Origins, Definitions and Influences

In this section we examine the origin(s), definition(s) and influence(s) of perspective.

Why study Perspective?

This question can be answered in a myriad of different ways. But implicit is that perspective is a term that encompasses a huge number, and diverse set, of visual, and also representation, methods; and we must consider its multi-variant forms as employed in both Western and Oriental cultures.

Perspective lies at the heart of many vision related topics, theories and inventions. It has been directly linked to the development of diverse fields such as optics and vision, astronomy, geography, engineering, cartography, architecture, stonecutting, surveying, and archaeology etc. 

Perspective is by no means a dead subject, or one in which developments have halted; because today knowledge of perspective remains fundamental to modern inventions including: geographical information systems (GIS), global positioning systems (GPS), virtual reality (VR), computer graphics (CG), computer generated imagery (CGI), stereography, panoramas, holograms and space imagery etc.

In conclusion, we study perspective because—in a progressive culture—we cannot help but do so—for it is key to understanding major categories of art, science and technology in the past 500 years.

Perspective lies at the epicentre of human progress, and it will be pivotal to everything that we humans achieve in the future.

Twin Stories of Perspective

Perspective involves two distinct stories.

Firstly, perspective introduced an objective method for recording or copying the physical world at different levels of abstraction in the form of photographs and maps. This is the  so-called conquest of realism. A key part of this path was that persons began to approach the same objects systematically from different viewpoints and on different scales.

But there is a second story to be told.

The contents of the perspective texts were primarily devoted to something other than realism. The treatises were in fact repositories for a whole range of new images, including: regular solids, semi-regular solids, lutes, chairs, stairs, complex plays of shadow and reflections, grotesques and caryatids, imaginary gardens, fountains, idealised ruins, panoramas and phantasy architecture.

Hence perspective, in this second sense, is linked to the rendering of singular, distorted and somewhat ‘unnatural’ appearances for: objects, models and environments. Whereby concern shifts towards idealised, geometric and mathematical representations, and for illusory and/or highly specific visual affects. The end result(s) are playful experiments with appearances, and hence with multiple truths.

Ergo perspective which at first seems to be about copying and reflecting the one true reality; becomes concerned with imagination and illusion, or the creation of fantastic, new and partially/entirely human-made realities.

The twin stories of perspective have profound influences on a range of fields as explained below.

Influence on Mathematics / Science

In terms of science, it is shown that the development of perspective was integrally connected with the rise of instrumentation and that this focussed attention on proportion, scale and finally quantification in science

It is claimed that the nature of perspectival representation, which permitted a systematic treatment of both views and scales of an object, led away from questions of essence to those of distinct functions which could be isolated and catalogued. This approach was applied to machines, extended to living organisms, as if they were mechanical objects, and eventually used also in cataloguing what had hitherto been abstract powers of nature.

In the process, perspective introduced a visual standard for scientific truth, which led to observation, experiment, measurement and the other familiar characteristics of early modern science. 

Hence in theory, perspective introduced a method of passively recording the physical world, as a practical demonstration of the philosophical distinction between subject and object. In practice, its implications were far more wide-ranging. It introduced a new ideal of matching, making copies of the physical world. This changed the meaning of metaphor and the whole relation of verbal texts to visual expressions.

Ergo, it is no exaggeration to state that the development of technical perspective made possible, and supported the development of, the scientific culture of today.

Influence on Art

Patently, perspective, being concerned with appearance and representation, has had a strong influence on all aspects of the visual and graphic arts (drawing, painting, sculpture etc), the plastic arts (sculpture, modelling ), the decorative arts (furniture design, mosaic etc), the performing arts (theatre, dance, music), and architecture (environmental design). 

In this section we shall focus on drawing (and by extension, painting).

To begin, it is necessary to make a distinction between pleasurable and useful drawings. For reasons of brevity, we shall exclude pleasurable drawings here; other than to say that one of the key movements in this respect was focussed on making increasingly realistic representations of reality; whereby perspective obviously played an important role in the realistic depiction of spatial affects, and especially the illusion of depth.

In terms of useful drawings, the indispensability of engineering and construction drawing, obviously included applications to professions such as architecture and construction engineering and the various trades such as bricklayers, carpenters, decorators, locksmiths, masons, etc. 

Overall, during the 19th century, ever more specific branches of drawing were introduced, including: architectural, engineering, industrial, map, plan, technical, etc. These methods were extended to so-called machine drawing, geometrical drawing  and/or mechanical drawing, whereby such technical drawing methods were undoubtably key tool(s) that enabled the industrial revolution, and also by extension, the computer, telecommunication and space ages.

Once again, it is not possible to detail here all of the different ways in which perspective has influenced artistic output, and enabled a huge variety of different drawing methods and associated art movements. Suffice to say that perspective is undoubtably one of the key techniques involved in the generation, and viewing, of artistic creations.

Influence on Engineering and Technology

Perspective has influenced technological developments in three primary ways.

Firstly we have perspective instruments, which have been manufactured according to specific theories of perspective for the purposes of making accurate dimensional measurements in relation to the real world. In particular, perspective instruments enabled systematic mapping of distance, scale, shape etc, and so fostered knowledge of physical environments and associated object forms. 

Types of perspective instruments used for particular purposes include: for navigation: the quadrant, cosmolabe, the proportional compass and the sextant; for astronomy: astrolabes and sundials, plus telescopes; for cartography: the compass, calliper and theodolite etc.

Secondly, we have the application of perspective theory in science, employed specifically to aid in the development of entirely new scientific theories. In terms of the theoretical influence(s) of perspective, we find innumerable examples going back through history, including: perspective methods behind the theories of Euclid, Copernicus, Darwin, Newton and Einstein etc. 

Thirdly, we have application of perspective methods to practical disciplines. In terms of subjects influenced by perspective methods, for example we have: optics, statics, hydrostatics, nautical science, architecture, military machines, geography, astronomy, nuclear physics, chemistry, biology, and chronology etc. 

Perspective introduced a systematic approach to dimensional space(s) and objects contained therein. This approach led to new kinds of instruments, mechanisms, and machines in all areas, combined with novel associated working methods/systems. Manufacturing capability simply exploded as a result. Vastly improved working efficiency was the result, which magnified human physical power(s), and enabled all kinds of automation technologies, leading to steam engines, automobiles and the aeroplane etc.

Overall, it is difficult to imagine that the explosion in science, engineering and technology that took place during the last 500 years, could have happened without intimate knowledge of perspective and its various mathematical forms and associated practical methods. 

Influence on Philosophy: Illusion, Phantasy, Imagination

These new perspectival images led to an emphasis on illusionism and trompe-l’oeil involving a new interplay between real scenes; realistic scenes as if theatrical; theatrical scenes as if realistic; an interplay between reconstructions of past structures and interpretations of existing, possible and ideal ones.

Ergo it is precisely this blurring of boundaries between the natural and the fictive, which inspired that extraordinary proliferation of visual images which is unique to the West and that herein lies the true significance of linear perspective: not simply as a tool for realism, but as a catalyst to our imagination, playfulness, creativity and freedom. Perspective amplified visual powers and boosted mental outlook(s).

Knowledge of perspective led to all kinds of new developments including: panoramas, cycloramas, stereographic devices, magic lanterns, camera obscura, camera lucidia etc and it even played a key role in the development of photographic cameras and early cinema. Different forms of perspective drew attention to the plasticity of images, and hence to the role of illusion and multiple truths that may be possible not only in the imagination, but may also be involved when perceiving objects in the real-world.

Perspective drew attention to the perspectival nature of reality; and to the various processes—optical, perceptual and mental—that are constantly ongoing between viewer and object, and further to relations between objective truth and illusion.

Influence on the Goals of Representation

How does progress happen?

Well, one of the keys to progress is accurate representation; whereby information from the real world is first perceived, recorded, gathered together and processed; before being represented and indexed for rapid access. Patently, perspective introduced new techniques of vision and representation that have enabled humans to accurately map, model and shape reality. This is the conquest of the real.

However today we have a new universe of the internet and digital media, whereby inert objects all around us are suddenly waking-up and becoming ‘smart’.

Put simply, digital intelligence is invading everything we do. Regardless of whether we see the digital universe as being inside the real universe—or vice-versa— it remains the case that the various methods of perspective can help us to more accurately, rapidly and efficiently, meet the six stages of representation: connecting, ordering, mimesis, matching, mixing, and exploring.

In the past decades, there has been a new goal, namely, cross matching, which entails giving the simulated world of the digital multiverse precedence over the physical world of the universe.

Along these same lines, doubtless in the future, new hybrid forms of technical perspective will be invented to progress the cross-matching goal. Whereby humans and intelligent machines will together generate ever more complex and helpful versions of reality.

Ergo, the future of perspective is bright indeed. Get your sunglasses ready!


How can we summarise the influence(s) of perspective on human culture?

As we have seen, perspective has an exceptionally rich history. And it is a complex history with multiple interlacing stories, a myriad of relations, and a deep ‘fractal-like’ structure that opens up like a Russian doll into new levels of understanding almost without limit. However we should not be put off by this complexity. Rather marvel at how the single topic of perspective opens up new and exciting vistas of knowledge wherever we happen to look!

All in all, it is difficult to imagine that we humans could have evolved much past stone/bronze age times, without the tremendous amplification in perceptual and cognitive power(s) enabled by perspective, and further the attendant practical abilities provided in so many areas.

In conclusion, we can state that perspective has profoundly influenced many of the key theories, discoveries, and practical methods, within art, science and technology.

Perspective is a keystone to progress; and it is truly a foundation of human civilisation. QED.