletto’s view of Venice again.

-> Antonio Canale called Canaletto (1697 – 1768). Venice. The Grand Canal from Campo San Vio towards the Bacino. The Royal Collection. London, around 1730.

Zeuxis: We already looked at a good example of linear perspective in paintings and one of the best is the painting of Canaletto.
The Italian veduti masters were unequalled in the creation of depth by using linear perspective with just one vanishing point.

Suddenly, Zeuxis makes Canaletto’s picture disappear and he shows another Italian painting.

-> Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765). The Pool at Bethesda. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. The Villahermosa Palace. Madrid. Ca. 1724.

Zeuxis: Look at the "Pool at Bethesda" of Giovanni Paolo Panini. In this picture we see Jesus at the Pool of Bethesda, healing the sick at a pool covered by five porticos. Remark the horizontal lines of the building in the background. The columns form a strong linear perspective, and all their lines converge to one vanishing point situated in the middle of the open arch in the background. Panini opened the entire view to that point, so that the view of spectators can go unhampered to very far in the landscape.

Arte: Oh my! This kind of perspective is intricate, and must be very difficult to draw. No wonder painters preferred to look at nature when they were imitating it. It must take a lot of time and a very photographic imagination for a painter to render a faithful picture of a cityscape he or she once saw and is now drawing by heart in the studio of a workshop. This must be a near impossible task, Zeuxis!

Zeuxis: Painters tried various mechanical means to help them in the process. Leon Battista Alberti used a thinly woven veil. The veil acted as a projection screen. The painter looked at the scene through the veil, and he saw a picture of the real scene on the veil, which he copied on the canvas.
Other painters like Canaletto, but also Johannes Vermeer, used a "camera obscura", a dark chamber. This was a closed, square box with a narrow round opening in the front. The image of the landscape passed through the hole and was projected at the back. There could be a translucent vertical screen there, or a mirror that sent the total image up to a horizontal translucent screen. The painters saw a flat picture on the screen that could be copied directly on the screen to have the right proportions of perspective, or that could be copied patiently on a canvas.

Zeuxis starts making a complete perspective drawing of a house and that takes some time. Arte comes nearer and looks over his shoulder to see plate 89.

Zeuxis: The shadows cast by a light source on objects form lines that also converge to a vanishing point. That vanishing point is however not the same as the one of the lines of the objects. The vanishing point of the shadows will lie on the opposite side of the light source.

Zeuxis projects Berckheyde’s view of the Dutch church square again.

-> Gerrit Berckheyde (1638-1698). The Large Square of Haarlem. Le Musée d’Art Ancien. Brussels.

Zeuxis: Look for instance again Gerrit Berckheyde’s painting of the "Square of Haarlem". Berckheyde showed dramatic shadow lines, and these recede to a common point on the left of the painting, as the light comes from the right.

And Zeuxis then shows Arte Gino Severini’s landscape.

-> Gino Severini (1883-1966). Landscape in Civray. Private Collection Rau. Germany. 1909.

Zeuxis: Gino Severini painted shadow lines even parallel to the horizontal border of the frame, and thus obtained an equally dramatic effect. Viewers sense the light straight on the right from the scene.

Zeuxis: When you look at this perspective drawing, Arte, you will remark that you can play with two features. You can place the horizon line lower or higher, and you can change the position of the vanishing point from left to right. In doing that, you change the lines of the house, and you change the view from which you look at the object. Try it out and see what position you prefer.

Arte draws a few quick sketches of various positions of a cube, in relation to the horizon line, and she moves the vanishing point over the horizon.

Arte: This is fun, Zeuxis, and it really creates an illusion on paper of what we see with our eyes in the real world.

Zeuxis: True, Arte. But even the real world of three dimensions as truly seen by our eyes can be an illusion, though sometimes the space illusion is created by man to prove that our senses often deceive us.
Perspective used in paintings is a means to imitate nature and to inspire strong illusion of depth. But we must be aware of the relativity of what our senses perceive, because even in nature they may deceive us. Man can exploit the relativity, for instance in architecture and not only in painting.
One of the most famous examples of deception in architecture is the Borromini Perspective in the Palazzo Spada in Rome. Francesco Borromini built there, between 1652 and 1653, for Cardinal Bernardino Spada, a colonnaded corridor I28 . When a visitor stands in the Spada palace’s patio and looks through the corridor, he or she sees a long series of columns and an arched throughway leading to a garden that ends far away on a Roman statue. The statue was added by Prince Clemente Spada (1778-1861). I28 .The complete corridor is a work of illusion however, for the length of it is only about nine metres and the statue is hardly taller than one metre. Borromini achieved the deception of four times the actual length leading to a statue of twice its real height by converging the colonnades, rising the mosaic floor and lowering the ceiling’s arches towards the end, all tending to a hypothetical vanishing point. The guardian of the palace museum will do you a pleasure by going into the corridor to show the trick to the astonished viewers; the man grows larger and larger until you can see the Roman statue between his legs when he stands on the fake hedges at the end!
The Borromini Perspective in the Palazzo Spada is a three-dimensional essay in tricks of perspective, which reflects today the interests in illusions of this kind of the Cardinal Bernardino Spada. Francesco Borromini realised the architecture with the help of an Augustinian father, Giovanni Maria de Bitonio, who had realised other such perspectives in Bologna. The Cardinal probably wanted to impress on his visitors the idea that the senses deceive, and that the grandeur of our human works is but an illusion in view of the grandeur of the Divine. I28 . The concept and Borromini’s corridor certainly make us remind that painting is illusion. But when you think of all the magnificent paintings collected by the Cardinals in Rome, I would conclude – contradicting Plato - that they also are a divine illusion.
Illusions created by perspective to inspire a sense of space where space does not really exist, are as old as humanity. There are many magnificent examples of this concept, but I will mention only two and both are in the city of Rome (that town is on my mind anyway after talking of the Borromini Perspective, Arte).
In the Palazzo Massimo alle Thermae of Rome is the Roman National Museum. On the second floor of that museum, you can find ancient Roman frescoes that date from the first century B.C. They were found in a villa built near Rome, on the Via Flaminia. The villa belonged to Livia Drusilla, the wife of Emperor Augustus. Livia had her summer dining room, called a triclinium, decorated on all walls with garden scenes. Livia’s hosts had the illusion to dine in the middle of a green garden. The frescoes are just marvellous. There are all kinds of shrubs in the garden images, flowers, trees and birds. The trees bear fruit and all plants bloom. The painters showed a small marble garden wall that at places had to curb around a tree and there they used perspective, though still with parallel lines. Another fence, a reed fence with openings that invite into the garden, was painted lower, to give an impression of being closer by. It is easy to imagine the wealth and fineness of Roman villas with this example, but very few of these frescoes that were once so glorious have survived!
The second example, Arte, could be the Hall of Perspectives in the Villa Farnesina alla Lungara in Rome. This hall was painted in the beginning of the sixteenth century with frescoes by artists of the workshop of the architect of the villa, Baldassare Peruzzi. On the walls in the large room are frescoes that show colonnades in perspective, and that open to views of Rome. The spectator that comes into the hall has the impression that he or she were walking now in a loggia, open to the free air. One looks through windows to the villages of Latium and to wide panoramas of Rome. Here also, the lord of the house, the rich Agostino Chigi, wanted his hosts to be stunned, and he maybe also wanted to breathe more, to have open views to his beloved Rome, even though the hall has a few real windows with nice views.
So, Arte, humans love perspective. They love tricks of the mind, and they love to fool their own senses. Let’s exercise.

Arte hears out Zeuxis and continues to make sketches of houses and landscapes using a vanishing point.

Linear Perspective with several Vanishing Points

Arte: But, Zeuxis, something is not fully right here! Linear perspective with one vanishing point is the technique to represent a scene when the viewer looks constantly in one direction only. In reality, a viewer will look to the left, to the right, then upward and downward. Our eyes change the points of convergence in the far. We take in a whole scene at once but with information of successive views of the same scene. We construct a mind-image that includes more information than from just one direction of vision. It is this whole view that stays in the mind as the picture of a scene. Thus, linear perspective with one vanishing point only does not really conform to our usual perception of the natural world.

Zeuxis: So right, Arte! This kind of technique sometimes presents images that are unnatural and exaggerated. Painting is an illusion of reality, and although the technique of linear perspective with one vanishing point is mathematically correct, a feeling of natural lacks in many instances. Painters have tried to make the illusion of looking at a whole scene with views from the left and the right more natural than a mathematically correct view. One means to obtain this effect is linear perspective with two or more vanishing points.

Zeuxis makes another drawing to show Arte how a painter can also make pictures with two vanishing points. That is plate 90.

Zeuxis: Hereafter is an example of a cube represented with two vanishing points. Now no sides are parallel anymore to the viewer, so that all lines recede to the two vanishing points. Paintings in which such effects have been exploited are very rare however. These pictures give a feeling of a viewer that is far from the scene, an effect that painters have rarely emphasised, since they usually prefer to implicate a viewer in the picture, hence draw him or her nearer.
Remark again how in such constructions of lines you could modify the position of the horizon line, so that the object lies above or beneath the horizon. And you can at will vary the position of the two vanishing points to the left and right. So you can really draw very many perspective sights, play with these parameters, and take the picture that suits you best.

Arte: We can look right and left but also upward and downward. So we could imagine a perspective with three or four vanishing points.

Zeuxis: True again, Arte. Let me show you an example again that we saw before.

Zeuxis gets Dali’s picture again on the screen.

-> Salvador Dali (1904-1989). Christ of Saint John of the Cross. The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Glasgow. 1951.

Zeuxis: An example of a picture with three vanishing points would be a painting that showed a scene from far above. Such a painting is Salvador Dali’s picture called "Christ of Saint John of the Cross".
We see a vanishing point that lies very deep, and a the same time the line of the horizontal beams of the cross converge to a point on the far horizon line situated way in the background, higher than the cross.
Paintings with three vanishing points are extremely rare and it took an artist out for very original and rare views to have the imagination to take a theme so well known as the Crucifixion to see it from a perspective that was still real, but far from natural.

Arte: Salvador Dali’s picture had a bird’s eye perspective, but a viewer can also look upward, for instance to a high-rise building and see the vertical lines converge.

Zeuxis: This then is sometimes called a "worm"s’ perspective.
The next drawings show the two effects of a deep and a high perspective. Paintings in which four or even more vanishing points are shown do not exist, as far as I know. No natural structure on earth goes as deep down as it stands high. Still, we could imagine an alien world of imaginary architectures that we could admire from a standpoint that showed the flowing lines both in the high and in the deep.

Zeuxis makes another drawing in plate 91 and he also projects a strange view of a madhouse.

-> Ludwig Meidner (1884 – 1966). The Corner House. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid. 1913.

Zeuxis: Examples of "worm’s eye" perspective can be found in views of corners of streets with high buildings.
One of these is Ludwig Meidner’s "Corner House". Although this is an Expressionist picture, in which the sharp slanting lines clash to form a ghastly horror house, Meidner did introduce effects of perspective. He set the viewer very low so that the vertical lines of the high building converge far high. Meidner did this to impress the viewer by an oppressive, menacing and nightmarish view.

Zeuxis: My previous drawing showed four vanishing points, Arte!

Arte: Wow!

Zeuxis ignores the irony and projects another picture on his screen.

-> The Glorification of Saint Roch. Jacopo Robusti called Tintoretto (1519-1594). Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Venice. 1564.

Zeuxis: Worm’s eye perspectives have also often been applied in ceiling frescoes. Jacopo Tintoretto thus painted a great oval in the centre of the ceiling of the Sala dell’ Albergo in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco of Venice. The Scuola was dedicated to Saint Roch, so Tintoretto showed Saint Roch glorified in the heavens. As a spectator, you stand below the oval and look from downwards on a standing Saint Roch. The worm’s eye view is here not applied to buildings, but to the figure of the Saint.

Arte: Something puzzles me, Zeuxis. All the drawings we made suppose that I am standing or sitting and looking straight in front of me. I grant you, I may look down or up, but we moved the vanishing points only along a horizontal and along a vertical line! Why not move them sideways, or along a circle?

Zeuxis astonished: That is an astute remark, Arte. Of course, we draw with perspective illusions of nature. The Renaissance artists and mathematicians discovered perspective because they needed a tool to create better illusions of reality. They were not just imitating nature, for even with perspective they had to take care and avoid too harsh distortions so that viewers could still easily recognise the objects or figures. Essentially, they were after enhancing the perception of reality of scenes. So they, and most painters after them, imagined the normal view of spectators. And spectators usually stand or sit and look straight up and down, which is perpendicular to the horizon, and from right to left, which is in parallel with the horizon.
But yes, as you remarked, a painter or a viewer can also turn his or her head sideways. One sees buildings obliquely then. The same drawings and schemas as we made apply then too, but the picture will be awkwardly skewed, and very few painters have made even fewer pictures this way.

Arte with dreamful, half-closed eyes: I imagine myself in an airplane, moving through the skylines of a modern city and I imagine my airplane turning and turning, flying down and curving around the skyscrapers, offering me dazzling perspectives of sideway views.

Zeuxis: Well, hmm, bring your imagination back to the ground, dear.
I do know of one painter, though, who dared to offer such views: an Italian futurist painter called Virgilio Marchi (1895-1960). He painted in 1919 a view of a building seen from a turning airplane. In that picture the futuristic building is seen skewed to the left. But in their vast majority, painters have stayed on the ground and looked up and down, from right to left and vice versa, but only in those directions. After all, that is how humans look at things in nature fairly usually. Painters experiment, but in the end, they always come down with their feet on the ground.

Aerial perspective

Zeuxis: The techniques that I explained so far to create depth are techniques of lines and of shapes. There exist also techniques of colour to create a sensation of depth in scenes. This technique is called aerial or atmospheric perspective.
I have explained earlier that we can feel colours psychologically as warm or cool, and we have called this the temperature of colour. We like warmth close, whereas we know that warmth becomes cooler at a distance. Therefore Western painters put warm colours close to the viewers and cool colours further away in their pictures. Further away generally meant higher and towards the horizon line.

Arte: How is this effect called?

Zeuxis: It is called aerial perspective.
Aerial perspective is a technique for creating illusion of depth in a painting by modulating the colours of the objects and the scenes. These colour transitions simulate the observed effects of the atmosphere on the colours of objects seen at a distance. Hence this technique is also often called "atmospheric perspective".
Effects of distance are of course diminishing heights of objects, which happen gradually with distance. But colours also fade in the far to dull grey or bluish hues. Light of short wavelengths, which is of blue light, is scattered most by the atmosphere. Hence the colours of distant objects tend toward blue. We already remarked in this text that distant mountains had a bluish tint. Light of long wavelengths, thus red, is scattered most. So distant and very bright objects, like the sun appear redder because the light has lost much blue, as the blue light is scattered more.
The contrasts between colours of distant objects diminish. With distance, the objects become blurred, details on the surfaces of objects are almost superimposed or disappear altogether Objects increasingly come to be seen one in front of the other. All such effects can be imitated in paintings to indicate distance between the viewer and the objects.

Zeuxis shows Gino Severini’s picture again to Arte.

-> Gino Severini (1883-1966). Landscape in Civray. Private Collection Rau. Germany. 1909.

Zeuxis: A good example of the use of colour to enhance the impression of depth is in Gino Severini’s "Landscape in Civray", of which I spoke earlier. Severini painted yellow and red strokes among the warm colours in the foreground. In the background, he used green and blue and violet hues and since these are colours that enhance impressions of distance, Gino Severini emphasised by the change in colours the impression of depth. Close parts seem closer still because painted in warm, attractive colours, and parts that seem further away from the viewer are in colder colours that seem to want to put a distance between viewer and landscape. Finally, Severini kept his sky very clear and light blue, practically the most non-committing colour there is and then this bright sky even contains white streaks of clouds. This sky really feels cold and far.

Arte: Such changes in temperature of colours can indeed also be observed in nature. Colours of distant forms become greyer and bluish. They become paler, while foreground colours and features appear more intense in hue. Colours become weaker, paler, and less intense in proportion to the distance from the viewer of a natural landscape.

Zeuxis: That was one reason why Gothic and Renaissance painters mostly painted far mountains in pale blue, thus enhancing the psychological effect of the cooler colours to indicate distance.
The sky is deep blue right above the viewer but paler blue over the horizon.
We know that this is an effect of the moisture and pollution particles in the air so that light is more scattered as it passes through more air. Blue light has the shortest wavelength and is scattered most, so the deep colour of blue disappears at a distance. Blue light seen close to the horizon is scattered more, and passes through thicker layers of air than the blue light we see from straight above. So the blue over the horizon is lighter, and less pronounced than the blue overhead.
Distant bright objects appear redder, like an autumn sun over the horizon, because the blue is scattered more. Red light has the longest wavelength and is scattered the least, so red hues are preserved. Distant objects thus have lighter, paler colours than close objects. Such effects can be used by painters to indicate distance and hence to create impressions of depth in pictures.

Zeuxis project’s once more Dali’s painting.

-> Salvador Dali (1904-1989). Christ of Saint John of the Cross. The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Glasgow. 1951.

Zeuxis: The effects of aerial perspective are very obvious also in the Dali picture of Christ. Behind Jesus, high in the sky, colours are black, whereas downwards paler blue hues appear. The image of the boat beneath is painted in detail, but in less detail than the muscles of Jesus’ shoulders, and the mountains far beneath have lost all detail and become blurred in colouring. Salvador Dali used several techniques together to give the viewer an impression of great distances.

Arte points at the Dali picture on Zeuxis’ screen: I bet that painters could combine all techniques of linear perspective, aerial perspective and foreshortening, as did Salvador Dali to perfection. Even then, Dali was after a surprising new view with his image of Jesus Christ, and he obtained his effect also by showing dramatic foreshortening and strong aerial perspective.

Zeuxis: On to a next concept, Arte. Perspective is a powerful technique to create illusions of space on a flat canvas. There are other techniques of illusion.

Illusions of volume

Zeuxis: Representing volume on a flat canvas is an illusion. Hence all painting is creation of illusion. Painters have remarked the concept, and have known the concept for centuries. It should not come as a surprise that a few painters have tried to show the illusion in a very clear and clever way. They have used the illusion for the illusion’s sake.

Zeuxis shows to Arte a surprising picture on his screen.

-> Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts (ca. 1610-1678). Trompe l’oeil Painting. A Letter Rack. Statens Museum for Kunst. Copenhagen. 1668.

Zeuxis: One such painter was Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts (ca. 1610-after 1678).
He was a painter of Antwerp, but he worked in various countries such as Denmark. Gijsbrechts was a specialist in so-called "trompe l’oeil" pictures, in creating optical illusions of volume. He made pictures that gave the illusion to the viewer as if he or she was not standing before a picture, but before the real object.
In order to enhance the illusions, he had to give uncommon forms to his panels, which then followed the forms of the objects he painted. These trompe-l’oeil pictures often also combine not just the canvas but also other materials.
Gijsbrechts made a picture called "A letter rack". This shows a red ribbon rack in which many letters are stuck. A few of the letters pass beyond the traditional canvas, giving an illusion of real letters pasted on the panel.
Depicting letters in trompe l’oeil is much older than Gijsbrechts however.
One of the first such trompe l’oeil pictures that have been preserved was made around 1490-1495 in Italy, in Venice, by Vittore Carpaccio (1460/1465-1525/1526). Carpaccio made a painting of two women looking out from their balcony onto the lagoon of Venice. The painting has been sawn in two, and one part with the view of the lagoon is now in the J. Paul Getty Museum of Santa Monica (Los Angeles), whereas the lower part is in the Correr Museum of Venice. The panel of Los Angeles shows on the back side a red string, tended tightly by two nails, over which white, folded letters hang. Strings and letters are painted, and are but an illusion. The panel was probably the door of a cupboard and the inner picture invited to hang real letters there.

-> Vittore Carpaccio (1460/1465-1525/1526). Trompe l’oeil Painting. A Letter Rack. The J. Paul Getty Museum. Santa Monica (Los Angeles). Ca. 1490-1495.

Zeuxis continues: A way to depict an object on a flat panel is to use a geometrical, mathematical means called a projection. In a projection, all the corner points of an object are projected in parallel on a flat paper. Then the points are interconnected, but only the lines visible from the direction from which one projected the corners are drawn visible. The other lines disappear behind the former.
The projected image in two dimensions generally renders a realistic image of the object, as seen from the front or from above.
Now one can play with the algorithm by which one has made certain lines disappear in favour of the others and by applying this process arrive at strange, unnatural representations that are truly illusions. One can give an impression to viewers of three-dimensional constructions that at first glance do not violate laws of projected representations, but that have queer results for the general view.

Zeuxis: A master in creating such illusions was Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1873).
Escher was a Dutch painter and engraver, who made drawings that exploited fully all kinds of optical illusions, including illusions of volume.
One of his best-known works is a building with four staircases. People are walking up the staircases. By some trick of projection, the people all walk up, and yet the staircases are linked so that the figures go up all the time, which is of course impossible.
By breaking the rules of mathematical projection of a three-dimensional object on a flat surface, and more particularly by breaking the rules to show visible lines and hide invisible ones, Esher created powerful illusions that were surprising and deranging for viewers. The trick is not obvious. Esher changed only to visible lines some lines that are normally invisible, but it takes a vivid imagination and a keen eye to know what lines should and could thus be changed.
Painters have exploited optical illusions and all kinds of optical tricks like Escher. One other of these is the so-called "mirror painting", in which a picture is seen through a tilted mirror, and the image on the oblique mirror is faithfully copied on canvas. The result is a distorted image that makes no sense. The picture needs to be seen through a likewise tilted mirror to appear.
Look at the picture hereafter of a cube in which all lines, also the ones that are normally invisible, are shown in full. When a viewer looks repeatedly at such an image, the cube will change position. This is called a "Necker Cube".

Zeuxis makes a drawing of a Necker cube, in plate 92.

Zeuxis: There exist many such optical illusions, also merely on lines. The enumeration of all optical illusions is however not the subject of this book. I only show a drawing of the "Hering illusion" hereafter. The two thick horizontal lines in the rectangle are indeed horizontal, but they are perceived as being bent.

Zeuxis draws now plate 93, the Hering illusion.

Zeuxis: Linear perspective gives powerful illusions of space to viewers. The technical means to obtain this perspective can be applied in a contradicting way to create world-views that derange spectators. This can be realised in various ways. Painters can for instance have the borderlines of monuments, buildings and figures of one side of the painting converge to a point on the horizon that lies much higher or lower than the corresponding horizon line of the other side. In views constructed of several vanishing points, skewing the vanishing points can thus show very strange effects. This procedure always creates a dream-like world. Surrealist and Meta-Physical artists exploited such effects eagerly.

Zeuxis: We have almost finished now, Arte. But before departing I need to talk to you just briefly on another subject that we have avoided so far: the texture of a painting.


Arte: Well then, please explain, Zeuxis!

Zeuxis: By texture, we designate various elements of painting. Texture is how the painters use the coarseness of the canvas or panel. By the term "texture" we also designate the roughness and thickness of the brushstrokes of the painters. Texture is also a term used for the qualities whereby a colour surface to reflect light.
The painter can use thin paint and lay that down in equal thickness, lightly on the canvas in but one or in very few layers. The canvas may have been prepared with sublayers of paint, so that the upper paint is distributed very equally over the surface and remains totally flat. The brushstrokes are then barely visible. Ancient and modern painters alike used this technique. Duccio di Buoninsegna painted this way already in the thirteenth century on panels of wood, on which he prepared several sublayers of substances to obtain a very smooth surface. Roy Lichtenstein in the twentieth century used the very light and fluid acrylic paints on linen canvases, which distributed very evenly on canvas.
The painter can put one layer of paint upon the other but always lightly. The subsequent layers can then be used for instance to imitate effects of shadows since each layer will gradually darken or deepen the tone of the colours. Special colour effects can be obtained from using several superimposed layers of oil paints in which pigments are only lightly mixed. Jan van Eyck worked in this way on certain areas. The effect was "glazing", and it gave a sense of delicate, slightly perceptible sense of depth in the painting.

Arte: The painter may also leave the linen almost as it is or only put thin preparatory sublayers on the canvas. When he then paints also in thin layers of liquid paint and in slight brushstrokes, the texture of the linen remains visible and the painting receives a tactile quality. This is especially the case when coarse-grained linen is used. Tiziano made pictures this way in dark tones in his later years.

Zeuxis: So you have remembered Titian, Arte, dear? And studied pictures behind my back! Good so. Now, let’s continue.

Zeuxis: A colour surface can be rough or very equal. Such a surface reflects light to various degrees. A matt surface does not shine. It is dull because it does not reflect light so well, but may be suited for soft hues.
Shiny surfaces reflect more light. They also are more luminous and will create more contrasts than matt surfaces. They have a remarkable property to seem to create impressions of depth, maybe partly through mirroring effects.
Painters can use thick paint, and in places even several layers of thick paint. They can work the paint before it has dried, or even while it is drying, with brush, knife or fingers so that the brushstrokes or the lines of the knife or of the finger-strokes remain visible. The painting then sometimes shows the sensual tactile work of the artist very visibly. Pieter Paul Rubens worked like that although he often combined techniques of texture. He could leave delicate light paint for areas of flesh of figures, like on the neck of a woman, and clear rapid brushstrokes in her robe, then several thick layers topped with visible lead white in her feathered hat. Such white strokes always stand out as if in relief.
The English painter John Constable (1776 –1837) remarked how light was caught on the leaves of trees in forests, most notably at the border between forest and open meadows. Under certain natural lighting conditions of the sun, parts of the leaves reflect the light, and these parts are thus highlighted, whereas other parts remain in shadow. Constable imitated this effect in his paintings by putting small strokes of bright paint on the leaves of the trees. Thereby he obtained a tactile effect of thousands of leaves reflecting the sunlight, and a feeling of the relief of the leaves.
Rapid, light and yet visible broad brushstrokes are a style characteristic of other artists like Henri Matisse. Matisse was primarily a colourist, and most of his paintings have no line but only colour, many very lightly applied in broad strokes that often leave the underlying white also somewhat visible.
Many modern painters tried specifically to explore the texture of a painting. They glued pieces of paper, thick or thin, on the canvas, and left some of these parts visible, or they painted in thick layers of paint over the paper. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque started to glue all sorts of materials on their canvases: paper, textiles, ropes, and so on.
Other artists, like Jasper Johns, used waxes to bring more elements of relief in the painting. Still later, particularly during the Pop Art period, real objects could be glued in the picture so that it became a kind of bas-relief. The differences between painting and sculpture thereby started to disappear. These techniques are currently commonplace, but still remain oddities. Painters have mostly stayed faithful to their flat medium.
The works called "collages" consist merely of glued pieces of paper, pictures from newspapers or magazines. Some of these pieces may be painted over, others left in place as such. Paint may be applied to enhance certain effects of the images, or not.

These experiments went of course to the limits of the medium, which is always the canvas or board. They were just one more way to go beyond the traditional medium of the flat, painted surface sometimes with an aim to create a new art and always to explore the medium. Whether these techniques can still be called painting is an open question. But they still deserve the qualification of art.

Arte: That’s it then, Zeuxis? Do I now know all there is to the art of painting?

Zeuxis: You will never know all, Arte, just as I do not know all. There is always more to discover. But we have discussed the essentials!.

Arte: What then will we talk of next, Zeuxis? You cannot leave now that we have become such friends? Besides, I may know something about paintings, but I still do not know how and when a painting is really good art. I know all the particulars, I know some of the techniques of design, but I still do not know when to call something beautiful. Do not leave now, please talk to me still.

Zeuxis: Time of departure is near, Arte. But I will always be there for you to call me. You will not call me often anymore, though. I know your mind now, girl. You have learnt enough on painting. I feel your mind wandering, out to other curiosities. You cannot stay with one subject, and you are right at that. The world is so marvellous, with so much to discover. You will have to call other teachers. But I will not depart yet. Yes, I will talk to you about beauty. But you may well be astonished, for beauty is just for you to find, by you alone.

Zeuxis disappears, leaving a sad Arte, who now sags with her head in her hands.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: November 2010
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Copyright: René Dewil - All rights reserved. The electronic form of this document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source as 'René Dewil - The Art of Painting - Copyright'. No permission is granted for commercial use and if you would like to reproduce this work for commercial purposes in all or in part, in any form, as in selling it as a book or published compilation, then you must ask for my permission formally and separately.