Perspective (graphical)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Perspective (from perspicere to see through) in the graphic arts is an approximate representation, on a flat surface (such as paper), of an image as it is seen by the eye. The two most characteristic features of perspective are that objects are smaller as their distance from the observer increases; and that they are subject to foreshortening, meaning that an object's dimensions along the line of sight are shorter than its dimensions across the line of sight.

Italian Renaissance painters and architects including Filippo Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Paolo Uccello, Piero della Francesca and Luca Pacioli studied linear perspective, wrote treatises on it, and incorporated it into their artworks, thus contributing to the mathematics of art.



Early history

The earliest art paintings and drawings typically sized objects and characters hieratically according to their spiritual or thematic importance, not their distance from the viewer, and did not use foreshortening. The most important figures are often shown as the highest in a composition, also from hieratic motives, leading to the "vertical perspective", common in the art of Ancient Egypt, where a group of "nearer" figures are shown below the larger figure or figures. The only method to indicate the relative position of elements in the composition was by overlapping, of which much use is made in works like the Parthenon Marbles.

Systematic attempts to evolve a system of perspective are usually considered to have begun around the 5th century B.C. in the art of Ancient Greece, as part of a developing interest in illusionism called skenographia, allied to theatrical scenery; using flat panels on a stage to give the illusion of depth.

By the later periods of antiquity artists, especially those in less popular traditions, were well aware that distant objects could be shown smaller than those close at hand for increased illusionism, but whether this convention was actually used in a work depended on many factors. Some of the paintings found in the ruins of Pompeii show a remarkable realism and perspective for their time; it has been claimed that comprehensive systems of perspective were evolved in antiquity, but most scholars do not accept this. Hardly any of the many works where such a system would have been used have survived. A passage in Philostratus suggests that classical artists and theorists thought in terms of "circles" at equal distance from the viewer, like a classical semi-circular theatre seen from the stage. In the Late Antique period use of perspective techniques declined. The art of the new cultures of the Migration Period had no tradition of attempting compositions of large numbers of figures and Early Medieval art was slow and inconsistent in relearning the convention from classical models, though the process can be seen underway in Carolingian art.

A clearly modern optical basis of perspective was given in 1021, when Alhazen, an Iraqi physicist and mathematician, in his Book of Optics, explained that light projects conically into the eye. This was, theoretically, enough to translate objects convincingly onto a painting, but Alhalzen was concerned only with optics, not with painting. Conical translations are mathematically difficult, so a drawing constructed using them would be incredibly time consuming.

Medieval art was aware of the general principle of varying the relative size of elements according to distance, but even more than classical art was perfectly ready to overide it for other reasons. Buildings were often shown obliquely according to a particular convention. The use and sophistication of attempts to convey distance increased steadily during the period, but without a basis in a systematic theory. Byzantine art was also aware of these principles, but also had the reverse perspective convention for the setting of principal figures.

Giotto attempted drawings in perspective using an algebraic method to determine the placement of distant lines. The problem with using a linear ratio in this manner is that the apparent distance between a series of evenly spaced lines actually falls off with a sine dependence. To determine the ratio for each succeeding line, a recursive ratio must be used.

One of Giotto's first uses of his algebraic method of perspective was Jesus Before Caiaphas. Although the picture does not conform to the modern, geometrical method of perspective, it does give a considerable illusion of depth, and was a large step forward in Western art.

With the exception of dice, heraldry typically ignores perspective in the treatment of charges, though sometimes in later centuries charges are specified as in perspective.

Renaissance : Mathematical basis

Ideal City (anonymous Renaissance painting)

One hundred years later, in about 1413, Filippo Brunelleschi demonstrated the geometrical method of perspective, used today by artists, by painting the outlines of various Florentine buildings onto a mirror. When the building's outline was continued, he noticed that all of the lines converged on the horizon line. According to Vasari, he then set up a demonstration of his painting of the Baptistry in the incomplete doorway of the Duomo. He had the viewer look through a small hole on the back of the painting, facing the Baptistry. He would then set up a mirror, facing the viewer, which reflected his painting. To the viewer, the painting of the Baptistry and the Baptistry itself were nearly indistinguishable.

Soon after, nearly every artist in Florence and in Italy used geometrical perspective in their paintings, notably Melozzo da Forlì and Donatello. Melozzo first used the perspetcive from down to up (in Rome, Loreto, Forlì...), and was celebrated for that. Donatello started sculpting elaborate checkerboard floors into the simple manger portrayed in the birth of Christ. Although hardly historically accurate, these checkerboard floors obeyed the primary laws of geometrical perspective: all lines converged to a vanishing point, and the rate at which the horizontal lines receded into the distance was graphically determined. This became an integral part of Quattrocento art. Not only was perspective a way of showing depth, it was also a new method of composing a painting. Paintings began to show a single, unified scene, rather than a combination of several.

As shown by the quick proliferation of accurate perspective paintings in Florence, Brunelleschi likely understood (with help from his friend the mathematician Toscanelli), but did not publish, the mathematics behind perspective. Decades later, his friend Leon Battista Alberti wrote De pictura/Della Pittura (1435/1436), a treatise on proper methods of showing distance in painting. Alberti's primary breakthrough was not to show the mathematics in terms of conical projections, as it actually appears to the eye. Instead, he formulated the theory based on planar projections, or how the rays of light, passing from the viewer's eye to the landscape, would strike the picture plane (the painting). He was then able to calculate the apparent height of a distant object using two similar triangles. The mathematics behind similar triangles is relatively simple, having been long ago formulated by Euclid. In viewing a wall, for instance, the first triangle has a vertex at the user's eye, and vertices at the top and bottom of the wall. The bottom of this triangle is the distance from the viewer to the wall. The second, similar triangle, has a point at the viewer's eye, and has a length equal to the viewer's eye from the painting. The height of the second triangle can then be determined through a simple ratio, as proven by Euclid.

Piero della Francesca elaborated on Della Pittura in his De Prospectiva Pingendi in 1474. Alberti had limited himself to figures on the ground plane and giving an overall basis for perspective. Della Francesca fleshed it out, explicitly covering solids in any area of the picture plane. Della Francesca also started the now common practice of using illustrated figures to explain the mathematical concepts, making his treatise easier to understand than Alberti's. Della Francesca was also the first to accurately draw the Platonic solids as they would appear in perspective.

Perspective remained, for a while, the domain of Florence. Jan van Eyck, among others, was unable to create a consistent structure for the converging lines in paintings, as in London's The Arnolfini Portrait, because he was unaware of the theoretical breakthrough just then occurring in Italy. However he achieved very subtle effects by manipulations of scale in his interiors. Gradually, and partly through the movement of academies of the arts, the Italian techniques became part of the training of artists across Europe, and later other parts of the world.

Present : Computer graphics

3-D computer games and ray-tracers often use a modified version of perspective. Like the painter, the computer program is generally not concerned with every ray of light that is in a scene. Instead, the program simulates rays of light traveling backwards from the monitor (one for every pixel), and checks to see what it hits. In this way, the program does not have to compute the trajectories of millions of rays of light that pass from a light source, hit an object, and miss the viewer.

CAD software, and some computer games (especially games using 3-D polygons) use linear algebra, and in particular matrix multiplication, to create a sense of perspective. The scene is a set of points, and these points are projected to a plane (computer screen) in front of the view point (the viewer's eye). The problem of perspective is simply finding the corresponding coordinates on the plane corresponding to the points in the scene. By the theories of linear algebra, a matrix multiplication directly computes the desired coordinates, thus bypassing any descriptive geometry theorems used in perspective drawing.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Perspective (graphical)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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