Point perspective

Austin Kleon has a nice little post about point perspective in comics, noting his like of artists who don’t use it at all (link via Derik). The preference for point perspective is of course wrapped up in the whole desire for iconicity that readers of this blog are probably sick of hearing me rant about.

His post got me to think about some other related issues. For instance, point perspective was developed in the Renaissance, which I imagine coincided with the Enlightenment’s focus on discovery about the world and the rise of science. (Though, I have no idea since I’m not an art historian.)

What is worth remembering though is that point perspective was truly a discovery. The human mind/brain may be able to see in perspective, but we don’t draw in it. There was a study** I read that talked about South African children (ages 5-9) who had trouble with understanding certain parts of images. The parts they misinterpreted the most were perspective, depth, and shading — all highly iconic and things that must be explicitly taught to people learning to draw.

Interestingly, when looking at the data, the means for misinterpretation drop for children at Grade 3 (and 9 yr. olds) in almost all categories. The conclusion of the author is that schooling teaches children how to understand images, but this could just be a coincidence in that children’s exposure to images comes in a school setting. That is, it’s not about instruction, but about exposure.

Whatever the case, perspective is not a built in part of the human graphic system. This again goes to the point that drawing is less about mimicking the perception of the world as piped through an individual’s mind, and more about the way minds are enabled to convey concepts visually.

Update: I feel I should add, that there’s nothing wrong with learning how to draw with point perspective, only that our minds’ graphic system is not predisposed to it. As an academic, I’m not prescribing anything, just analyzing. Learning perspective requires iconic understanding that doesn’t just come out of imitation of other people’s drawings. That is, it once again skirts conventionality and the establishment of mental models for drawing in lieu of imitating perception.

** Liddell, Christine. 1997. Every Picture Tells a Story—Or does it?: Young South African Children Interpreting Pictures. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, Vol. 28, No. 3. Pp. 266-283


  • The Renaissance and the Enlightenment are generally taken to be two different periods in European history, with the former ending 100-200 years before the latter, depending on how you define them. As for perspective, I remember reading once about the reaction of Chinese artists when point visiting Europeans demonstrated point perspective to them: they thought it was an interesting trick, but what exactly was the point of it?

  • Write a Reply or Comment