Pointless Perspective - a practical approach to perspective for sketchers

May 8, 2015 | 7 Comments

As you all know, I am an architect by profession and as such know a lot about buildings. I was trained to produce drawings that describe a building in such a way that it could be built from them – technical construction drawings. I also learnt as a student, how to draw 3D projections of my designs using perspective. This skill, in a measure, is no longer needed in the profession, as CAD programs do it much better and quicker. But when I started sketching I had to refresh my knowledge of perspective so that I could sketch buildings with the precision I wanted to achieve. I soon realised it was harder than I thought to apply the theory to real world sketching, and I also realised that when I sketched I wanted to work with freedom and not draw with technical precision.

Two things in particular worried me.
1. What to do when the vanishing points (VPs) were off the page – at least one of the VPs seemed to be off the page on every occasion, and often both of them.
2. The dense cluster of my pencil guidelines (setup) near the VP – yuck! Below is an example where I drew two dark figures to hide this mess of lines.


And also two more things worried me
3. How hard it was to draw all those long lines straight (without bends and wobbles) and how hard was to draw these at the right angle.
4. Even if I got a perfect setup, I worked so loosely that I couldn’t always control the exact direction of my lines – they twisted and turned slightly all over the place.

All four of these concerns are still present!

But you know what? the inaccuracies when we are sketching is not such a big deal! All of the diagrams in this post are done freehand and while at the time I was trying to be straight-ish, I wasn’t working at a very careful pace. Is the wonkiness of some of my lines a big deal? How noticable are they when the details were added?

I have picked up a few tricks along way:
Frank Ching told me to position myself so that one VP is always on the page and this will help the second one.
James Richards has this cool trick of doing the line from the VP in the air first and then only putting the pen down when he needs the line on the page – so none of that yucky cluster at the VP. I think you have to see this being demonstrated.
Gerard Michel (the master!) puts an eraser on the ground for the VP.
Florian Afflerbach (Flaf) often draws small in a large book.
Luiz Ruiz Padron sometimes does very faint lines with a very thin pen…but sigh, I think I have a long way to go to achieve his precision and looseness!

And the latest amazing trick I saw last week from local sketcher Nancy MacAlpine, who pulls out a tape measure which she holds in position of the VP and uses to check her lines – brilliant! I will try to get a photo of Nancy in action and add it to this post.

Over the years I have been trying to develop a way of sketching that is vanishing point-less – what I am calling POINTLESS PERSPECTIVE. What if we just accept the fact that the VP is always off the page… do we really need it at all? What we have when we remove the VPs and the guidelines is this – two angled planes with a grid of evenly converging lines in between the top and bottom lines.

A lot of artists say you don’t need perspective at all – just draw the shapes and the angles you see. That is fine, but how accurate is our ability to see and record these angles on the page? I believe that a knowledge of perspective helps you SEE these angles and shapes better.

Perspective is a technical device designed to simulate a vision from a single point of view. Because we have two eyes and our heads move all the time, our experience of looking at an object is more dynamic than a single fixed point of view.This is one of the reasons why sketching from real life is so much more alive than sketching from photos as this movement of the head and eyes adds spontaneity to the composition.  It also explains why I am increasingly finding ‘perfect perspective’ sketches a little too slick – the image that a perspective setup achieves isn’t quite how I see it.

Here are two drawings that I did (for last weeks workshop) of a group of boxes that compares ‘just drawing the shapes’ as I saw them (thinking about perspective a little as I worked) with a sketch that involved a quick perspective setup.  Is there a big difference between the two? Is the inaccuracy of the top one a problem?

I was recently looking through my Venice sketchbook from 2010. I was attempting a lot of perspective drawing during that week, but on one occasion I abandoned any setup and ‘just went for it’ – I called it  ‘organic perspective’. At the time the architect in me was screaming, but the sketcher in me likes this sketch very much!

So to summarise, my pointless perspective involves nailing the eyeline, setting up a very important vertical – a VIP (not a VP!) – that is used as a measuring rod and then establishing a critical top edge and bottom edge. After that it is a matter of drawing a grid of evenly converging lines and drawing everything using the basis of this grid. I am still refining a few further ideas of how to do this in practice, including using a visual VP as a checking device… but it really helps me draw buildings with much more freedom.

As long as I get a few angles, a few lengths right, then all I need to do is make sure all my lines (more or less) conform to a grid of evenly converging lines and my sketch will look ‘right’. None of my sketches are ever perfect, they often have uneven converging lines, and lines that bend, but this approach is helping me a lot to sketch spontaneously but with a degree of accuracy that the architect in me is happy with.

I have been using this approach for a while but only recently have started to formulate it in a way that I can teach to others. I did this sketch a number of years ago and asked the experts on Flickr. There was an insane discussion afterwards – the kind of thing that I love reading about but would never what to try to do out on the streets!

This blog post does not contain a full explanation of perspective… it is more a teaser!

I do believe it is VERY important to understand that everything is horizontal on your eyeline and that vanishing points sit on this eyeline too. But you don’t need to DRAW the VPs. And without any doubt EYELINE IS KING! But that is a topic for another blog post.

Perspective is such a powerful tool to help get those angles right. I am certainly not advocating that it is pointless, in the sense of useless.. but I suppose my main message is that you don’t have to do technical setup lines to sketch a convincing  three dimensional building.

These days I also love just looking for the shapes and painting them first. The opening sketch to this blog post was started with a few watercolour shapes, as was this sketch I did during my 2 day workshop.

Last year in Brazil, I used the same approach to sketch the dramatic rectangular form of MASP. I painted the red first! I wrote more about this and other shape based approaches here.

I can’t really go into my techniques in any more detail as this post is already too long but I hope this gives you a little more idea. Stay tuned for more!

This is exactly what I will be teaching at the Urban Sketchers Symposium in Singapore this July. I hope to see many of you there! There will be such an incredible array of outstanding teachers and I know that there are still workshop passes available. If you are thinking about it, I urge you to sign up. Particularly for Australians… this is a rare opportunity to get to a Symposium in our region. You don’t have to be good to go! I can think of no other event that will do more to strengthen your sketching skills and charge up your creative juices  – it will keep you pumped for a year!

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  • Judy says:

    Thanks so much for this. I struggle with it all the time. I have seen a trick where you put two different scales on either side of the page and use lines between them as the perspective lines. Have you tried this? I am going to try your method and the "tips"

    Judy Warner

  • Cathy Dwyer says:

    How I wish I could go to Singapore! Have you any plans to teach Pointless Perspective in a future SketchinNow course?

  • VHein says:

    This is great, Liz, thank you! So many good tips for drawing a building with VP off the page…especially to focus on eye line and the "VIP"…that important vertical! So true that understanding the basics of perspective makes it so much easier to see and sketch more freely on location.

  • Liz Steel says:

    thanks Judy – I haven't ever used that, but the idea is similar.

  • Liz Steel says:

    I wish you could go to SIngapore too. Yes, I have plans down the track!

  • Liz Steel says:

    thanks Virginia. Looking forward to seeing you in SG!

  • Dale Faulstich says:

    Picasso was an excellent, well trained draftsman long before turning to cubism and the other forms of abstraction. Just so, we should thoroughly understand the principles involved in drawing in perspective, before we start taking short cuts. While drawing, I always have the horizon line and vanishing points in my minds eye. Even though they are seldom drawn on my paper, nor or would they even fit on the same sheet of paper , if they were drawn

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