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Perspective for Dummies

By Janelle Hatherly

If you could ask a millipede which legs move first, it would probably say ‘I don’t know, I just do it!’

This is how many artists feel about perspective. Those who started drawing at an early age just seem to intuit correct proportions and, at the least, can tell when something doesn’t look right. Others, like myself, have great difficulty drawing accurately and, when frustrated, retreat to copying photographs. There are also others who don’t care about perspective at all and favour self-expression and abstraction in their art.

“Perspective is a human invention.”

Perspective is a mathematical construct dating back some 600 years. Humans created it so they could accurately convey an illusion of depth of our 3D world on a 2D surface.

Examples of one-point, two-point, and three-point perspective

Most artists are familiar with the abstract concepts of one-, two- and three-point perspective, eye-level, vanishing points, etc. But, many find it difficult to link the theoretical with the practical – the science to the art. It’s hard to see the concepts of perspective in the world around us... and then methodically reproduce them on a flat surface.

Basically, a working knowledge of the rules of perspective helps us draw well. It’s no different than writing well. Those who say ‘I can’t write!’ can construct words into sentences, but struggle to communicate their ideas coherently and concisely and experience difficulty with grammar.

As a portrait artist I’ve been drawing from life regularly for a couple of years now, and my gestural drawings are full of expression and occasionally are correctly proportioned. However, I’ve reached a plateau in freehand drawing and, in order to better represent form in space, I’ve decided to get some training in perspective. I want to have a suite of tools to turn to when my proportions are off.

Where to start? When it comes to written guidance, I always turn to Andrew Loomis’s books first. Not only is Loomis an amazing illustrator but also a gifted writer, and I feel he communicates directly with me. On his recommendation I read (no, studied) Ernest R. Norling’s Perspective Made Easy. These publications, (along with Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting) date back to the 1930s and their explanations must resonate with many other artists because they continue to be reprinted.

Today, we are fortunate to have unlimited access to quality instructional video material – so much so that we can shop around until we find exactly the style and approach that suits our individual needs. Mine have been superbly met by the instruction on offer at Proko. Stan Prokopenko is my kind of teacher, as is Marshall Vandruff. I really related to Marshall’s Perspective lectures given at Fullerton College in 1994 and thoughtfully videotaped at the time by a friend.

Here are some ‘aha’ moments which helped me relate perspective theory to reality. Perhaps these insights will help you. I’ve titled this article ‘for dummies’ because, to many artists, what follows will seem bleedingly obvious.

● The most fundamental concept is that we live in a 3D world and produce art work in 2D. There are tried-and-true tricks that allow us to represent the third dimension – depth – on a flat surface. Namely: reduce in size or fade away objects that are off in the distance, converge parallel lines to vanishing points, and foreshorten or overlap objects.

● We need to appreciate that the picture plane (viewfinder, window, what we produce on paper, the image on our retina, etc.) is a perpendicular 2D surface located between us (the viewer) and the 3D reality we wish to depict.

● Hugely important is the concept of eye level. An adult’s view of the same scene is quite different to that of a small child. Just like the literal use of the word ‘perspective’, it’s all about respective points of view and, where we choose to place our eye level, greatly influences what our art communicates.

“If you know why, it’s easier to do.”

I had trouble working out where my eye level sat UNTIL I realised that looking at objects in front of me, I see the bottom/underside of those which are above my eye level and the top surfaces of those below it. Our eye level lies on a straight line between these!

This last simple concept has had a profound impact on my ability to see perspective-in-action all around me... and I can now work out the placement of the eye level in any picture. This prepared me to make use of these next obvious-to-some concepts.

● A piece of paper is a flat 2D surface, and any corner in a room is a great starting reference for drawing a 3D object. Much of our built world contains square corners, and we can simplify reality to single straight lines by reducing everything we see to different-shaped boxes. Horizontal and vertical and oblique lines are all we need to draw a box form in perspective.

● The other basic form is the sphere which, when cut in half (through any plane), reveals a perfect circle. Depending on our eye level, this circle will appear as some kind of ellipse... and once we know the properties of ellipses, we can draw any rounded object in accurate perspective.

With these basic insights, I’m seeing planes of dissected boxes and spheres all around me – whether I’m on top of a hill, sitting in a chair or lying on the ground. In baby steps, I’m extending my ability to draw boxes and spheres to cylinders and cones... and even body parts, from any perspective!

“Know a little, practice a lot.”

The secret to accurate drawing is to find time to learn the rules of perspective and practice applying them in a variety of settings... then forget about them and just draw like no-one is watching. When you find what you’ve produced doesn’t look quite right, you can check back with the accepted rules. Hopefully, in time, these tried-and-true principles will become second nature.


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