Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Perspective - One Point Perspective - History to Beaux Arts

I remember long ago reading that tribal people who lived deep in dense jungle lacked a sense of distance and perspective. When taken out of the jungle and up a hill, they thought that people and animals in the valley were ants. The problem of distance is solved in nature with two eyes registering slightly different images that tell the brain that some object is near or far. We can’t reproduce that kind of depth perception on paper, but perspective allows us to mimic the effect of distance and depth.

Although Greek and Roman painting occasionally played with a sense of depth, much of it involved a vague idea that things built on a square plan are seen as diagonals. Much of the above wall fresco from Pompeii is believable in a cartoonish way, but the yellow windowed walls on the left seem like an “artist’s day off” anomaly. We might be looking down or up at them, but neither situation fits the rest of the painting.

The fresco above from the Villa of Fannius Synistor allows every building to have its own vanishing point (or rather, every building has a rough approximation of a vanishing point; and the tile roof near the middle gets to head out in the opposite direction). The end result is more abstract than realistic, like a telephoto shot of a hillside town. The overall effect is quite charming, and for the occupants of a rural villa would have recalled the bustling city beautifully, if inexactly.

 This formal temple scene from Boscoreale contains the beginnings of exact perspective. It reads as a realistic one point construction until you trace the perspective lines (green lines). Although it is not “correct”, it is a reasonable approximation that worked well as interior decoration.

The preceding frescos are from the height of the Roman Empire, when order and the civilized arts reigned. Soon, the Empire decayed, and the arts followed suit. For a thousand years Europe was disordered, and art was strictly decorative. It wasn’t until the late medieval period that perspective was developed from a rough approximation to an exact “science”. The fresco above called the Confirmation of the Rule of St Francis by Giotto, painted in 1325, shows that the art of perspective had returned to the level attained in the Roman Empire.

The less said about the giant Dante the better! OK, it’s allegorical, and he is surrounded by his city and literary works; I get it. Interestingly, the local perspective work is quite good. The view of Florence at the right would be believable if Dante wasn’t hovering over it.

Progress is never uniform, and this manuscript illustration from 1385 seems medieval.  Brother Amadeus gets an E for Effort, but shows a confused take on perspective.

Fifty years later Jan van Eyck is getting close. Although there are mistakes, the overall effect is convincing.

These illustrations from Serlio’s Five Books of Arch (1545, or 100 years after the van Eyck painting), show that one point perspective is becoming a science.  Symmetry is used to work out the depth, and the rectilinearity of everything allows the use of a single vanishing point.

There is a bit of confusion in the scaling of the people in Salviati’s Ideal City, but in general perspective is followed throughout the mass of detail.

These plates from  Piero della Francesca’s De Spectiva Pingendi (1576), show that complex shapes and rotated forms are being developed in the rectilinear world of perspective.

Even as late as 1600 some “experts” in the field had not gotten the hang of the business. This plate from Perspective by J. Vredeman de Vries has blocks leaning toward the sky mistakenly receding to the same horizon as blocks lying flat. 

The above perspective layout of Dom Utrecht by Pieter Janzoon Saenredam illustrates the enticing order of simple perspective drawing. It has no pretensions to drama, but is entirely satisfying to the eye.

The two drawings above  by Giuseppe Bibiena of proposed projects and theatre scenes show one point perspective taken to the height of detail and drama.

Giuseppe Zocchi also produced perspectives mixing accuracy and theatricality. 

One point perspectives were used extensively in the Encyclopedia of Trades & Industry by Diderot in 1752. Their ease of construction and believability made them perfect for this use. 

So… what can be learned from this short walk through the history of one point?

First, that even a rough adherence to rules of perspective creates a sense of three-dimensionality.
Second, that perspective is based on a rectilinear view of the world.
And, third, although one point perspective is an extremely simple idea, it can be used to illustrate complex forms, and create dramatic images.

NOTE: The following posts are NOT meant to be a tutorial on one-point perspective. There are plenty of websites that do that. I want to illustrate some of the interesting examples, and point out the major problems and opportunities out there. I will cover the basic types of one point perspectives with examples, in addition to simple diagonal layouts, and dealing with distortion.


  1. What a wonderful blog this is, I found it recently and enjoy it tremendously.
    Would you consider an entry on the artist Richard Welling? He was an illustrator from Hartford CT, who drew cityscapes of Hartford, New York and Boston from the 1960's until his death a few years ago. His drawings from the 1970's of the World Trade Center under construction are now at the NY Historical Society. The Connecticut Historical Society is opening an exhibit of his work this fall, with an archive of works donated by his family. Please take a look, he is worthy of an entry here!


    Thank you,
    Michael Wetstone

  2. Great insights. why didnt they build models and then use grid to draw? especially the forms going to the horizon by the dutch boy.??? or did you mean that it creates a confusion?