Sunday 24 February 2019

Perspective for your art (Part 1)

I'm involved with a few artist communities now and I'm seeing many of the same problems cropping up again and again. Rather than try to reply to everyone's queries individually I thought I would write some blog entries detailing one or two of the common issues artists face and how to overcome them.

To start with I thought we would tackle... PERSPECTIVE!

This can be quite a daunting topic for a lot of people. It conjures up images of mathematics and technical drawings but it doesn't have to be this complicated, I promise you. By learning a few simple tricks you can greatly improve your artwork without worrying about sums or measurements... and good news: by building on the solid foundation of a good drawing your paintings improve!

To start with we're going to learn a couple of terms, make sure we're all singing from the same hymn sheet so to speak.

The "horizon line" for the purposes of this tutorial is a straight, horizontal line. Perfectly level. Even if there are hills or craters, valleys, stacks of chairs, crowds of people or mountains of burning tyres... the horizon line is going to be absolutely, unwaveringly horizontal. It can be at any height on your canvas.

The "Vanishing point" at its most basic is a point that sits on the horizon line. Your drawing needs at least one of these.

So now we are all talking the same language let's look at the most simple use of perspective in drawing:

Single Point Perspective

To start, let's look at some examples of single point perspective in classical art:

This is a painting by Vermeer. Vermeer was a master of light in his paintings but his drawings were remarkably simple. Can you see how the straight lines in the painting run in only 3 directions? They are either Horizontal, Vertical or they radiate from the vanishing point. This is the key feature of single point perspective paintings. They feel like you are flat on to the subject, looking straight down the length of a room or straight down a street. 

Here's an example by Van Gogh. This one isn't as straight forward as the previous painting, but it still exhibits strong single point perspective. 

Once you know what you are looking for you start to see this composition used in many pieces of art. 

DaVinci's use of perspective in the Last Supper has often been discussed. 

Leonid Afrimov often uses single point perspective in his strong compositions

And it's not unique to European art, this drawing technique is seen in many cultures. 

The Rules of Single Point Perspective

Now you know what you are looking for, how do you use this in your paintings? 

For a start you need to know the rules. They're not complicated and we've already touched on them when we looked at the Vermeer picture but let's look at them again:

1. All verticals are vertical.
2. All lines that are parallel to you are horizontal.
3. All lines that travel away from you converge on the vanishing point.
4. Draw with a hard pencil so the lines are light and easy to erase ;)

Dead easy, right?

Example using Single Point Perspective

So we've looked at some examples and we know the rules,  let's do a very basic one point perspective drawing to practice.

For this example we're going to start by drawing in a horizon. I always start every painting by drawing in a horizon, doesn't matter what I'm painting.

And we're going to define a vanishing point. Again, doesn't matter where this is but don't go too close to the edges on your first attempt.

If we want to draw a room we define the back wall with a rectangle

Now we draw in the walls by placing one end of a ruler between the vanishing point and the first corner of the rectangle.

We repeat this for the other four corners...

And we have successfully defined a space.

To add in a bed we draw a rectangle on the back wall...

Then we repeat the above process, placing a ruler between the vanishing point and the corners of the rectangle...

But in this case we're also going to define the length of the bed by drawing in the foot end. So we need to decide how long the bed will be, and we'll put a mark in there.

Then we'll join the bottom two lines with a perfectly horizontal line...

Next draw in vertical lines from the points where the foot meets the sides of the bed...

And depending on how accurate you have been the top of the foot should be perfectly horizontal too.

Expanding on this you can start to sketch in further form and details, making sure your additional lines are following the structural lines you have already drawn.

And there you have it, it's not hugely complicated but it helps greatly when structuring a drawing to be aware of this process. Once you have a grasp of the basic concept the sky's the limit. You can start filling your room with all kinds of things.

Once you have a firm grasp of this you'll start to notice when people aren't obeying these rules and be able to see the problems this can cause...

What's with that diagonal wall? And the strangely flat buildings? 

Lowry's naive compositions often ignored the rules of perspective. 

You'll also start to understand when these rules can be broken or bent... but that'll have to be another blog :)

Something interesting you can play with is that the horizon line dictates the height of the viewer. See how in the Van Gogh painting near the top of the page the horizon sits about the same height as the bed posts? And in the Vermeer it crosses the picture slightly below chest height? In both the instances we can guess that the painter was sitting when he painted the pictures. By playing with this rule you can paint a picture of a street from an ant's viewpoint, or an eagle's for that matter!

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