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Learning perspective

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How to use perspective.

Although we live a world with three dimensions, you only have two dimensions when drawing a picture on paper. The third dimension, the one that will give depth to the painting, sketch, draft or whatever is created by using the rules of perspective. Even if you are only sketching still-life objects on a table, you’ll need to understand and master the principles of persepctive. Learn the difference between a plan, elevation and perspective.

Compare the human eye to a camera.

Understanding perspective

A guide to drawing perspective

  • Viewoints
  • The horizon
  • Planes
  • Altitude
  • Angle of view

Drawing objects which are parallel in a landscape. How subjects move from the foreground to the background to give depth.

The visual ray and principal point, the horizon line, plane, natural horizon, vanishing point, viewpoint are some of the terms used in perspective.

Here are three views of a shed – seen from above, face on, and a three-quarter view. The first drawing is seen in (plan) outline, the second is (an elevation) elevated and the third is in perspective. In the first picture we can make out the vegetation but we can’t recognise the chimney or rather (determine) the height of the chimney. In the second picture, we can appreciate the height of the chimney but it is difficult to grasp the exact position of the vegetation. The last picture shows as much as the other two put together, but what really counts is that this is the only drawing which gives a certain sense of depth, the impression that the hut is in right in front of you, that it has a certain reality about it and that it takes up a certain volume in space.

Do you like grammar? Neither do I! Nobody – apart from the odd specialist – is particularly interested in grammar. We accept that it helps us to express ourselves better (provided that we don’t have to reach for the grammar book before we dare open our mouths)! We conjugate verbs and construct sentences entirely automatically and without thinking about it. We’re able to do this because we’ve listened to these same grammatical constructions literally thousands of time.

It’s much the same thing with perspective. In itself, the science of perspective is of little interest to most of us. We are only interested in it insofar as it can help us to draw better. In other words, there are two ways of approaching perspective: the scientific or theoretical way and the practical way. With the theoretical approach, you’ll learn a set of abstract rules and you can be sure you’ll very quickly get bored.

So of course I suggest that we approach the question of artistic perspective from a practical point of view. All you have to do is to observe what I show you with a minimum of attention and you will learn the secrets of perspective quite naturally.

It would be possible to do without perspective but it would be a great pity. Perspective is the most powerful way of lending realism and depth to your drawings and of making them more striking. Without perspective, the means at your disposal (your results) would be limited. Here’s why.

Perspective is a hidden but vital element of a landscape, an object or a portrait. It is in fact an optical illusion that applies to everything you see. Remember that drawing is not the same as sculpting. The challenge facing you is to reproduce on a flat sheet of paper something which in fact possesses a third dimension: depth. I repeat, perspective is merely an optical illusion applied to everything you look at. That’s why we need to know a little about how the eye works.

Historically, it was some time before artists came to terms with perspective. A lot of medieval works of art are very beautiful but they show things as they are and not as the eye sees them.

You can see the logic at work in this illustration. The chessboard is seen without relief but the pieces on the board are seen in profile and turned in the direction in which they are set up on the board. The capitals of the columns are practically represented in cross-section. And the women are rather curiously positioned. In other words there are several different “points of view” in the same picture, and it’s rather off-putting.

This Turkish miniature dating from 1720 is another example of a partial lack of perspective. Once again, several different points of view are merged into a single picture. And we notice that that the horses furthest away are as large as those in the foreground. In perspective they would, of course, be smaller.

How the view deceives the eye This winding road seems to get smaller and smaller as it moves away from our point of observation. In actual fact, of course, the width is always the same – otherwise there wouldn’t be enough room for the cars! Looking at this picture, we get the impression that the two rails will end up by joining together. Visually speaking, this is true, but visually speaking only. Reason and the eye are engaged in an endless combat Reason tells the brain: “These rails are parallel and horizontal”. The eye says to the brain: “As you can see, the rails climb towards the sky and become thinner towards the top”. The brain replies: “The rails are always parallel otherwise the trains would be derailed. But I don’t want to use my reason. I want to draw so I’ll listen to what the eye tells me. As you’ll see, it’s always difficult to forget our knowledge of things when we try to transcribe them. And yet we must learn to concentrate exclusively on visual perception. You are confronted by a landscape, stretching out before your eyes towards the horizon. Your brain registers the depth which moves from the foreground into the distance. You have no problem in placing what you see to your left and right onto the left and right sides of the sheet of paper. But how are you going to render the depth?

Here are three suggestions which you can use separately or together. 1. Draw the trees close to you in front of those which are further away – this will have the effect of hiding part of them. 2. Draw the trees further away from you more lightly; this will give an effect of distance. 3. Draw the trees in the distance smaller than the ones close to you. Don’t make a special effort to remember these three tips; just observe how they are present in this drawing.

Look at this picture for a moment. This time it’s an indoor scene and there’s a certain impression of depth. We might even suppose that the artist was situated just a few feet from the figures. Can you see how the three ideas I mentioned above have been incorporated in the picture so as to render the depth?

Is the outdoor scenery painted in more lightly than the rest of the scene? Yes. Do the figures in the foreground partly conceal those further back? Yes. Are the figures further back smaller than those in front? No, not at all. The size of the figures is dictated solely by their age and build.

It’s the perspective which gives the impression of depth; it represents the room not as it really is but as the eye perceives it. Drawing in perspective is really the art of drawing “wrong” so that the (end) result seems “right”. Or to put it another way, it’s the art of closing one eye so as to see better. Let me explain. First of all, let’s take another look at the picture. You’ll be able to make the same observations in a minute when you look round the room you happen to be in. The walls are at right angles to each other, there’s a window with small panes, a door and a tiled floor. Look at the lines formed by the edges, the ridges and the corners of the walls and windows, or the stone tiles. The lines are for the most part vertical or horizontal and are perpendicular to each other. This is perfectly natural since the architect has designed everything at right angles, and the builder has used a plumb line, a set square and a spirit level in order to respect the architect’s plan. It would really be too good to be true if things were as easy as that for the drawer.

If you superimpose a piece of tracing paper marked with white horizontal lines on the picture, and then trace in blue the vertical lines visible on the picture, you will notice something rather curious. The vertical lines are indeed vertical. But the horizontal lines in the picture are quite different from those on the grid. They slant off in different directions. The artist has distorted the objects by using these diagonal lines to put them in perspective. But how are you going to attack this problem when you have to deal with this kind of drawing?

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