Finding Dürer’s Perspective

In the early 16th century Nuremberg-born artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) changed the landscape of his artistic practise – literally. Taking his cue from Leon Battista Alberti (1404 –1472) and Piero della Francesca (1415–1492), Dürer began to introduce the ‘secret art of perspective’ into his works.[1]  He used measurement and geometry to produce images that created the illusion of depth in a flat pictorial-plane. Over five hundred years later, the University of Melbourne’s Print Collection set out to celebrate Dürer’s cross-disciplinary approach to art and mathematics with the Dürer Drawing Day!

In the beginning of his artistic career, Dürer did not have the precise understanding of perspective that is associated with him today. Dürer struggled in his very early works to separate the different pictorial-planes accurately enough to create the illusion of depth. In The Prodigal Son Amid the Swine (1496) for example, a tree appears to sprout from the roof of a house in the background. The year 1510 is a turning point for Dürer’s artistic practise. After his travels around Bologna, he had gained and practised knowledge of the art of perspective sufficiently to apply it in his own drawings. The Large Cannon (1518) is an impressive example of Dürer’s mastering of the overlapping plane and ability to create the impression of depth in a two-dimensional landscape.

Unknown Copier after Albrecht Dürer, The Prodigal Son and the Swine, engraving

Dürer’s (not so concisely named) 1525 Painter’s Manual: A Manual of Measurement of Lines, Areas, and Solids by means of Compass and Ruler (Underweysung der Messung mit dem Zirckel und Richtscheyt) consolidated all the information about perspective that he had learnt in Italy.  The manual starts with an explanation of how to draw the most basic line. Each section of the book develops this line into more and more complex forms. These  forms, including spirals, columns, foreshortened squares, two and three-dimensional shapes, then form the artistic building blocks for drawing objects that appear to occupy ‘real’ space. The Manual was designed as a ‘step by step’ guide for aspiring art students, although Dürer concludes with a series of ‘cheats’ designed to create ‘easy’ perspective (perhaps for the lazy student).

Albrecht Dürer, Draftsman Drawing a Lute (The Manual of Measurement), woodcut, 1525

The Dürer Drawing Day took its inspiration from some of the final ‘cheat’ images in the Manual. Two 1525 woodcuts show contraptions designed by Dürer to (apparently) ‘easily’ draw accurate images of people and objects.  The second of these shows a draftsman drawing a lute. To paraphrase Dürer’s own description, a draftsman uses ‘a strong thread hammered into the wall to create the near point of sight and places a vertical frame parallel to the wall. Then ‘a lute or other object to your liking is placed on the opposite end of the table to the wall. The near point of sight is placed on parts of the lute and string attached with hot wax to the frame to mark where the near point of sight passes through the frame. The points that the crossed strings denote are then marked on ‘your drawing tablet creating an accurate dotted outline for the lute.[2] This complex description visually translates to the seemingly simple diagram shown in the woodcut.

Mastering an Old Master’s Technique

For the Drawing Day, this drawing device was recreated (complete with lute) to see whether Dürer’s ‘shortcut’ really worked. The experimental music collection at the Grainger Museum provided a back-drop for the Melbourne Print Collection’s attempt at an artistic experimentation of their own. With the exception of a few modern substitutes (masking tape instead of wax and Bluetac instead of a nail) a prototype Dürer drawing device was demonstrated to the assembled audience (including student artists) on the day.

Our modern reconstruction of Durer’s drawing apparatus

Theoretically, the device appeared to be a success. However, it was quickly discovered that the practical application was flawed. It required such meticulous positioning of the frame, object, paper and threads, that the slightest movement of any part of the device could undo the accuracy of the drawing. To create a perfect curve (as is required with a lute) was also incredibly time-consuming, as it required a lot of points to be marked in close proximity to each other – with each point requiring a minimum of two people to plot. A frustrated audience, who also struggled with Dürer’s shortcut, speculated whether the device was a literal drawing tool for Dürer or a visual representation of what a draftsman imagines when creating perspective or even a final joke on artists who did not take the time to read whole manual…

Alongside the drawing device, a number of Dürer’s prints (held at the Baillieu Library) were displayed for attendees of the Drawing Day to get up close to. The contrast between the complexity of the content of images (such as Melancholia, 1514), and the sparse and simplistic outlines produced by the drawing device was stark.  It was hard to imagine how the selection of dots and dashes on our page could ever evolve into a lute, let alone a detailed allegorical figure.

Selection of Durer prints from the Melbourne print collection

At the end of the Drawing Day the lute remained aloof and very difficult to draw. It seems most likely that alongside his understanding of geometry and his imaginative inventions, Dürer added a healthy dash of artistic talent to his works to make them masterpieces.

A masterpiece by one attendee of the Durer Drawing Day

With thanks to the Grainger Museum.

To learn more about the Baillieu’s Print Collection click here –


Katherine Reeve, recipient of the International Museums and Collections Award 2017



[1] Walter L. Strauss, Introduction in Painter’s Manual: A Manual of Measurement of Lines, Areas, and Solids by means of Compass and Ruler (1525), (Abaris Books, New York; 1977), p.7.

[2] Albrecht Dürer, Painter’s Manual: A Manual of Measurement of Lines, Areas, and Solids by means of Compass and Ruler (1525), trans. Walter L. Strauss (Abaris Books, New York; 1977)

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