Art Thought: Basic Observational Skills vs Perspective

June 2, 2016 | 13 Comments

I can’t help myself! I keep thinking about that Palladian dome mistake (see here and here) and so re-visited it again this morning during my cafe visit to work out how I could draw it more accurately using perspective.

These are my rough (pencil) sketches trying to work it out. Basically I was looking for anchor points within a rectangular grid – the square where the dome meets the roof faces and the top of the dome in relation to a point above each facade. It’s all a bit complicated – isn’t it? It’s more a case of perspective setup than sketching.

Big takeaway: There are parts of a building which are MUCH easier to draw as shapes.

This led me to think about how much I rely on basic observational skills vs perspective and came up with a ratio of 80:20. I do use perspective but it represents only 20% (as a maximum) of the sketching process.

Some might interpret my approach of Pointless Perspective as being anti-perspective. But that is not the case. Being able to use perspective when sketching is super helpful and I would urge everyone to put in ‘the hard yards’ so that they can use it when they sketch. However I believe it is not the most important thing when sketching architecture! Basically this is because without good observational skills your building sketches will still look wrong – wacko proportions and crazy steep angles. The two work together.

So just to clarify, my upcoming SketchingNow Buildings course is all about that important 80% and you know what, if you really focus on that 80% portion of your sketch, it will look believable and alive! You might not need that 20% overlay of perspective at all. That extra 20% is all about enabling you to work faster and improving the accuracy of your angles.

I don’t go as far as Paul Laseau who says: While perspective is a handy device to construct imagined spaces, it is not useful, and possibly detrimental, to sketching existing environments. But I do believe that it is not essential and that the thought “I can’t draw perspective” can prevent people from just taking more time to develop their observational skills

Ok, have I said enough radical stuff for the day? What do you think about my 80:20 rule? Is it crazy?


  • Maria says:

    Oh wow Liz. The conversation on flickr. Amazing. Don’t think I can get my head around all if it right now. But so LOVING how maths and art collide. and coexists. and enhance each other.

  • melinda mcnutt says:

    I was a math major first and architect only after a math career of 17 years and even for me the Flickr conversation made my head hurt! I may go back after a few more cups of coffee – early morning here.

  • Max Tracks says:

    I believe a knowledge of the principles of perspective helps to inform observational skills and prevents your object (left) brain from substituting simplified symbols for the things you are drawing from life. If I take time to observe carefully I only need to make a mental note of where my eye level horizon is and draw 100% from observation. Too many carefully drawn perspective lines (please no rulers!) will make your drawing look like a computer generated illustration. While it will be more accurate it will have lost spontaneity and maybe your unique line vocabulary. Each artist must decide for themselves on where their sketching will fall in the continuum from abstract to ultra realistic styles. Of course, Individual styles and sketching methods/materials will evolve over time. That’s part of the beauty of art, we can each do our own thing and none of us are “wrong” :o).

  • Dee Robotham says:

    I have taught painting to adult beginners for some time now and agree with Liz that some knowledge of perspective is very useful particularly as an aid to observation. I think many more experienced artists assume too much understanding of how to look at things and numerous times a little reference to perspective really helps with not only drawing more realistically, but also with arranging the composition of a picture.
    I think Liz’s idea of 80:20 is about right.

    • Liz Steel says:

      thanks Dee… great point. I know that I rely a lot on my architectural training (understanding buildings) when I sketch. That is the idea behind Buildings… to share as much of that as I can.

  • Rhonda Roebuck says:

    Hi Liz,
    I am in the Foundations course and have been looking for the template for the Rule of Thirds viewer. Can you tell me where to find it? Sorry to post here, but thought it might be a more direct connection.

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