I’ve covered perspective in drawing classes several times these past weeks. I say that an architect named Brunelleschi wanted to accurately copy Roman and Greek ruins. He invented perspective in the late 1300 to early 1400s so that he could rip off the designs with precision. I tell students that they can blame that dead Italian if they find drawing boxes and hallways frustrating.
I repeat, “Parallel lines appear to converge as they move away from your position,” until I’m nearly dead from boredom. But some students still insist on making objects get larger as they recede, smaller as they approach. Even when I make corrections on their drawings, they’ll drift back to the original mistake in a series of tentative erasures and line markings. They can’t quite believe that I’m telling them the truth and revert to notions that are wrong but comfortable. Our perspectives on perspective stubbornly clash.
I also tell them that other cultures have different systems for depicting space on two dimensional surfaces. The Chinese and Japanese scroll painters used isometric perspective (parallel lines on an object are drawn parallel on the paper), and Egyptian wall paintings used mixed viewpoints when depicting human beings. A pharaoh would be drawn with a profile head and hips, a frontal eye and shoulders. I tell them that all systems for showing space on a flat surface are lies, but that Renaissance lies allow an artist to create a convincing illusion of depth.
I go on to explain that early Renaissance artists used perspective fanatically and cite Perugino, Raphael’s instructor, as an example. I say, “Perugino once did a painting called, ‘The Marriage of Joseph and Mary’. The painting showed a black and white checked plain the size of Kansas. In the middle of the plain was a tiny church. In front of the church were two tiny figures, Mary and Joseph.”
I tell them that Western artists faithfully used perspective until Cezanne decided to shift around a bit as he painted still lives and people in interiors. He went slightly Egyptian. Braque and Picasso saw his paintings, looked at African masks, and decided to push the idea of a moving viewpoint further. Forms fractured into geometric bits, and figures and still lives seemed to be part of a spatial continuum. A splintered pear encountered a fragment of a table disrupted by a curtain and a hand.
I sometimes go on to explain that modern artists continued to throw out key elements of traditional art until they reached a dead end in the 1960s and 70s. At that point artists were using paint rollers to paint monochrome canvases and doing conceptual pieces that offered little tangible evidence of production. One man wrote to Art Forum magazine and reported that he planned to think the word “blue” for an hour or two on a Tuesday in July (I don’t recall the actual date, and apologize if his color-thought piece had an important connection to a precise day and time.).
I conclude by telling them that artists have continued to paint realistically using Renaissance conventions and perspective. Avant-garde artists in the 1980s began to dump elements from multiple art history periods (traditional and modern) and cultures (Western and Eastern) back into their work, and now there are no true artistic movements any more. A mishmash of styles and influences roll in and out of favor like oil slicks on sluggish tides.
While they stand there mulling over the information overload I just delivered, I offer them an out. I say, “But we’re not going to worry about any of that. Today we’re just going to draw boxes and halls. And remember, none of this is my fault. Blame that dead Italian. He started this.”