Activity - Space and perspective

Look at Paolo Uccello's The Hunt in the Forest of the 1460s - (external link; Web Gallery of Art). where a strong perspective scheme shapes the painting, yet the orthogonals are hidden. Try and identify the vanishing point (you might find it helpful to use a piece of paper, and sketch the orthogonal lines.

This is a very interesting painting: we are viewing a hunt which is chasing a group of stags which are disappearing into the forest. It is as though we are positioned as part of the hunting party; the vanishing point is also the point the hunting party is trying to reach, in the very centre of the painting. Whereas Perugino's perspective scheme in the Delivery of the Keys to St Peter gave a strong sense of order (although it is saved from blandness by the movement of figures in the middle ground), here perspective is used to quite dynamic effect. 


Look at these two examples: Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa - (external link; Web Gallery of Art); and Rubens, Farm at Laken - (external link; Web Gallery of Art). In each case, the artist has manipulated colour, light and shade to convey distance. Can you identify what those techniques are?

One way of creating the effect of depth is to use striking, contrasting primary colours, and to draw strong contrasts between light and dark in the foreground; in the background, a more limited range is used. This is known as colour perspective. Moreover, some colours - greys, greens and blues - seem to recede into the difference: these are described as 'cool' colours, and by using these colours in the background, an artist can suggest their relative distance. This technique is particularly apparent in Rubens' Farm at Laken: notice the strong red in the central foreground (which contrasts with the green around it); and in the background, a restricted range of cool colours is used, most of which are analogous.

Another technique using light and shade is called sfumato. This technique is most commonly associated with Leonardo, who theorized it in his notebooks. In this technique, the contrasts between light and dark shades are depicted more gradually. This is evident in the Mona Lisa, where the contrasts become less strong and less distinct in the background scenery.


Consider this work by Duccio, Christ entering Jerusalem, in the Maestà. By what means does Duccio convey a sense of space? 

A cityscape twists into the background, getting progressively smaller. Notice how this combines with a gold background: it combines the naturalistic setting. Here, rather than using any scientific means of showing distance, the artist has instead focused on showing the relationship between objects in space. For instance, notice the way in which Duccio suggests space by including figures within empty space - peering over the city wall; leaning out of a window. Also notice how a clear path is indicated for Christ moving forward, so that as we see the space, we also imagine his movement through space which is about to occur.


Look at this painting by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi, The Annunciation with Saints Ansano and Massima (1333), for example - (external link; Web Gallery of Art). In what ways might the lack of perspective actually enhance the painting?

The gold background does not give any sense of depth, although the flooring between the angel, the Virgin Mary and the lilies does seem to suggest that the flowers are set back in space. It is hard to locate this event in space. The gold background gives the impression that this might even be happening in an unearthly realm, and conveys the sacred nature of the event being depicted. This sacred event is not fixed in a particular moment in time, or a particular place, but is instead beyond conventional time and space.


Look at Raphael's portrait of Castiglione - (external link; Web Gallery of Art). In what ways does the absence of perspective enhance the painting?

The monochrome background enables the face and clothing of the sitter to emerge much more strongly. A background involving depth and perspective would distract from the quite subtle observation in this painting of the sitter's skin, and the materials he is wearing. Our attention is fully focused on the sitter. The background seems to represent a barrier to our view: this is emphasised by the shadow on the right-hand side of the painting.

The flat background also makes the three-dimensionality of the sitter much more striking. We'll discuss the ways in which artists make figures and objects appear three-dimensional through light and shade in Unit 4.


Look at Braque's Billiard Table - (external link; Tate Modern). In what ways does it resist linear perspective?

In works like this, artists such as Braque rejected the idea of a single viewpoint and presented different views of the same object simultaneously, which creates an impression of distortion. One of the interesting effects of this is that the relationship between the object and the space surrounding it is uncertain. This use of various viewpoints is sometimes called "multiple viewpoint perspective".


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This resource was created with the help of a University of Leeds Faculty of Arts Enterprise Knowledge Transfer Grant.

© Matthew Treherne, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT.