Interpreting Perspective

At a little league game, a boy was asked the score:

Were behind 14 to nothing," he answered with a smile. Really? You don't look very discouraged."
"Why should I? We haven't even been up to bat yet...

Often, the truth of a situation is all in how you look at it.

For example, from a train platform, does it not appear the parallel lines of a railroad track converge at a point near the horizon? But anyone reading this understands that the tracks are not actually converging. What appears to be the truth is actually false: the convergence is a visual illusion. If this is obvious to us today, why did it take mankind until the Renaissance to figure out how to represent this in his art?

Prior to the Renaissance, two-dimensional art rarely attempted to create the illusion of three dimensions. For example, the early man painted objects on cave walls as if they were seeing the objects from multiple angles all at the same time. Or consider highly developed Egyptian art: a human face in profile is always depicted with the eye staring straight at the viewer. This is clearly not an "accurate" way of depicting a human face.

In other words, for most of human history, it would seem that people did not recognize that receding lines appear to converge, or that objects appear larger when closer, or that objects become less focused the further they are from the viewer. But today, kids learn to draw in three dimensions in any introductory art class. What was the key that unlocked this new way of seeing the world?

The short answer is perspective. In art, perspective is a geometric method of representing on a two-dimensional surface the appearance of three dimensions. There are several elements to this method, such as aerial perspective, atmospheric perspective, and linear perspective.

With these techniques involving a bit of geometry, it is easy to understand why cavemen did not grasp the concept of perspective. But what was it about the Egyptians and the rest of the world that kept them from utilizing it? Could it be they simply could not see the world accurately? Or did the world look differently to early man than it does to us? What changed to allow perspective to be discovered?

Marcus Aurelius is supposed to have said, "Everything we see is a perspective, not a truth."

The advent of perspective in art during the Renaissance was a reflection of the shifting values happening throughout the world. Artists, and people in general, during the Renaissance, were interested in accurately observing and recording the world around them. For the first time, people were less interested in the truth about parallel lines–that they do not converge in the distance–and became much more interested in the other equally valid truth: that parallel lines appear to converge in the distance.

They wanted to find their truth based on reason, observation, and logic. Satisfying this desire necessitated the development of a framework for understanding the world that was different than what had come before. Perspective was part of the new guidelines for ordering our place in the cosmos.

Contrast this with man pre-Renaissance, filled with myth and superstition. The repeated images of several generations suggest a framework was developed and passed down for how to represent certain concepts. Likewise, the Egyptians were not inaccurate when they chiseled eyes in profile looking straight: they were following strict and detailed guidelines for interpreting and representing the world they were experiencing.

The evolution of perspective in art has been in lock-step with the evolution of the way people see the reality of the world around them. The evolution of perspective strengthens Marcus Aurelius' case and can be a reminder to all of us that often times the truth truly depends on how you look at it. 

  1. The Rise of Renaissance Perspective
  2. The Origins of Perspective
  3. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1997
Michael White

Michael White

Business Specialist at Doc4 Design