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Nov 16, 2011

Why study perspective?

The School of Athens

G.A.Storey explains in his 1910 book The Theory and Practice of Perspective the importance of studying perspective-


Leonardo da Vinci tells us in his celebrated Treatise on Painting that the young artist should first of all learn perspective, that is to say, he should first of all learn that he has to depict on a flat surface objects which are in relief or distant one from the other; for this is the simple art of painting.Objects appear smaller at a distance than near to us, so by drawing them thus we give depth to our canvas. The outline of a ball is a mere flat circle,but with proper shading we make it appear round, and this is the perspective of light and shade.

‘The next thing to be considered is the effect of the atmosphere and light. If two figures are in the same coloured dress, and are standing one behind the other, then they should be of slightly different tone, so as to separate them. And in like manner, according to the distance of the mountains in a landscape and the greater or less density of the air, so do we depict space between them, not only making them smaller in outline,
but less distinct.’

Sir Edwin Landseer used to say that in looking at a figure in a picture he liked to feel that he could walk round it, and this exactly expresses the impression that the true art of painting should make upon the spectator.

There is another observation of Leonardo’s that it is well I should here transcribe; he says: ‘Many are desirous of learning to draw, and are very fond of it, who are notwithstanding void of a proper disposition for it. This may be known by their want of perseverance; like boys who draw everything ina hurry, never finishing or shadowing.’ This shows they do not care for their work, and all instruction is thrown away upon them. At the present time there is too much of this ‘everything in a hurry’, and beginning in this way leads only to failure and disappointment. These observations apply equally to perspective as to drawing and painting.

Unfortunately, this study is too often neglected by our painters, some of them even complacently confessing their ignorance of it; while the ordinary student either turns from it with distaste, or only endures going through it with a view to passing an examination, little thinking of what value it will be to him in working out his pictures. Whether the manner of teaching perspective is the cause of this dislike for it, I cannot say; but certainly most of our English books on the subject are anything but attractive.

All the great masters of painting have also been masters of perspective, for they knew that without it, it would be impossible to carry out their grand compositions. In many cases they were even inspired by it in choosing their subjects. When one looks at those sunny interiors, those corridors and courtyards by De Hooghe, with their figures far off and near, one feels that their charm consists greatly in their perspective, as well as in their light and tone and colour. Or if we study those Venetian masterpieces by Paul Veronese, Titian, Tintoretto, and others, we become convinced that it was through their knowledge of perspective that they gave such space and grandeur to their canvases.

Marriage at Cana/ Wedding-feast at Cana
Paul Veronese

I need not name all the great artists who have shown their interest and delight in this study, both by writing about it and practising it, such as Albert Dürer and others, but I cannot leave out our own Turner, who was one of the greatest masters in this respect that ever lived; though in his case we can only judge of the results of his knowledge as shown in his pictures, for although he was Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy in 1807 —over a hundred years ago—and took great pains with the diagrams he prepared to illustrate his lectures, they seemed to the students to be full of confusion and obscurity; nor am I aware that any record of them remains, although they must have contained some valuable teaching, had their author possessed the art of conveying it.

However, we are here chiefly concerned with the necessity of this study, and of the necessity of starting our work with it.

Before undertaking a large composition of figures, such as the ‘Wedding-feast at Cana’, by Paul Veronese, or ‘The School of Athens’, by Raphael, the artist should set out his floors, his walls, his colonnades, his balconies, his steps, & so that he may know where to place his personages, and to measure their different sizes according to their distances; indeed, he must make his stage and his scenery before he introduces his actors. He can then proceed with his composition, arrange his groups and the accessories with ease, and above all with correctness. But I have noticed that some of our cleverest painters will arrange their figures to please the eye, and when fairly advanced with their work will call in an expert, to (as they call it) put in their perspective for them, but as it does not form part of their original composition, it involves all sorts of difficulties and vexatious alterings and rubbings out, and even then is not always satisfactory. For the expert may not be an artist, nor in sympathy with the picture, hence there will be a want of unity in it; whereas the whole thing, to be in harmony, should be the conception of one mind, and the perspective as much a part of the composition as the figures.

If a ceiling has to be painted with figures floating or flying in the air, or sitting high above us, then our perspective must take a different form, and the point of sight will be above our heads instead of on the horizon; nor can these difficulties be overcome without an adequate knowledge of the science, which will enable us to work out for ourselves any new problems of this kind that we may have to solve.

Then again, with a view to giving different effects or impressions in this decorative work, we must know where to place the horizon and the points of sight, for several of the latter are sometimes required when dealing with large surfaces such as the painting of walls, or stage scenery, or panoramas depicted on a cylindrical canvas and viewed from the centre thereof, where a fresh point of sight is required at every twelve or sixteen feet.

Without a true knowledge of perspective, none of these things can be done. The artist should study them in the great compositions of the masters, by analysing their pictures and seeing how and for what reasons they applied their knowledge. Rubens put low horizons to most of his large figure- subjects, as in ‘The Descent from the Cross’, which not only gave grandeur to his designs, but, seeing they were to be placed above the eye, gave a more natural appearance to his figures. The Venetians often put the horizon almost on a level with the base of the picture or edge of the frame, and sometimes even below it; as in ‘The Family of Darius at the Feet of Alexander’, by Paul Veronese, and ‘The Origin of the “Via Lactea”’, by Tintoretto, both in our National Gallery. But in order to do all these things, the artist in designing his work must have the knowledge of perspective at his fingers' ends, and only the details, which are often tedious, should he leave to an assistant to work out for him.

The Family of Darius before Alexander
Paolo Veronese

The Origin of the “Via Lactea”’ / The Origin of the Milky Way

We must remember that the line of the horizon should be as nearly as possible on a level with the eye, as it is in nature; and yet one of thecommonest mistakes in our exhibitions is the bad placing of this line. We see dozens of examples of it, where in full-length portraits and other large pictures intended to be seen from below, the horizon is placed high up in the canvas instead of low down; the consequence is that compositions so treated not only lose in grandeur and truth, but appear to be toppling over, or give the impression of smallness rather than bigness. Indeed, they look like small pictures enlarged, which is a very different thing from a large design. So that, in order to see them properly, we should mount a ladder to get upon a level with their horizon line (see Fig. 66, double-page illustration).

We have here spoken in a general way of the importance of this study to painters, but we shall see that it is of almost equal importance to the sculptor and the architect.

A sculptor student at the Academy, who was making his drawings rather carelessly, asked me of what use perspective was to a sculptor. ‘In the first place,’ I said, ‘to reason out apparently difficult problems, and to find how easy they become, will improve your mind; and in the second, if you have to do monumental work, it will teach you the exact size to make your figures according to the height they are to be placed, and also the boldness with which they should be treated to give them their full effect.’ He at once acknowledged that I was right, proved himself an efficient pupil, and took much interest in his work.

I cannot help thinking that the reason our public monuments so often fail to impress us with any sense of grandeur is in a great measure owing to the neglect of the scientific study of perspective. As an illustration of what I mean, let the student look at a good engraving or photograph of the Arch of Constantine at Rome, or the Tombs of the Medici, by Michelangelo, in the sacristy of San Lorenzo at Florence. And then, for an example of a mistake in the placing of a colossal figure, let him turn to the Tomb of Julius II in San Pietro in Vinculis, Rome, and he will see that the figure of Moses, so grand in itself, not only loses much of its dignity by being placed on the ground instead of in the niche above it, but throws all the other figures out of proportion or harmony, and was quite contrary to Michelangelo’s intention. Indeed, this tomb, which was to have been the finest thing of its kind ever done, was really the tragedy of the great sculptor’s life.

Arch of Constantine at Rome

The Tomb of Giuliano, with the female Night and the male Day
Tombs of the Medici, by Michelangelo, in the sacristy of San Lorenzo at Florence

The Tomb of Lorenzo, with the male Dusk and female Dawn
Tombs of the Medici, by Michelangelo, in the sacristy of San Lorenzo at Florence

Tomb of Julius II in San Pietro 

Tomb of Julius II in San Pietro 

The same remarks apply in a great measure to the architect as to the sculptor. The old builders knew the value of a knowledge of perspective, and, as in the case of Serlio, Vignola, and others, prefaced their treatises on architecture with chapters on geometry and perspective. For it showed them how to give proper proportions to their buildings and the details thereof; how to give height and importance both to the interior and exterior; also to give the right sizes of windows, doorways, columns, vaults, and other parts, and the various heights they should make their towers, walls, arches, roofs, and so forth. One of the most beautiful examples of the application of this knowledge to architecture is the Campanile of the Cathedral, at Florence, built by Giotto and Taddeo Gaddi, who were painters as well as architects. Here it will be seen that the height of the windows is increased as they are placed higher up in the building, and the top windows or openings into the belfry are about six times the size of those in the lower story.

Giotto's Campanile of the Cathedral, at Florence

But, heck, what is the point - given today's state of art, who gives a friggin' about perspective.Pays better to cut a cow in pieces or shit in a can.

Buy Storey's book -


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