Playing With Perspective

American contemporary painter Richard Estes shatters expectations about perspective

Richard Estes (b. 1936), Subway, 1969. Oil on canvas, 42 x 69 in. ©Richard Estes, courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York.

Can you create a diagram showing the one-point perspective in this painting?

After the invention of photography in the 1800s, artists began to question their role in the world. After all, the camera efficiently translates the three-dimensional world into two dimensions. That was a job that previously only artists could do. In the 1960s, a group of artists, known as the photorealists, embraced the camera as an artistic tool. They began photographing their subjects, then creating extremely realistic drawings and paintings based on the photos.

Scenes of City Life

American contemporary artist Richard Estes is one of the founders of photorealism. He is best known for his cityscape paintings of New York City. To create a painting, Estes photographs a scene, then develops a composition based on the photos. Because the camera captures more detail than the human eye can perceive, the paintings are more vivid and the perspective more complex than could be achieved without using photos.

Traditional Perspectives

Cities are full of angles, lines, and geometry, which makes them the perfect subject for exploring perspective. In Subway (above), painted in 1960, Estes depicts the inside of a subway car using one-point perspective. The symmetrical composition is divided in half by the vertical pole in the center. The left and right sides mirror each other, except for details like the advertisements along the ceiling and the newspaper on the bench. The lines created by the floor tiles, the benches, the windows, and the ceiling converge at the center door behind the pole. This level of geometric specificity contributes to the hyperrealistic look of Estes’s painting.

Richard Estes, Spring Afternoon, Madison Square, New York, 2000. Oil on canvas, 34 x 64 in. ©Richard Estes, courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York.

“Photographs make it possible to capture reflections that are only there for a moment when the light hits.” —Richard Estes

Altered Perspectives

Richard Estes, Broad Street, 2003. Oil on board, 22 x 20 in. ©Richard Estes, courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York.

How does Estes use the car to give you a sense of the tall buildings in a large city?

Recently, Estes has been experimenting with perspective and how reflections can alter the way we see space. In 2000’s Spring Afternoon, Madison Square, New York (above), the composition is divided vertically, but the result is different than in Subway. On the right side of the canvas, Estes depicts the sidewalk, the street and the buildings. On the left, he shows the reflection of the scene in the window of a building. The reflection is not an exact mirror image because Estes included the objects just inside the window in addition to those reflected in the glass.

In 2003’s Broad Street (right), Estes distorts perspective even further. The viewer looks down on a tightly cropped and foreshortened car that fills almost the entire picture plane. We understand from the reflections Estes has painted on the hood and windshield that the car is surrounded by skyscrapers. This point of view makes us feel as though we are looking down at a car and up at the sky at the same time. The juxtaposition can make you dizzy!

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