Drawing in Perspective

February 15, 2014

By Tad Fry

If you’ve taken a drawing class, then this may not be for you. However, if you want to get better at drawing, and never had proper education in this discipline, then please read on to discover a principle that will greatly benefit your work.

A few years ago I sketched often because I thought in order to get better, all I had to do was practice. We hear it all the time… practice something a lot and we’ll get better. Some of my sketches were horrible and some were decent. I was alright with the horrible sketches being horrible, but the decent sketches irked me because I couldn’t tell what made them bad. Furthermore, if I had any notion at all why they were bad, I didn’t quite know how to fix them. There must be a better way to do this—I started to look for some answers.

As fate would have it, I discovered the most amazing element to drawing while I searched for an answer to the wrong question. “Do I need better pencils, paper, and measuring tools?” I asked. As I rummaged through the drawing aisle of our local craft store, an employee approached to ask, “May I help you?” I somewhat couldn’t believe his features: an older man with golden-thin-rimmed glasses, grey hair, and a beard. Like a wise man from the mountains about to shed light on my horrible skills as an artist.

“Yes, I think I need a smudge stick and new pencils,” I said like a moron.

“Hmm… smudge stick? Is that what people are calling it these days? You probably mean a blending stump or tortillon; anything will work as long as it moves the graphite around. I’ve even used a bit of tree bark while I’m out drawing. What kind of pencils do you need?” He replied as he handed me a pack of tortillons.

Wait! Did he say tree bark? He knows things—I must learn from him!

“I’m not sure what pencils to get, I have no idea what I’m doing,” I replied.

Concerned, he asked, “Well, what exactly is it you’re trying to do?”

“I want to get better at drawing. No matter what the subject is, I simply want to get better. Unfortunately, I didn’t take drawing classes in high school or college. I took photography and have read a lot of books on design principles and typography. Much of what I do is on the Internet as I’m a web developer,” I explained.

“Ah, follow me…” he said as he made his way down the aisle.

He handed me a book titled Perspective and said, “I don’t care if you’re starting out or in the art business for 50 years, everyone needs to know this. It’s what I teach all my first-year students. Before you try to find your pencils and other things, you need to know how to translate our 3-D world into a 2-D plane, the canvas. If you don’t take the time to learn it, then nothing you draw will ever look correct. After this book you can read a few of these others.”

Excellent, this wise man is a teacher! How lucky was I to discover this drawing principle this way? I told him thanks and ventured home.

The book is Perspective by William F. Powell. With this newfound knowledge, it was amazingly clear why my previous work didn’t look correct. I won’t go into explicit detail of what the book teaches because you should read it in its entirety. However, I’ll show a few examples of my drawings with and without perspective to demonstrate the necessity of this technique.

Jar

After I drew this jar, I knew the top looked weird, but I didn’t know exactly how to fix it. I guess my perspective changed as I drew it. After reading the book, I discovered the top and bottom ellipses of the jar should be parallel. We sort of see a one-point perspective jar (I didn’t know it at the time), but since the lines aren’t parallel there’s no way the top and bottom could fade to the same vanishing point. This makes the jar seem a tick off causing it to look strange.

Bottle

I sketched a bottle after reading about the rules of ellipses in perspective and it went a lot better. Knowing I was going to use one-point perspective, I drew my horizon line, vanishing point, and the lines that would encompass the ellipses of the bottle. Drawing this foundation made more room to be creative and after the dust settled it looked more real.

Die

After initially drawing this die, I thought it looked decent. But something seemed a bit strange. I couldn’t quite figure out what caused the weirdness. Looking back at the die with an understanding of perspective, I can now tell we’re looking so far down on the die that it’s actually in three-point perspective; therefore, the sides of the die should slant inward a bit to a third vanishing point.

Cube

The perspective book has many exercises. When I drew my first cube in three-point perspective, I immediately knew what was wrong with my previous attempts of drawing cubes from a slight bird’s-eye angle. Here is a cube in proper three-point perspective.

As you can see, knowing perspective is a tremendous benefit to our drawings. It brings life to our subjects because we’re adhering to the rules that make them look real. Building within the framework of perspective makes the creation process far more enjoyable because we can make the skeleton of our works using these rules—instead of trying to make things look real through our own judgement. This makes more time to shade, texture, and maybe even write a bit of story about the subject.

If you want to learn how to draw in perspective, then I recommend this Perspective book. There’s also a nice video from Khan Academy: How one-point linear perspective works. To see a few more examples of perspective exercises, then check out my Twitter feed: @tadfry #sketch.