One of the greatest challenges many artists struggle with is representing a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional plane. Painters, sketch artists, photographers and their ilk are locked in a constant battle between what they want to create and the real limitations of their media. Perspective is just one of many tools that can help you take those flat planes and turn them into a world-mimicking reality.
Putting Perspective into History
Perspective wasn’t always a commonly used tool in art, in fact until the early 1400s, most artists worked strictly in two dimensions. Some cultures used size to show the importance of people in paintings or sculpture, but they never thought to employ this contrast in a way that would demonstrate depth.
That all changed with the Italian Renaissance. Masolino da Panicale’s “St. Peter Healing a Cripple and the Raising of Tabitha” is one of the earliest surviving examples of early perspective work by these innovative minds.
Perspective Is Still a Vital Tool
Although plenty of modern artists don’t require tools like perspective to create their works, anyone wanting to depict any sort of three-dimensional reality absolutely has to understand how to employ this concept. To use perspective properly, you’ll need to understand these basic ideas:
Vanishing Point: This is a point in a composition where two lines that work as a pair and are constantly growing closer together meet. A basic example would be a road that’s growing smaller into the distance – the sides of the road can function as those two converging lines.
Horizon Line: A line representing the horizon, or where an observer should naturally look, is called the horizon line. It functions as a tool to determine where the world depicted turns from horizontal to vertical. You might not have a real horizon in the picture, but a virtual horizon line still implies the same information.
Putting It All Together
There are several ways to implement perspective, but we’ll start simple. First things first – you have to define the vanishing point before the rest of the composition is designed. This way, you can work out from that point to create the layers of depth necessary to trick the eye into believing it’s seeing in three dimensions.
Whether you choose to implement a single or multiple vanishing points will depend on your vision. Single-point perspectives are best when single vanishing elements like roads, hallways, railroad tracks or buildings are being observed squarely from the front.
Multiple vanishing points are needed for more complicated portrayals, like observing a building from a 45-degree angle, a set of forked roads or structures viewed from above or below. Next, you’ll want to consider both linear perspective and aerial perspective.
Linear perspective is the idea that objects get smaller as they move further away – that means that the closer to your vanishing point, the smaller items should appear in relation to the rest of the piece. This is simple to implement with a single vanishing point – you need only make each element smaller as it moves further back into the scene.
When multiple vanishing points are involved, you’ll have to decide which items belong to which vanishing points – you might not realize it, but every artist does this in some form. If it helps, sketch light lines coming from your vanishing points to help establish their areas of influence in your composition. You can always erase these lines later, but for now, they’ll ensure you structure your piece properly.
Aerial perspective is another interesting concept that can introduce even more reality into your perspective work. Anyone with a flat stretch of land can observe the phenomenon that occurs when objects that are further and further away are observed on a clear day – they begin to lose their contrast and saturation and their colors shift toward the blue tones. This happens because of the way water particles in the air interfere with light: they scatter when repeatedly bounced off the water vapor between the object and the observer, creating a haze.
Adding aerial perspective to your art really completes the illusion of a long and distant skyline. As your objects recede, make sure to lighten them and add a touch of blue to indicate just how distant they are. Black and white artists may instead illustrate the interference of haze by drawing objects with less well-defined lines or with lighter or no shading, depending on atmospheric conditions.
Although it’s a complicated concept, perspective is the best tool any artist has for modeling a three dimensional world on a two dimensional canvas. By defining a vanishing point or two, arranging objects so they appear to be disappearing into it and ensuring that the colors you use match the effect of the real environment, you’ll create a piece of artwork that truly engages the viewer.