Fine Art Practice Talbot’s fine art practice and his research into the use of perspective within his own practice and in Renaissance painting are closely linked, the one informing the other.
The project’s research involved both practice-led and theoretical methods to explore historical and theoretical concerns about linear perspective, with the aim of better understanding the artist’s own working methods and those of others. Through practice, Talbot was enquiring into how the way the artist sets out to make a drawing – the layout, the scale, the initial assumptions and spatial construction, influences or directs the nature of what gets drawn. To what extent is the outcome, the subject matter, the type of space, its psychological and physical relationship to us, dependent on those initial decisions?
The drawings that have generated the questions within this research, examples of which are shown on this website, evolve slowly. The imagery is generated partly through the drawing processes: all the ‘workings out’ - the thinking and pentimenti, are left on the paper and become essential and integral parts of the drawing. The drawings have evolved using a complex and almost transparent matrix on the paper in which forms associated with architecture, maps, landscape, water, vessels and containers have been brought into being. This web of lines acts as scaffolding in which the images are created and then held. Importantly, the matrix/scaffolding itself acts as a vehicle or medium for the imagination, and possibly paradoxically, a strict geometric drawing system such as perspective allows and enables the artist to have an almost purely intuitive response to ideas and images as they occur, whether on the paper or in the mind.
His approach to making these drawings is comparable to that of the building of a medieval/gothic cathedral, where a relatively rigid two-dimensional ground-plan was put in place. The ensuing structure then developed organically, its form being the result of varying amounts of intention, pragmatism, accident and ambition. The drawings continue to celebrate the physical sculptural pleasure found in constructing/building, cutting and carving, but the images and structures within the drawings can exist without the constraints of gravity, scale and materials. The direct conceptual and visual influences on Talbot’s work and thinking range from Merleau-Ponty’s notion of depth being the primary dimension to architectural, alchemical and cosmological images. For instance, he has made drawings that refer directly to cathedral architecture, in particular, playing on the connection between boat structures and the derivation of the word nave. Other drawings have played on ideas relating to ‘distillation’ and laboratory glassware. The drawings have also led him to making sculpture in a variety of other materials, including paper and rubber, and to working in other media, such as photo etching and embossed printmaking techniques.
Seen as a whole, one of the persistent underlying issues and motivations within Talbot’s work has been an engagement with problems surrounding depiction - specifically the depiction of three (and perhaps more) dimensions on a flat plane, both in his own work and within the broader history of drawing and representation: it therefore follows that the existing work and the research questions within this project also engage with and touches on themes, questions and enquiry within disciplines where, for example, light and optics, philosophical and perceptual, scientific/mathematical and purely physical problems and ideas are involved. Therefore an important aspect of the project was establishing links with other departments in the university that share common ground in areas such as visual perception and architecture, thus expanding the conceptual base by incorporating ideas, knowledge, approaches and practices from other disciplines.
The drawings utilise known techniques of perspective construction, but also incorporate other methods and approaches - both practical and conceptual, that have been devised in response to particular circumstances and ideas within the drawing. Within this research project, new drawings and other visual outputs have been developed and used to explore the specific research questions, and these, in turn, have led to further practical, historical and theoretical research.
Talbot already had a long-standing interest in early Renaissance architecture, painting and perspective, and in particular, the work of Brunelleschi, Masaccio and Piero della Francesca, but this gained a renewed focus and purpose within this AHRC funded research project. Talbot was aware that his experience of using Linear Perspective and his approach to perspective construction and the building of spaces was often at odds and sometimes in direct opposition to, and therefore possibly critical of, the utilitarian approach to linear perspective encountered within broader culture and expounded generally within art education and art history.
Within this research project, Talbot tested ideas, knowledge, approaches and methods from his own practice against existing research relating to key Renaissance paintings. It is these paintings around which much of the thinking and historical understanding of Linear Perspective is based. The aim was to ascertain whether the many distinguishing spatial and compositional features of particular paintings could be better accounted for through examining the process of perspective construction in relation to the imagery within the painting, rather than treating the mechanics of perspective solely as a tool – a means to an end. Talbot focused in particular on paintings in which the spatial/geometric structure of the painting has usually defied conventional reconstruction by art historians when the strict logic of linear perspective is applied. Importantly, and awkwardly for art historians, it is often those paintings that are held to be prime examples of the use of perspective in the early renaissance that defy the rules of perspective when looked at closely.
Talbot s research suggests that the key to unraveling this problem lies in the fact that we – including art historians, habitually think of the geometry of linear perspective solely as a means to an end. It appears to be ‘common sense’ that perspective is about describing three dimensions on a flat surface and that the various geometric procedures are aimed at that outcome. However, this approach ignores the fact that flat geometric diagrams, including those used in perspective constructions, can themselves be inherently ambiguous and can be suggestive of depth. Talbot’s own drawings are constructed using the strict rules of perspective, but play with and incorporate the tensions created between the plans and elevations, the construction lines and marks, and the resulting spatial image. He suggests that for Piero and these earlier key artists within the history of perspective, the dual nature of simple geometric constructions and patterns, and later, perspective constructions, was likewise a potent visual force: the essential ambiguity of geometric patterns enabled and encouraged creative thought, and these may have been the driving force in the early manifestations of perspective-like constructions in the late medieval and early Renaissance periods. Talbot suggests that the stultification of perspective which led it to be perceived as simply a tool may have had its roots in the very moment of the codification of linear perspective by Alberti in 1435.
Talbot’s questioning of the orthodox view of linear perspective stems also from a close study of the underlying geometry of linear perspective. This study has led him to suggest that much of what was achieved in the paintings of the early Renaissance, some of which are held as embodying the new-found science of linear perspective, could in fact have been achieved without any understanding of perspective as it was described and formulated by Alberti. Indeed, Talbot suggests that many of these paintings, including Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ and Masaccio’s ‘Trinity’, exhibit certain formal properties that would have been impossible to achieve using the methods described by Alberti, a contradiction that has been borne out by previous unsuccessful attempts at their analysis by historians.
Talbot suggests instead that there is another mechanism in operation – one that was not only capable of allowing the correct diminishing proportions of perspective to be produced, but which also enabled the artist to consider both the surface relationships and the spatial relationships simultaneously. Talbot finds a possible solution to the apparent contradictions in these paintings through the study of the geometry involved in perspective and the comparison of it with the geometric and visual properties of another construction – the repeated drawing of a square within a square. Talbot suggests that although knowledge from surveying, astronomy and optics is often cited as the necessary precursor to the understanding and eventual codification of perspective, the geometry of linear perspective can, in fact, be extracted from the floor patterns that the early Renaissance artists were trying to depict.
As a way of both testing and demonstrating this theory, Talbot made a series of drawings, and animations based on drawings, showing the fluid and multiple spatial interpretation of relatively simple geometric constructions. See under Outcomes:
Unlike previous analyses, which have started from the premise that perspective is a tool used to represent to render three-dimensional objects onto a picture plane, Talbot’s approach is visual, and takes the surface of the paper as a starting point. It also assumes that more than one model or interpretation can exist for a given drawing – that the drawing is a relatively open-ended entity that the viewer interacts with. The implications of Talbot’s work therefore extend beyond the history of and practice of art: his study of perspective impacts on research within other disciplines including psychology, philosophy and the neurosciences.
Talbot’s reflection on his own practice was also informed by a close analysis of a drawing known as the ‘Chalice’ (circa 1450), which is normally attributed to Uccello. This piece of research involved both a detailed examination of the drawing in the Gabinetto dei Disegni of the Uffizi in Florence and a reconstruction of its making, based on an understanding and unravelling of the marks left on the surface of the drawing during its making. Talbot was able to bring something to this that only a practitioner could - a deep knowledge of the technicalities of perspective construction and therefore an understanding of each mark’s specific purpose and significance. Inferences could be made about several aspects of the making of the drawing, including the origins of its design. The research also has a bearing on its attribution, but more importantly demonstrates clearly one of the key areas of investigation within the fellowship - the subtle relationship between the method of perspective construction and the image that is produced using it. ‘Design and Perspective Construction: Why is the Chalice the shape it is?’