Composition and Perspective
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The term “composition” derives from the Latin “compositus” which means “well placed”, while perspective derives from the Italian word “perspicere” which means “see clearly”. The composition and the perspective are instruments through which the artist draw lines and forms on a bidimensional support (i.e. sheet) in such way to create the illusion of a three dimensional world. The composition is the organization of lines and shapes in an expressive way, while the perspective produces the illusion of the three dimensions. Western artists use the perspective and the composition as well as writers use the grammar and words. Compositional elements like points, lines, spaces and shapes are the words that must be ordered by the perspective in order to make sense. The composition has always been present in art starting from primitive art till the contemporary one. The same cannot be said for the perspective whose formulation has happened only in the XV and XVI century thanks to Filippo Brunelleschi, which did the first research to determine the laws that rigorously regulate it. The first painter that applied those laws in painting was Tommaso Masaccio. Other great masters who were to expand the knowledge on the perspective were Piero della Francesca and Melozzo da Forli, expert in particular on the perspective called “da sotto in su” which means “from below, upward” or Melozzo’s perspective. Before the Renaissance were already known empirical and simplified forms of perspective in greek and roman art. Most pre-renaissance art was done without the perspective as well as modern didn’t use it anymore. Therefore it is possible to say that a piece of art can be done without perspective but not without composition. However, if your goal is to produce piece of art that represent the world as perceivee by human eye, then the perspective becomes an indispensable tool. The theoretical knowledge on composition and perspective can be comparedto the foundations of a house. Just as there can be a solid house without a solid foundations, so there can be a beautiful piece of art without a good composition and, in the case of figurative art, a good perspective. Many artists over the centuries have always been a little reluctant to follow strict rules, preferring always intuitive and empirical approaches that would give greater importance to the practice. In the Leonardo’s notes on painting the great master wrote:
Those who are in love with practice without knowledge are like the sailor who gets into a ship without rudder or compass and who never can be certain whether he is going. Practice must always be founded on sound theory, and to this Perspective is the guide and the gateway; and without this nothing can be done well in the matter of drawing.
It is anot difficult to see artists who study both theory and practice but focus their attention on a particular subject such as landscape, still life or portrait. In that regard, Leonardo wrote:
Some may distinctly assert that those persons are under a delusion who call that painter a good master who can do nothing well but a head or a figure. Certainly this is no great achievement; after studying one single thing for a lifetime who would not have attained some perfection in it? But, since we know that painting embraces and includes in itself every object produced by nature or resulting from the fortuitous actions of men, in short, all that the eye can see, he seems to me but a poor master who can only do a figure well. For do you not perceive how many and various actions are performed by men only; how many different animals there are, as well as trees, plants, flowers, with many mountainous regions and plains, springs and rivers, cities with public and private buildings, machines, too, fit for the purposes of men, diverse costumes, decorations and arts? And all these things ought to be regarded as of equal importance and value, by the man who can be termed a good painter.
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