Friday, January 7, 2011

Foreshortening: Be Not Afraid

Every once in a blue moon, somebody who doesn't know me well enough asks why I don't teach an art class sometime. My answer tends to be along the lines of, "Because I'm crabby, disorderly, and busy, so I'd be a lousy teacher." This is true, but the question always gets me wondering what I could possibly teach. And the only answer I generate, lesson 1 I suppose, is:

Don't be afraid of foreshortening.

People deep in the process of learning figurative drawing and painting tend to be scared of foreshortening. Why? Because it's hard as hell to do a good job, and often, you can't even tell if you've done a good job. Is this a good job?

Andrea Mantegna, Dead Christ, tempera on canvas, c. 1490

Well, probably. Who knows? The feet look small and the head looks big. But if you backed way up and shot a real person in this position with a telephoto lens - at 150 mm or more - they'd most likely look like that.

So why am I telling you not to be afraid of foreshortening? Because I'm proposing a different way of thinking about it. My proposal is this: there is no such thing as foreshortening.

This is very strange. No such thing? But everyone knows what foreshortening is, and it sure as shootin' exists. OK, fine. What is foreshortening? Some outfit called Princeton University offers a definition of the usual level of glibness and uselessness:

foreshorten (shorten lines in a drawing so as to create an illusion of depth)

But that's not what we mean when we use the word in a sentence, is it? For instance, when we say, "The foreshortened perspective I had of the model made me pee in my pants in abject terror," we're not talking about "shortening the lines" to "create an illusion of depth."

So let's go to somebody who has a much better definition of this completely imaginary phenomenon:

Foreshortening is a fundamental concept in drawing, designating the distortion of long shapes when seen end-on.

This definition is from a post on foreshortening at Fred Hatt's blog. The post is seriously worth checking out - it features Fred's usual elegant and insightful writing, and a lot of his really gorgeous drawings of radically foreshortened poses. Don't worry about jumping there now - I'll post the link again at the end of this little screed.

Now, the element that Fred adds, which Princeton overlooks, is that the object is long. Let's build up to a full understanding of the implications of this clause.

Consider a sphere:

A sphere is uniform in appearance: rotate it as you like, it will be identical with every other view of it.

Under the Princeton definition, the central area of the sphere is not foreshortened, and the edges are increasingly foreshortened, up to the boundary, which you could say is infinitely foreshortened - it is right on axis with the viewer, and becomes, geometrically, an infinite succession of infinitely foreshortened points. Or, in common language, a line (a circle, as it happens).

Here, this picture makes it clearer:

You notice how those lines get denser at the edges? That is because equal amounts of real surface area are compressed, visually, into smaller and smaller apparent areas, until they are totally foreshortened into line rather than plane.


So, let's look at a cube:

As this cube rotates in space, various of its surface planes become more or less foreshortened. In the top left image, four planes are severely foreshortened. In the bottom right image, only two planes are severely foreshortened.

But nobody ever thinks of a cube as being foreshortened, any more than they think of a sphere as being foreshortened. Why not? Because all of the faces of a cube are identical. It is nearly as uniform as a sphere. If you draw a line from the center of any face, through the cube, to the center of the opposite face, it will be just as long as any line drawn between two other opposed faces.

This is not true of the simplest "long" object, the cylinder:

You damn skippy there's a foreshortened view of the cylinder:

In this view, the long axis of the cylinder is oriented nearly parallel with the viewer's depth axis, so that it becomes shorter than we are used to seeing it. And this is the crux of the concept of foreshortening. As Fred says, the concept applies, as a practical matter, only to long objects, because we are used to seeing the long axis as much longer than the short axis.

Apollo 11

Apollo 11, lookin' all weird and squished and stuff

We do not think about planes being foreshortened, as Princeton suggests, or we would see the optically "thin" faces of the cube as being confusingly foreshortened. Rather, we have a distinct class of objects which, considered as whole objects, we think of as foreshortened: long objects, particularly those with regard to which we have a common experience of seeing the long axis as longer than the short axis.

Like humans.

Can you believe I actually found this picture on Wikipedia
by Google image-searching "human"? How awesome is that?

So, to get to the core of my point - foreshortening does not exist in nature. All objects, at all times, from all perspectives, include planes which are technically foreshortened and technically not foreshortened. The functional conception of foreshortening, as identified by Fred, is a categorical distinction based entirely on an arbitrary classification of objects by:

1. their geometry (long)
2. our experience of them (long axis parallel with or nearly parallel with viewer's depth axis)

Foreshortening is just a fancy and specific way of saying "unusual." There is nothing to be afraid of here. It's not a real distinction. It's just a hopped-up method for freaking yourself out about your chances of getting your drawing right.

And let me tell you, your chances of getting your drawing right when an object is foreshortened are already low enough. You don't need to be freaking yourself out.

Wait a minute! saith you. You've just been telling me there's no such thing as foreshortening! Now you're saying it's extra-hard to draw?

Sure. Because it is unusual. But not because it's in some spooky category. Take a look at these two drawings I did last week, when the ever-delightful Vadim was modeling at Spring Street:

Only the foot is "foreshortened."

The foot is not foreshortened, but the rest is.

Now, that bottom, foreshortened leg, is pretty nicely drawn, if I do say so myself. I was really switched on because I've been searching for an opportunity to do these two drawings for a long time - because I've been planning this post for a long time, and I was psyched to finally get the graphics I wanted.

Why was I able to get that leg to look pretty good? Because I've probably drawn legs from that angle a hundred times (I was psyched to write this post, but not psyched enough to go through the heaps of drawings in my closet). I'm not some magical foreshortening ninja, I just have endless experience of most of the angles of view of the human body. This happens when you go to life drawing twice a week for twelve years.

But that's not all - and I wouldn't have been able to tell you this next bit if I hadn't lucked into talking over the concept of foreshortening with my friend, the dazzling artist Jonathan Soard. I was running my analytic rigamarole past him, and he came at it from a different angle. He said, "The wonderful thing about foreshortening is that it lets you see things directly, without preconceptions of what they should look like."

You know what? This is true. No matter how much you practice - and Jonathan Soard has practiced more than I have - those "foreshortened" views will still be less familiar than the usual long views, because the circumstances of life dictate that the foreshortened views of humans are just not as frequently experienced (unless you're a pigeon).

Because they will be comparatively fresh, your eyes will have fewer scales upon them. This leads to endless trouble for people trying to draw foreshortened views - they will try to impose their mental template for the upright view onto the foreshortened view. But once you recognize your templates and cast them out, you will be seeing directly: you will see shapes and curves and forms without preconception, you will see as an infant sees. And this is very exciting. Jeno Barcsay, for instance, spends a disproportionate amount of time in his masterwork on anatomy for the artist depicting foreshortened views of the human body:

I am claiming, oddly, that my foreshortened leg works (at least I think it works) for two contradictory reasons: 1. I have a lot of practice at it, and 2. I am seeing it as if for the first time.

I don't think we need a big long reconciliation of these two points. It would be tedious.

But I will add this: this combination - this combination of the ability to practice until you're good at something, while retaining the ability to see it afresh - makes for some very delightful experiences. For instance, I went through a brief, strange period where I felt like mimicking Manet. Don't ask me why. It happened, and now I'm over it. But I fell into thinking about his dead toreador painting:

And I decided I was going to make my own version of the painting, imitating Manet's broad brushwork and flattened planes as much as possible:

The Daydream, 48"x30", oil on canvas, 2009

Well, that was really delightful! And it involves a great deal of exciting foreshortening. That was a big part of the fun.

Anyhow, my point is not as radical as I first presented it. It is more honestly and minimally stated as this: "foreshortening" describes a real category of perception, but it does not describe an objectively distinct category of perception. Rather, its boundary is based in our experience. So for god's sake, don't be afraid of it. It's just another thing. Therefore, practice will improve your ability to portray it.

I will have more to say about Jonathan's work at some point. In the meantime, if you have a few minutes, I recommend you enjoy Fred's writing and work in the post I cited, and throughout his blog.


  1. Good post, Daniel, much better explanation than Princetion's. ;-)

  2. Jesus did have a really big head.

  3. Daniel, I am flattened, er, flattered to be referenced and linked here!

    A long time ago, I had a book called "Atlas of Foreshortening", that had photos of models in different poses from a variety of angles that were helpful in analyzing the actual effects of the foreshortened perspective. I learned a lot from copying images from that book.

    In drawing a figure from a foreshortened position, it can be helpful to close one eye (to make your own view two-dimensional) and to focus on juxtapositions and angular relationships (the chin emerges from behind the left shoulder) rather than "dem bones" connections.

    Durer has a famous etching of an artist drawing a foreshortened view of a nude using a viewing grid as an aid: I've tried using a grid, but it's not as easy as it looks. For me it was easier to learn to do it freehand.

    Love the Vadim's leg studies!

  4. Thanks Jim! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Princeton - phuh. Although they've got a nice art museum there.

    Pengo - the weird part about hanging out with Jesus wasn't his big head. It was that he had really little feet. Always falling over.*

    Fred - I loved that post! You remember at the time I was all bummed that you got there first, but in hindsight, I'm glad you did, because it gave me a lot more to think about and it helped me understand the topic better. That sounds like a pretty cool book. And the one-eye-closed trick makes a lot of sense in a situation like that. You know which problem is toughest for me (and, it seems, everyone else) to overcome? View from above: nose crosses over upper lip, no visible distance between nose and mouth. That's the major place where foreshortening transgresses an overwhelmingly powerful cognitive template, the upright-face template. Do you have trouble with that?

    I actually used that Durer somewhere in this blog! I've never used a grid though.

    I'm glad you like those Vadim-legs!

    *I have a friend who's really tall, with a big head and tiny feet. Out of the blue, he sometimes falls over.

  5. Is it weird that the foreshortened perspective I often have of the model (because I'm always late to figure class and I end up with the view no one else wanted) is one that I find interesting and enjoyable to execute. I didn't know I was supposed to be afraid of it. Whether I am successful at it is another thing entirely.

    1. You shouldn't be afraid of it at all! It's just that many people are. Showing up late for figure drawing, however, is a policy I cannot condone.