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Throwing Out the Intimidation Factor of Perspective Drawing
As an artist looking to capture the world around you with paint and brush or pen and paper, have you ever been stumped about perspective? Wondered how to use it in order to capture the buildings facades and streets scenes you see? If you have, you are not alone.
Paris Street, Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte
We’ve compiled this top tips list from several of the best and brightest artists of today on how to take on perspective while leaving any hint of intimidation far behind. Realistic, believable architectural sketches, drawings, and paintings will surely follow. Enjoy!
And be sure to check out one of the top resources in our shop on the subject: The Artist’s Guide to Perspective w Patrick Connors.
1 – Be Aware of the Horizon
The horizon line is always naturally at a viewer’s eye level and there should only be one per painting.
John Salminen recommends placing the horizon line low in the picture plane. This will enhance the sensation of looking up at a tall building. To further suggest those soaring, skyscraper heights, John suggests that as the building ascends, let it taper slightly (a tactic employed for three-point perspective) as this will also suggests height.
Flatiron II by John Salminen
2 – Perspective Is Simply an Illusion
Thomas Schaller (artists and instructor behind Watercolor Painting with Thomas Schaller: Perspective and Design) says, “I have given so many classes where even the very mention of the word “perspective” will elicit a collective groan from a large group of adults! I do understand, and my heart goes out to them. But I just can’t agree.”
Thomas tells us that perspective does not have to be thought of as some kind of arcane scientific study requiring years of laborious study to perfect. For him, it is simply acknowledging and reminding ourselves that in drawing, perspective is just an illusion. The surface of the paper is in two dimensions only — height and width. So perspective is simply the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface and the graphic depiction of the fact that things tend to look smaller when they are farther way from us.
3 – Above and Below the Horizon Line
Imagine you are on a beach, staring out at the sea. Where the sky meets the water, this is the horizon. Notice that there is visual information above the horizon line, and visual information below. “Everything above the horizon line appears to slope down to meet the horizon,” says Schaller. “And everything below the horizon line appears to slope up to meet horizon.”
4 – What Distance Looks Like
There will always be exceptions in painting, but in general, objects in the distance are:
- less defined,
- have softer edges,
- have less value and color saturation
than objects that you wish to appear closer. All these simple “ tricks” will help enhance the illusion of perspective — objects seeming to gradually disappear as they become farther away.
5 – Where Vanishing Points Go
Nancie King Mertz tells us that vanishing points are always on our eye level or “sight line,” which is the horizon line.
If you as the artist are several stories high, looking down on a scene, your horizon line or eye level is parallel to the ground (straight out from your face), when you hold your head erect. All those lines then lead up to the horizon line, which holds the vanishing point.
Conversely, if you are at street-level (horizon line) and looking up at buildings, the roof and windows of each building will lead down to the vanishing point.
Great exercise: place boxes on a tall bookshelf and draw the boxes at each level of the shelves, from top shelf to bottom.
6 – Leave Details Behind
The interesting part about establishing perspective is that it is definitely not in the details. With any architectural sketches you create or incorporate as parts of your painting, simplify. No need to paint each window. Just indicate that windows are there. Some reflect the sky. Others reflect light bouncing off adjacent buildings.
Think of surrounding buildings as shapes but abstract ones in a general form. That way the star of your show, whatever it is, stays in focus.
Hotel de Ville by Alvaro Castagnet
7 – Start with Drawing
Drawing is an essential skill for all artists. “It is interesting to note that the more freedom you seek with your paintings, the more developed your drawing skills need to be,” says artist Alvaro Castagnet.
A successful painting will always begin with sound drawing. This creates the framework for the painting and will encourage the confidence to adopt a more relaxed, expressive approach in terms of brushstrokes and color.
So spend time creating architectural sketches and studies. That way you get comfortable with these components and will be able to add them to a painting with much more ease.
8 – Squint
“Concentrate on the focal point and the relationships between the shapes you see,” says Castagnet. Don’t look for details, look for shapes that interconnect and merge into a pattern.
How? Squint. Squint your eyes to minimize and reduce the thousands of shapes into the overall and major ones, then stress the focal point with sharpness and the use of color.
9 – With Values
The meaning of perspective used in art involves creating an appearance of depth. To represent a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional surface you need to use well the range of color values at your disposal in order to achieve that.
Boulevard des Capucines by Claude Monet
10 – Mark It, Literally
The establishment of vanishing points gives depth to any streets you are depicting. If you look at most of Tim Saternow you’ll find a pin-hole on the horizon line if you look closely. This is from a T-pin stuck through the paper so he can use this point to easily hold his straight edge for all the lines going to that vanishing point.
Broadway to the Flatiron Building by Tim Saternow, 2015, watercolor on paper, 60×40
Bonus tip: Tim also suggests putting an ‘X’ inside the parallelogram shape of a wall or window in perspective. It will accurately and correctly divide the wall in half where the X’s arms cross.
11 – Try Expressive Perspective
Certainly you have to stay mindful of perspective basics that keep your drawing from looking wrong. Like remembering where your eye level line is, and that everything angles towards it. But that doesn’t mean you have to get strict and tight with your drawing.
Saternow suggests “expressive perspective.” You exaggerate a feeling you have for how the structure you see swoops down from the sky or rises up into the clouds. Don’t count stories in a building or get exact in ways in which exactness would interfere with drawing freely. Balance what you see with what you want.
More Perspective Pointers
Artists, many of us struggle rendering perspective in architectural sketches and painting cityscapes. If you have experiences to share, please do in a comment below as pointers are always welcome!
For more education around perspective made easy and accessible artists, explore:
The Artist’s Guide to Perspective w Patrick Connors
Watercolor Painting with Tom Schaller: Perspective and Design
Perspective and Proportion Secrets for Artists
Perspective Drawing: Understanding Linear Perspective