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Those who fall in love with practice without science are like pilots who board a ship without rudders or compass. -Leonardo da Vinci

Q: Why do the Mona Lisa’s eyes appear to follow her viewers around the room?

A: Because Leonardo da Vinci was an expert at creating illusions…based on science and observation.

The development of perspective was hugely important in Renaissance art. Many artists of this time were obsessed with painting the world as it actually existed, rather than the way it appeared  to exist. The discovery of linear perspective allowed artists to create art that followed the laws of nature to create dimension, rather than merely using height and width to create the illusion of depth. Then they (the artists of the Renaissance) tossed in a few rockin’ shadows and created the most realistic two dimensional paintings made to date.

But back to Mona. I remember one time sitting on the couch eating dinner watching a television show. I saw something on the screen behind one of the actors and craned my neck to get a look behind him to see what it was. That was the moment that I truly understood the difference between two dimensions and three. No matter if I even stood up and walked across the room, I would never be able to see behind the fellow, unless he moved out of the way.  In a painting this limitation of two dimensions is even more prevalent because Mona Lisa will never acquiesce to a request to budge over so we can see whats going on behind her. She can never ever change what she’s doing. So if she is painted to be looking at the viewer, she will always be looking at the viewer, no matter where the viewer is standing. Once the perspective is set, it will remain forever.

Projective geometry, the mathematics underlying the rules of perspective, was born in the Renaissance and indeed may have ushered in the art of the High Renaissance. One-point perspective appeared first in the works of Masaccio and Masolino in the first half of the fifteenth century, coming to full fruition in the works of Leonardo da Vinci in the second half of the century. Although the scheme was firmly established with Leonardo, it saw further refinement in subsequent centuries with the introduction of two-point perspective a century later and three-point perspective much later–after cameras with tiltable lenses for architectural renditions were invented in the twentieth century. (Bülent Atalay, Math and the Mona Lisa)

(My other favorite artist, Albrecht Dürer)

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