Robert Pepperell, Professor of Fine Art at Cardiff School of Art & Design, has co-authored a study on the links between art and visual perception.
"Do we see in linear perspective? Comparing artistic depictions of visual space to photographs" by Robert Pepperell & Manuela Haertel (University of Bamberg, Germany) features in the scientific journal Perception. The study focuses on an old debate about whether linear perspective, as developed during the Italian Renaissance, provides an accurate way of representing how we see.
Linear perspective has been incredibly successful, and underpins most of our current imaging technologies, such as photographic and movie cameras, and computer graphics. However, since the time of Leonardo many artists have questioned how accurately linear perspective depicts what we see, and have proposed other methods that they argue are better at depicting visual experience.
Professor Pepperell explained: "Although experts have argued for centuries that linear perspective is the best way to represent what we see, this study shows that artists such as Paul Cézanne depict reality very differently, and in a way that may be closer to how we actually experience the visual world."
All artists featured in the study tended to depict the visual world in the same way, by enlarging the objects they were most interested in and compressing the objects in the peripheral areas of the scene.
The paper looked at three sets of artworks depicting real world scenes – one set by Robert Pepperell, one set of paintings by the French artist Paul Cézanne, and one by a group of people with art training.
Pepperell continues: "We compared them to linear perspective versions of the same scenes. We found that when these artists depict the world they do so without using conventional linear perspective.
"What was interesting, however, was that all the artists tended to depict the visual world in the same way, that is, by enlarging the objects they were most interested in and compressing the objects in the peripheral areas of the scene. The same tendency has been identified in the work of artists as diverse as John Constable and Vincent van Gogh."
This study, carried about by an artist collaborating with a psychologist, suggests that the conventional method of depicting the world – the one that gives us so-called 'photographic reality' - is less reliable that we may think, and that artists have developed an alternative pictorial geometry that more closely matches the way humans actually see the world.