The best books on perspective, optics, and realistic illusion in art

Philip Steadman Author Of Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces
By Philip Steadman

Who am I?

If I was asked to describe the central theme of my life's work in a phrase, it would be 'geometry in the arts'. I'm an architect originally, now a professor in London, and have always loved drawing and the art of perspective. In the 1990s I became fascinated with the idea that Johannes Vermeer used the camera obscura, an obsession that led to my book Vermeer's Camera. I'm now working on Canaletto's Camera. And I have ideas for yet another book, on perspective, to be called Points of View. I've chosen five books on these topics that I've found most thought-provoking and inspiring.


I wrote...

Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces

By Philip Steadman,

Book cover of Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces

What is my book about?

Over 100 years of speculation and controversy surround claims that the great seventeenth-century Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer, used the camera obscura to create some of the most famous images in Western art. This intellectual detective story starts by exploring Vermeer's possible knowledge of contemporary optical science, and outlines the history of this early version of the photographic camera, which projected an image for artists to trace. By analysing the perspective of Vermeer's paintings, I have been able to reconstruct his studio and provide exciting new evidence to prove that Vermeer did indeed use the camera.

The books I picked & why

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Optics Painting and Photography

By M.H. Pirenne,

Book cover of Optics Painting and Photography

Why this book?

Maurice Pirenne was a physiologist who studied vision and was fascinated by the problems of how we see and interpret paintings and photographs. In this book he explains how vision works and uses his own elegant experiments to demystify perspective and visual illusion. What I especially like about this book, is that Pirenne is not content just to explain the theoretical issues, but uses his own skills in photography to explore the issues and provide vivid demonstrations. This is one of the best and clearest books, to my mind, on these tricky questions. 


The Projective Cast: Architecture and Its Three Geometries

By Robin Evans,

Book cover of The Projective Cast: Architecture and Its Three Geometries

Why this book?

Robin Evans was a versatile architectural historian and theorist who died too young. This highly original and unusual book, published after his death, is about the relationship of geometry to architecture, and how methods of drawing, including perspective and orthographic projection, can influence what is conceived and built. I admire the way in which Evans, unlike many architectural historians, is able to combine deep scholarship with a working practical understanding of how buildings are made, and how they are used in practice. There has been no other recent writer on architecture with so subtle a mind.


The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat

By Martin Kemp,

Book cover of The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat

Why this book?

Martin Kemp is the world's leading expert on the use of perspective, optical tools, and scientific knowledge in art. This encyclopaedic book follows developments from the Italian Renaissance to the nineteenth century, with a great wealth of illustrations, from Brunelleschi and Alberti to the colour theories of Goethe and Chevreul. I re-read and refer to this book repeatedly - as I am sure do many others - and am always finding new insights. Kemp's explanations are always clear and penetrating, even when the writers and artists he is writing about are not.


Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters

By David Hockney,

Book cover of Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters

Why this book?

David Hockney believes, rightly in my opinion, that European artists since the Renaissance have used optical aids - mirrors of different types, the camera obscura, the camera lucida - much more often than conventional art history has allowed. I like and admire this book for the wonderful choice of illustrations, and the deep knowledge and understanding of painting methods that Hockney betrays, with wit and elegance, in the text. His arguments are highly subversive and involve a complete re-thinking of the role of optics in Western art, before photography. I don't go along with all of Hockney's theories. But he has overturned the subject, and has got art historians thinking again.


Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation

By E.H. Gombrich,

Book cover of Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation

Why this book?

Ernst Gombrich's masterpiece, published in 1960 and still in print, follows the drive in Western Art from Ancient Greece and Egypt to the present day, to achieve the illusion of realistic appearance in pictures. Kenneth Clark, himself a most accomplished art historian and writer, described Art and Illusion as 'One of the most brilliant books on art criticism I have ever read." I too admire the way the book combines great erudition with a clear conversational style and an ability to move beyond the usual confines of art history. Gombrich uses findings from psychology to illuminate his argument, supported with a surprising range of illustrations, not just from the fine arts, but from advertising, photography, caricature, and cartoons. Brilliant indeed.


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