What Perspective Really Means in Art
Until now, perspective has been perhaps the most difficult subject in art to grasp. This should be no wonder, being that we have been operating with so much missing and false data behind how it truly functions.
The Original Meaning of Perspective
Putting art aside for a moment, according to one dictionary, the word perspective originally comes from the Latin words per meaning "through" and specere which means "to look." These are combined to mean "to look through" or "to look at."
However, the meaning of a word can change and usually even splits into several meanings over time...
The "Art Definition" of Perspective
The meaning of perspective used in art involves creating an appearance of depth. This emphasis on distance stems from it being a difficult and impressive effect to achieve, especially upon paper that is completely flat. Here we are attempting to convey a sense of reality with space and depth on something which has none. As such, the typical "art definition" of perspective has become:
"the technique of representing a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional surface."
Being three-dimensional, though, means that an object has height and width, not just depth alone. (left)
Despite this, perspective in art became less about three-dimensional form than obsessing almost exclusively on that third dimension of depth. This is so much the case that it is commonly referred to as depth perspective.
Furthermore, perspective already exists while seeing in reality where no kind of flat surface is involved.
There are also perspective art forms that make no use of flat surfaces in their final states such as in interior design, landscape design, stage set design, architecture, sculpture or in any kind of display or exhibit.
With that said, "the technique of representing a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional surface" does not actually explain what perspective is at all, despite any true importance that depth may have in one's art.
First understand that our viewpoint is simply that position we see things from.
With that in mind, perspective basically means the same as "viewpoint" and "position." For example, "It looks good from my viewpoint," "It looks good from my position" and "It looks good from my perspective."
Oddly, this meaning of perspective is primarily used outside of art.
So the most general definition of perspective is "a position in relation to different positions." (above) This example demonstrates the position of our eye in relation to the positions of objects.
Applying perspective to art, we do not necessarily mean the viewpoint of the artist in relation to the subject. More specific, what matters is the best perspective for the audience. A more universal "art definition" of perspective, therefore, is "creating viewpoints that best communicate a subject to an audience."
Perspective is about establishing "an eye" in your art through which your audience sees. So although perspective has been considered the most difficult subject in all of art, its concept is really quite simple.
For instance, something commonly seen in bad movies and TV shows are scenes where the camera is just stuck way on one side of the room, with all the actors on the other, and that's about it. But does it really have to cost any more time or money to put the camera over there instead of here to gain a more interesting perspective? A subject that looks good can look bad from a poor perspective and bad subject can look better from an improved perspective.
Thus, the audience's placement is as significant as the placement of the subject.
The Purpose of Perspective in Art
Art is more effective when an audience feels like participants in it, rather than just spectators of it. Perspective simply invites the participation of your audience by establishing their viewpoint within your art. Otherwise, the effect is to detach your audience on some level.
But what did "the technique of representing a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional surface" have to do with anything?
By introducing a sense of depth, we create space and an extension of reality into our art, enhancing the audience's participation. It is when things appear real that they become real to their senses to some degree, even if below their conscious awareness. Perspective pulls the audience in, letting them experience what may have only previously existed in your imagination.
So regardless of your art form, if understanding how your audience sees it and participates within it is important to you, it is necessary that you understand how perspective works. This is something that nearly all professionals in the visual arts must deal with, ranging from film directors to bridge builders, or anyone else that presents imagery to audiences, customers or clients.
Although there is no reason we cannot have a subject in art called "perspective" about making a two-dimensional surface seem three-dimensional, this is still a somewhat limited and arbitrary thing to do.
The Goal of Perspective in Art
The real goal of perspective in art is that of creating a viewpoint for your audience that will best communicate your subject and serve its particular message. The methods for making an image look three-dimensional while on a two-dimensional surface only exist to further that goal. That things look totally realistic is not always our priority either. Yet, perspective contributes to all of these things, giving it a far more complete and important role than it had ever been given before.