Understanding Linear Perspective in Art

Pietro Perugino, Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter, 1481-1482. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

For many, it’s easy to take for granted the spatial depth that a painting or drawing can depict. However, art wasn’t always so representative of the world around us. For example, the figures in ancient Egyptian drawings and paintings are often shown in profile, while their eyes are shown facing the viewer. This is because it wasn’t until the 14th century that linear perspective began to be used by artists successfully, allowing them to transform a two-dimensional surface into a realistic representation of our three-dimensional world.

Hieroglyphics and stone carving reliefs, Ancient Egypt.

The mathematical laws surrounding linear perspective were first established by the ancient Greeks and Romans, but were later lost during the Middle Ages in Europe. The first recorded attempt to use linear perspective was made by Filippo Brunelleschi, father of Italian Renaissance architecture. Around 1415, the famed Italian architect demonstrated his use of linear perspective by creating two painted panels that depicted the streets and buildings of Florence. Though these panels were later lost, the attempt was documented by architect and biography writer Leon Batista Alberti.

What is Linear Perspective?

Linear perspective is a technique used by artists to create the illusion of depth and space using relative size and position of a group of objects. To achieve this effect, there are three essential components needed in creating a painting or drawing using linear perspective:

  1. Orthogonals (also known as parallel lines)
  2. Vanishing point
  3. Horizon line

Using these components, it is possible to arrange the composition of a work of art in a way similar to how the human eye sees the world. The guiding principle for this technique is that objects that are closer to the viewer appear to be larger, where objects that are further away appear to be smaller. In order to accomplish this, the artist places a horizontal line across the surface of the picture, which is known as the “horizon line.” Parallel lines or orthogonals then converge as they recede and meet at the vanishing point on the horizon line.

Masters of Linear Perspective 

This ability to add depth and space to a two-dimensional surface appealed to the Renaissance painters of the 15th century who valued new artistic techniques and advances in mathematics — thus, it makes sense that some of the best-known Renaissance artists were also masters of linear perspective. One such artist is Leonardo da Vinci, who strove to create paintings that accurately resembled the real world. In his writings, da Vinci claimed that “perspective is nothing else than the vision of a scene behind a flat and clear glass…” Like his contemporaries, da Vinci saw his paintings not simply as a representation of our world, but as an open window through which his viewers could look.

Mastery of linear perspective wasn’t limited to the Italian Renaissance. Jan van Eyck, a Netherlandish painter and key figure of the Early Northern Renaissance, is also known for his skilled use of linear perspective. Van Eyck’s atmospheric perspective (detailed below) predates that of da Vinci’s by almost 50 years.

Two figures flanked by bedrock with architectural elements in the background

Jan van Eyck, Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, 1430. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Types of Perspective

There are many types of perspective used by artists to convey a sense of space within the composition of a work, including linear perspective, one point perspective, two point perspective, and atmospheric perspective. Here, we break down the key elements of each, and explore how they differ from each other.

One Point Perspective 

Three figures on a bridge that recedes in the background

Image: Gustave Caillebotte, “Le pont de l’Europe,” 1876. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

One point perspective contains one vanishing point along the horizon line. This type of perspective can easily be used to portray things such as railroads, hallways, or room interiors.

Two Point Perspective  

Two point perspective, also referred to as three-quarter perspective or angular perspective, contains two vanishing points on the horizon line. This is often used to show something like the corner of a building on a street. One side of the building will vanish toward the left, while the other side will vanish toward the right, creating two separate vanishing points.

Two figures in the foreground share an umbrella on a busy Paris street

Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877. Art Institute of Chicago. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Atmospheric Perspective

What is atmospheric perspective? Like linear perspective, atmospheric perspective (sometimes referred to as aerial perspective) also creates the illusion of depth on a two-dimensional surface. But instead of using horizon lines and vanishing points, atmospheric perspective primarily uses color. The term was first coined by da Vinci, who observed in his Treatise on Painting that colors “become weaker in proportion to their distance from the person who is looking at them.” In other words, objects that are further away have blurry edges and appear lighter in color. One master of atmospheric perspective was William Turner, who boldly incorporated it in his landscape paintings. Atmospheric perspective was also mastered by Chinese landscape painters in the 8th century and onward.

Hazy composition showing a speeding locomotive

Image: J.M.W. Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Breaking the Rules

The incorporation of linear perspective and the desire to create spatial depth in paintings and drawings went on to influence artists of the many future art movements, including the likes of Baroque art, Neoclassical art, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

A large group of apples arranged on a table with linens and a bottle

Paul Cézanne, The Basket of Apples, circa 1895. Art Institute of Chicago. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

At the end of the 19th century, artists sought ways to challenge the status quo, and many questioned why art should be seen solely as a precise representation of the world. With artists such as Paul Cezanne providing new approaches to composition, as well as the popularity of avant-garde movements such as Cubism in the early 1900s, the end of the 19th century also marked the beginning of the end for the established rules of perspective.

Sources: Op Art History | Encyclopedia Britannica | The Art Story | Museum of Science