Perspective Drawing 101

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These are not just little tips and techniques, but a full course of learning how to see, think, and draw like an artist.

Perspective drawing is about trying to create an illusion of depth; in other words, making a flat, two-dimensional drawing look like it is in fact three-dimensional.

Most art historians credit the Italian Leon Battista Alberti with inventing the rules of perspective. In his very influential 15th century work Della Pittura (“On Painting”), this Renaissance theorist and artist set out to give an explication of how to paint, saying that the picture represented a bit of the world, as if the observer were looking at it through a window.

This is a very important concept that will be useful to us later on in learning how to do a realistic drawing. This is also a good reason why the very word “perspective” means, approximately, to “see clearly” or to “see through”.

Click the live links below in this article to find out more about perspective.

Traveling to the Third Dimension

There are several ways, in fact, to get to the Third Dimension.

Scientist Michael Kalloniatis and Charles Luu identify 6 ways that we appreciate depth, even with only one eye: relative size, overlapping subjects, use of light and shadow, aerial perspective, linear perspective movement parallax.

1. Relative size. This is the art of drawing shapes in such a way that they diminish in size as they get further away from us, also called diminuition..

2. Overlapping subjects. This consists of drawing one subject partly overlapping another; the Overlapped will appear to be further back in space than the Overlapping.

3. By adroitly employing light and shadow. Draw a circle and it looks like a circle; but place shadow on and around it right, and you have a sphere.

4. Atmospheric perspective. Theoretically, in perspective drawing this means that things seen at a distance seem different because we are looking at them through the filter of the atmosphere itself. For color drawings, darker, warm colors and brilliant luminosities create high contrast in the foreground while muted cool colors keep contrast low in the background, a technique called chromatic perspective.  Values also get in the game.

As Leonardo da Vinci developed the theory of atmospheric perspective in his Notebooks, the sky is painted a darker blue at its zenith, and paler blue at the greater distance to the horizon owing to the greater density of air. With his sfumato (literally, “smoky”) technique, da Vinci painted his figures so they melt away vaporously at their edges, where they curve away and back from the painting's observer.

5. Linear perspective. This consists of imagining a number of lines running obliquely from the observer's position to meet at the horizon: think railroad tracks that seem to meet somewhere in the sunset. The lines are called “vanishing lines” or "orthogonals" and they encounter each other at what is called the “vanishing point". This is what is at work in my drawing of an Abu Dhabi street scene in the above picture.  I can draw this because I have a mental image of something called a "picture plane".

If you are interested in the origins of the story, you will want to read about Filippo Brunelleschi's strange experiment; and if you are very interested in getting an eyewitness account by his biographer, Manetti, take a look at my translation.

Linear perspective for perspective drawing takes some explaining and has several main points, so to get an understanding, visit:

Principle 1:  The Picture Plane

Principle 2: The Horizon LIne and Viewpoint

Principle 3: The Vanishing Point

There are several types of linear perspective drawing, each defined by the number of vanishing points. We will be concerned principally with one point perspective (there is just one vanishing point in the above drawing) and two-point perspective, although three-point perspective also exists - even 4, 5 and 6 point perspective if you really want to go wild!

6. Monocular movement parallax.  Um...what? We artistic types are going to leave this for the vision science specialists, after just completing our technical understanding of how we see depth.

Monocular movement parallax means that even when we have one eye closed and we waggle our heads from side to side, the objects we see around us at different distances move at different relative speeds. Objects at a distance will seem to move with your head in this movement, and nearer objects will seem to go in the opposite direction.  Not our problem in drawing.  I did tell you we were going to leave this for the vision science specialists!

In this 1914 photo painters stand or sit on wires on New York's Brooklyn Bridge.

Getting a Little Perspective on Things

Rules of perspective weren't always so clear. Although the Greeks and Romans have an understanding of how to create visual depth for realistic drawing, for curious reasons the progress made was forgotten in medieval perspective. Then Giotto and the Italian Trecento came along, and the lost knowledge began to be found again, culminating in the triumph of classical perspective in the 15th century with Alberti. Then came conceits in perspective drawing such as the mind-boggling anamorphosis that certain street painters even today still fascinate us with.

Go from "Perspective Drawing" to "Perspective and Relative Size"

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