Aerial perspective in Albrecht Durer woodcuts

November 4, 2013

Today I took to looking at how Albrecht Durer renders deep pictorial space in his woodcuts. In his earliest work (e.g. in the work of the late 1480s/early 1490s), Durer makes no distinction between the ground plane, mid-ground and background. There’s just one undifferentiated line used throughout the whole woodcut.

After spending time in Italy, learning about perspective and coming under the influence of Mantegna, Durer starts around 1500 to create a sense of depth. He distinguishes clearly between the foreground, often dark with both of lot of detail as well as thick hatching, diminishing to fewer lines in the mid-ground to long, continuous single lines for any subject matter in the background. Obviously the black-and-white medium mitigates against any use of color perspective, relying instead on strength of line and strength of tone.
durer landscape 1

Here’s a late woodcut from 1513 which features landscape alone. It’s unusual among Durer woodcuts because it is “pure” landscape, without any humans or animals. It accompanies a Madonna in a Circle. I’ve emphasized the rendering of deep pictorial space by using color: three shades of Stabilo 18 point 88 Fineliner pens, a black, a grey and a light grey. The black and grey are difficult to differentiate, but then the ground plane quickly merges into a middle-ground of sorts. It will be interesting to go on location sketching in future with just these three pens to sketch landscapes in black-and-white.

durer landscape 2

In doing a partial or limited transfer from the squared up woodcut, Durer’s skill in dealing with the strong diagonal of the composition was immediately obvious. More subtle is his use of locating key features or landscape ‘landmarks’ at strategic positions matching the Golden Section.

Durer has been careful too to leave the strongest dark against the lightest light in the foreground lower-left, with a pattern of ‘open’ light areas in both the mid- and background, all at the same horizontal level.

Imitating this strength of compositional structure when sketching plein air would be quite difficult. It does show that however artless or casual these woodcut landscapes may appear to be, they are nevertheless very highly structured, composed and engineered.

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