MA_Research_Paper - Justin Logue

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Nov 14, 2013 (4 years and 7 months ago)








Digital Renaissance:

Exploring the influence of Leon Battista Alberti on digital art practice

Justin Logue

November 2012



Throughout history,
people and cultures have documented important scenes and objects
through pictorial representation, be it a drawing within a cave or wall, to the more
traditional paint on canvas. The Renaissance served as the time period where issues of
perspective and rea
listic representation came to the fore front of the artistic process,
aiming to represent the world around us with

mathematical precision and


as if the viewer were looking through a window onto the subject.

The object of this paper is to

analyse the concepts documented by Leon Battista Alberti
during the Renaissance, and to investigate its relevance to work created digitally in the
contemporary era. Digital technologies have given the artist a wide variety of tools to
recreate or manipula
te images and environments to their pleasing, creating some
interesting results. Using Alberti’s book
On Painting

as a starting point, I wish to identify
core aspects he considered important in the process of painting, ranging from
perspective and mathemat
ics to practical techniques for the artist to adopt into practice.

Two dimensional and three dimensional examples of digital art are compared to the
theories of Alberti in order to examine how they are still in effect to this day. Although
several developm
ents in these fields have been made since Alberti’s work during the
15th Century,

its iconic status as one of the earliest forms of documentation


representation is what has drawn me to it.

In a similar vein to new
observations and findings tha
t were made during the Renaissance period, I wish to
compare these to the new observations and finding being discovered today, through the
use of digital technologies.

Key Words
Renaissance, Virtual, Digital Painting, Digital Photography, Second Life,

tual Reality



The laws of perspective documented during the Renaissance period have served as a
fundamental set of principles and structures that have aided artists to represent the
material world realistically on two dimensional surfaces.

The Renaissance, as described
by Sturken and Cartwirght in Practices of Looking (2009), was the era in which “art
historians have


as the point from which perspective evolved as not simply
another option in a battery of techniques of


representation but as an importa
instrument in the era’s epsiteme” (Sturken, Cartwright: 2009, pg 151) Pioneering figures
such as Fillipo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti developed new systems of
representation in areas such as architecture and painting, creating a lasting influe
that can be still witnessed to this day.

Early documentation of these ideas in Alberti’s highly important work
On Painting

serve as the foundation of this paper, where I aim to compare and contrast some key
points into the context of digitally cre
ated artworks to analyse their importance.

Damisch (1995) states that due to technological advancements such


and film, we are “much more massively

informed by the perspective
paradigm” (Damisch: 1995, pg28) More so than the early obse
rvations and
experimentations conducted during the Renaissance. With this in mind, my aim is to
compare the original text of Alberti to contemporary artworks to investigate its lasting
influence through practical and representational points documented in t
he work.

An important observation to make here is the use of the term “virtual”.

The word has
become synonymous with technology in the contemporary age when in fact it has been
used for centuries in the field of optics and provides an accurate description
for any
image represented either on a screen, photograph or painting. Anne Freidberg, in The
Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft (2009), begins in the introduction by clarifying
this, providing a correct definition of the term stating its



something “functionally
or effectively but not formally of its kind.” (Friedberg: 2009, pg8) The use of the word
virtual will be used in relation to Alberti’s theories as well as examples of digital art


Practical Comparisons

On Painting
, or De Pictura, was published in 1435 and served not only as a work where
Alberti discussed his theories of perspective and painting, but also functioned as a guide
for aspiring painters, providing practical advice in topics ranging from mathematics to
lour and light, giving a wholesale account of crucial aspects related to painting.

When comparing Alberti

theories to that off artworks generated by computers, there are
a number of

practical comparisons which he talks about that correlate to the computer
as an instrument in the creative process. The most immediate is Alberti’s use of the word
“window” to rep
resent the canvas, when someone is viewing a work of art he wishes
them to feel as if they are “looking through a window or screen.”

(Alberti, L.B. et al: 1972,

This theory is further explained towards the end of Book One when he states: “On
the surf
ace on which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want,
which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is seen.”
(Alberti, L.B. et al: 1972,

pg54) As well as functioning as a metaphor for the canvas, the

description is fitting for the computer screen as both serve the purpose of
displaying the virtual scene to the viewer.

Friedberg highlights that the computer screen
is capable of holding many windows within one, the single frame perspective has
ed into the “multiplicity of windows within windows, frames within frames,
screens within screens.” (Friedberg: 2009, pg2)

The basis of the screen is comprised of pixels which make up the images and text that
appear to us, and find a strange comparison in
one of Alberti instruments, the Velo
device. Cynthia Goodman in Digital Visions: Computers and Art (1987) explains that “the
pixel structure can be thought of as a superimposed grid.” (Goodman: 1987,pg62) A grid
in which each pixel must be filled in order
to compose the overall image. Alberti
describes his velo device as a ” veil loosely woven of fine thread, dyed whatever colour
you please, divided up by thicker threads into as many parallel square sections as you
like, and stretched on a frame” (Alberti,
L.B. et al: 1972,

pg65) The artist would use this
to aid them in the composition of their work by using the individual squares to create the
scene on the whole. (Fig.1) The use of pixels to populate the image on the screen is to
the digital artist what the

velo device was to the painter of the 15th century, the device
becoming a main component of the computers very nature.

Alberti’s stress on the
importance of mathematical forms found in nature have thankfully become less laborious

to the digital artist in
the form of

algorithms and tools found in digital software as will be


Though the computer has amalgamated several of these practical concerns raised by
Alberti to being built in functionality, the computer is not without its input devices

are crucial to the creative process. Tools such as the mouse or graphics tablet are to the
digital artist what the paint brush was to Alberti. “Raster display ‘paint systems’”
(Goodman: 1987, pg.64) as Goodman describes were developed to mimic the t
painting process into the digital realm. Alberti references the important colours in

“There is the fire colour, which they call red, and the colour of air which is said to
be blue
grey, and the green of water, and the earth is ash colour
ed.” (Alberti, L.B. et al:


pg45) An interesting observation is that red, green and blue have become the
basis of the colour systems used in computers. De Meredieu describes that with the
correct RGB values the computer can display ” as many as 16 mil
lion available (and
displayable) nuances of colour”. (De Meredieu: 2005, pg115)


Fig.2 shows Jennifer Bartlett experimenting with an early development of the graphics
tablet in 1986 which have since become more compact and easily transportable.

ri voices his concerns over criticism of the use of the velo device in the creative
process which is remarkably similar to modern skepticism of the use of machine in the
creation of artworks. The computer, along with photography and film, have been
ed in the context of research as De Meredieu explains:

“As is always the case
with cutting
edge technology (which involves high levels of scientific and financial
investment), in the digital image was developed initially in an industrial context.” (De
dieu: 2005,

pg18) Often this background criticises technology as a serious artistic
tool, Rush in New Media in Art (2005) suggests that the aesthetic of early computer art
are “questionable” due to their


beginnings. Criticism aside, the computer

indented itself as a tool to be used in the


process, if not functioning as the
medium itself, as Christianne Paul (2008) details in her book Digital Art. I will now move
on to looking at different examples of how technology has been adopted i
n the arts.


Two Dimensions

It is first important to note that the computer has allowed the artist to experiment and
produce work in many fields that go beyond Albertis intention of simply


painter for flat representation. The term virtual ha
s previously been touched


to the scene which we view beyond the window, this can take many form in
relation to digital art. 3D virtual worlds and virtual reality along with digital painting and
photography are distinct final outcomes from the

artists use of the computer, they create
their own virtual images, whether they were technology used as a tool in the case of
digital painting and photography or the medium as in the virtual worlds.

In this chapter I aim to explore comparisons between
Albertis writings to that of digital
painting and digitally altered photography. Through analysis of two works I wish to
explore the relevance of Alberti’s work as a how
to guide, within a contemporary context.
The works, created by Philip Pearlstein (Fig.
3) and Jeff Wall (Fig.4) are distinctly
different in the methodology used to create them however aim to achieve a sense of
realism which Alberti intended the finished product of paintings to be.

Alberti informs the reader of the principles of the “visual p
yramid”, an explanation of how
our eye views the exterior world. Friedberg describes this as “a triangular pyramid
formed by rays from the eye as vertex.” (Friedberg: 2009,pg2) The surface of the
window was “the intersection of a visual pyramid at a given
2009,pg2), the pyramid beginning at a point in the eye and extending through the
window to the virtual scene beyond it.

In essence, the surface of the screen or
print/photograph is a metaphor for the glass of the window, which we look
through to the
virtual scene.



The concept of “circumscription”, described as the “process of setting down the outline”
(Alberti, L.B. et al: 1972,

pg64) is a fundamental beginning for many artworks, traditional
and digital. From using the graphics
tablet or other input devices, the process of
circumscription would be the beginning stages to Philip Pearlstein’s

Hands and Feet
created in 1983
84 (Fig.3).

Alberti discusses the process of lightly drawing the outline on
the canvas which may be erased or

coloured over at a later date. One advantage of the
replication of this idea within digital painting is the use of layers, a common characteristic
of digital imaging software. An addition to the computer that replaces the erasing of the
outline with the a
bility to delete or turn off the visibility of the layer after it has served its

Pearlstein was


skeptical of the use of the computer in the creative process, but
as Goodman describes, became “astonished by the computer to create effects

astounding subtly.” (Goodman: 1987,pg65) As an artist working


paint, Pearlstein would have adopted Alberit’s


of circumscription from


practice into his digital images.

Indeed the whole process of applying



of the traditional painter was less difficult that some imagine, Darcy Gerbarg,
an early


in digital image making, states that “the


from pigment
(paint) to computers is not as great as one might imagine.” (Goodman: 1987,pg63
Hence the crucial process of circumscription is


similar in the digital painting
process to the traditional one, if not easier due to the nature of digital programmes.


The role of circumscription is drastically reduced if not completely

done away with in
relation to Jeff Wall’s piece
A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)

created in 1993
(Fig.4). The ability to scan photographs or transfer them from the camera to the
computer directly has bypassed the need for circumscription in these typ
e of works.
Wall’s piece focuses more on “composition” and “reception of light”, two other areas of
importance highlighted by Alberti, and may look like a


photograph, but is in
fact “constructed from parts of more than fifty images shot over a
year, which were then
scanned and digitally processed.” ( n.d.)

Composition is described by Alberti as the “procedure in painting whereby the parts are
composed together in a picture.” (Alberti, L.B. et al: 1972,

pg 67) The whole process of
posing the photograph functions in a different way to that of Pearlstein’s work,
where circumscription is used to outline the figures within the image. Wall must adopt

other techniques provided by digital programmes to achieve the finished result.

He must
work backwards, deconstructing the original photographs, cutting them up in order to
rebuild them into a singular image. De Meredieu describes the digital manipulation
process as somewhere were subjects are “hybridised, metamorphosed and cloned.”(De
eu: 2005,pg197). Wim Wender, cited in Digital and Video Art makes the
observation that “the

day is approaching when no one will be able to tell if an image is
true or false.”(De Meredieu: 2005,pg197)

Digital imaging software provides many tools
to the arti
st to make elements of an image perspectively correct. Scaling tools such as
transform and rotate found in programmes such as Photoshop enable the artist to
correctly position elements of an image, changing angles or size easily with the use of
the mouse.
Reception of light too, is aided with the likes of colour balances and lighting
level functions that when combined with compositional tools as mentioned, can create
realistic effects similar to the ones in Jeff Wall’s image.

The reception of light, or the
correct use of black and white to create the effect of light
and shadow is an issue Alberti places value on, stating that the correct use of these
colours contributes to the overall realism of the image. In the likes of Pearlstein’s work,
layers again aid
the artist to measure the correct levels of darkness and light over the
initial colouring layer of the objects, easily editable separate of the original colours and
can prevent damage to the image if overdone.

Overall, the ideas Alberti touches on in
On Pa

are as relevant to producing realistic compositions within digitally created
artworks as much as traditional painting, although it must be stated that with the aid of
digital programmes and the computer, the task is made easier.

Three Dimensions


development of digital


has given rise to online virtual worlds and virtual
reality which are increasingly becoming new tools at the disposal of artists. Powerful
digital programmes are used to create these works which focus more on the creation

environments as opposed to still images as witnessed in the previous chapter.

this, Alberti’s principles are imposed in new ways for this new context which I will explore
here. I intend to analyse the works of Eva and Franco Mattes (Fig.5 + 6)
and Charlotte
Davies (Fig.7), who have experimented with these immersive technologies in an artistic
context to look at the key concepts of virtual worlds and investigating how the role of
viewer has evolved to the status of the viewer to one of ‘user’ or


The “visual pyramid” is subject to interesting developments when the idea of interaction
is added to these artworks. Originally the viewer would stand in front of the work viewing
the stationary piece on a wall or screen, the added element o
f interaction means that the
viewer, in a sense, must go ‘through the window’ in order to “intervene directly in the
unfolding and functioning of the work.” (De Meredieu: 2005,pg157) Alberti would not
have been able to anticipate this development, however
his theories of realistic
perspective go hand in hand with the consideration of the user in these three
dimensional artworks.

His theory of adopting mathematical forms from nature is evolved with the use
mathematical algorithms used to replicate natural environments in virtual worlds such as
Second Life. Goodman describes that three dimensional objects created within the

require “extremely

sophisticated mathematical descriptions in order to be
displayed realistically on the screen.” (Goodman: 1987:pg101)

Circumscription functions
as one of the important ideas from Alberti’s principles in the construction of virtual
, with the wireframe process to construct objects and avatars an essential
component to realistic representation. Surface texture must be created and placed over
the wireframes to populate the environment which is reminiscent of Alberti’s statement
that th
e texture must act

“like a skin stretched over the whole extent of the surface.”
(Alberti, L.B. et al: 1972,

pg39) As an extension of compositional elements already
discussed, the artist or developer must place the object in three dimensional space,
g into account the perspective of the object from all angles. Goodman remarks that
“these images, which exist in three dimensions in the data base and therefore can
viewed from any perspective, have been completely synthesised from mathematical
s is as remarkable as their visual appeal.” (Goodman: 1987, pg101) The
reception of light is also developed through artificial light sources creating a full realistic
environment for the user to explore.




The realistic nature of Second Life
is often overshadowed by the glitchy or strange
movements of the avatars themselves, and the virtual world opens up new possibilities
for experimenting with the body in three dimensional space. Eva and Franco

10) (Fig.5 + 6) of
ten display avatars of themselves and the
audience in strange and unrealistic positions, which explore movements of the body that
cannot be made in the real world.

The relevant component here is


element, where once the viewer has gone thr
ough the window they


participate in the unfolding of the artwork. One observation to make is that

because of the nature of these pieces existing as online performances, the viewer or
participant has a shared experience with others, the once si
ngle static viewer becomes
involved in a community of multiple participants.


The concept of virtual reality, similar to that of virtual worlds, are slowly moving away
from the materiality of the art object. De Meredieu states that “new technology s
eems to
be leading artists towards an increasing radical immateriality.” (De Meredieu:
2005,pg164) This idea is no more prevalent than in the field of virtual reality, and
displayed within Charlotte Davies’


(1995) (Fig.7). Chritstanne

Paul describes
virtual reality as a “reality that fully immersed its users in a three dimensional world
generated by a computer and allowed them an interaction with the virtual objects that
comprise that world.” (Paul: 2008,pg125)

The same principles of c
ircumscription, composition and reflection of light in the creation
of the virtual world remain largely unchanged, however with the aid of a “head
display and a motion tracking vest that monitors the wearer’s breathing and balance”
(Paul: 2008, pg1
26) Davies transports the viewer through the window into an abstract
forest and other natural environments. The extent of the mathematical algorithms are
expressed within “20,000 lines of program code for the work”(Grau, 2003) which
comprise the environmen
t the user find themselves in. The user is, in a sense

disembodied, and transported through the window where they must


moves to
interact with the environment, as opposed to the input devices used in Second Life

replication of the natural worl
d is evident in these works, and although


and ideas of perspective as laid out by Alberti are found, the
movement towards the world of fantasy and the surreal is astounding.


To sum up, I believe that Alberti’s thoughts and
theories brought together in
On Painting

have left a profound impact on various artists and art movements to the current day, and
the important observations made by him during the Renaissance have re
emerged as
we find new ways of representation with digit
al technologies. The rapid development of
both hardware and software which have created new and exciting ways for artists to
would have been


to artists a
nd thinkers of the Renaissance.

foundations of realistic pictorial represe
ntation developed by pioneering figures such
as Alberti, have built themselves in to the foundations of digital programmes

, both two and three dimensional
, and will continue to develop as technology



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Cartwright L. Sturken, M. (2009) Practices of Looking, Oxford, Oxford University Press

De Meredieu, F. (2005) Digital and Video Art, France, Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd

Friedberg, A (2009) The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft, Spain: MIT Press

Goodman, C. (1987) Digital Visions: Computers and Art, New York, Harry N. Abrahams

Paul, C. (2008) Digital art, London, Thames and Hudson Ltd

Rush, M. (2005) New Medi
a in Art, London, Thames and Hudson Ltd (n.d.) [Online] Available:
hokusai Accessed

Grau, O. (2003)

Virtual Art, From Illusio
n to Immersion [Revised and expanded

Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press

OGrau.html Accessed