Unit A3: Space and Perspective

Unit A3 - Space and Perspective: Introduction

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Units A3 and A4 will discuss some of the major ways in which paintings convey depth, representing three-dimensional objects and spaces on a flat surface. Whereas unit 4 will consider the notion of "modelling", this unit discusses perspective.

The unit has five parts:

We begin in section a by considering linear perspective.

In section b we then discuss the notion of aerial perspective.

In section c we consider the techniques of "empirical perspective".

In section d we consider the importance of "point of view" in perspective.

Finally, in section e we discuss some of the ways in which paintings can resist strict linear perspective.

Two cautionary thoughts

Perspective is one of the most central techniques in paintings which aim to create an illusion of reality: it is a means by which the relative distance of objects is conveyed, so that a flat, two-dimensional canvas appears to open up into three dimensions. (The other major means by which this occurs, modeling, is discussed in Unit 4.) Perspective, however, should not be considered as a single technique: there are numerous ways in which artists use perspective, some of which we'll discuss in this unit.

Perspective is one of those instances where we are very tempted to think of "advances" in techniques in the visual arts: as though paintings which do not make a convincing use of perspective are in some way inferior to those which do. But we need to be very cautious in talking of the development of perspective as a straightforward "advance". Often when I do a class on perspective, and, having looked at examples of medieval art, we finally arrive at some of the paintings of the Renaissance, there is a sense of relief in the room: as though artists finally "got the hang" of perspective. But let's remember from the very beginning that in many ways, it suited artists before the Renaissance quite nicely not to use perspective; and, moreover, a questioning of perspective has helped lead to some of the most interesting and important developments of modern art. We'll consider the use of non-perspectival art in section (d) of this unit.

Two thoughts, then, before we begin: first, there are many types of perspective; secondly, we need to remember that, just because there appears to be a scientifically "correct" way of depicting perspective, we shouldn't automatically judge works which do not apply that "correct" perspective as "worse" than those which do.

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© Matthew Treherne, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT.

This resource was created with the help of a University of Leeds Faculty of Arts Enterprise Knowledge Transfer Grant.

Pages in this document

  1. Unit A3 - Space and Perspective: Introduction
  2. Unit A3a - Space and Perspective: Linear perspective
  3. Unit A3b - Space and Perspective: Aerial perspective
  4. Unit A3c - Space and Perspective: Empirical perspective
  5. Unit A3d - Space and Perspective: Point of view
  6. Unit A3e - Space and Perspective: Paintings that do not use linear perspective
  7. Unit A3 - Space and Perspective: Further reading
  8. Unit A3 - Space and Perspective: Summary