With the combination of teaching perspective twice in the last month and re-visiting all the content for my Edges course (getting ready for relaunch next week!) I am becoming more and more convinced that perspective isn’t the biggest issue when it comes to sketching buildings and street scenes.
Don’t get me wrong, perspective is an extremely powerful tool, and the more you understand it and use it mentally, the faster and more accurate your sketches will be. I truly do love perspective these days but I think that nailing the eyeline, relying on relationships and fighting foreshortening are much more important.
In essence, I believe basic observational skills are more important than technical perspective!
So I want to explain this idea through an analysis of a recent quick sketch I did of the view from my local cafe. As I hinted recently while discussing my hot cross bun sketch, loose sketching often involves lots of thinking and this sketch is no exception.
Because I went straight for it in paint and ink, I didn’t have the luxury of making mistakes with a pencil setup first. So I had to think through all the issues up front and then ‘hit it hard’ – sketching confidently. I can assure you that my brain was working hard! It’s this mental analysis and discovery of a scene that is one of my favourite parts about sketching – the battle between my object brain and my visual brain, working out how things are much different visually from what I first thought them to be.
But ok, I better get into the analysis!
Many people think that you MUST use perspective to sketch a building or a street scene. “I am no good at drawing buildings because I can’t do perspective!” is something I hear a lot. Well, in this sketch the dreaded P-word (as I like to call it) didn’t enter my mental conversation at all! But if it had, this is a diagram of what I would have been thinking with a vanishing point off the page. Big wow moment: the lines that I drew are pretty close! But how did I achieve this without perspective?
Nailing the Eyeline I
One of my common sayings is “Eyeline is king!” and I really find this true in my own experience. Even if I am not thinking ‘perspective setup’ I will use the eyeline as an axis – it’s critical to nail the eyeline on my page. Why? because I use it to align shapes and hang people off it – more about this in the next point. But more importantly, it mentally registers in my brain the transition between the different directions in which the lines will go.
A: lines above the eyeline were going down
B: lines below the eyeline were going up
C: the groundline was close to horizontal. If the groundline had been flat it would have gone up, but street was sloping down. Thankfully simply drawing the cars in front hid this tricky line!
Nailing the Eyeline II
The second benefit of the eyeline is to use it as a horizontal axis to position key elements. In this case my eyeline was running through the middle of the front car’s windscreen (A) and because of the sloping ground it was aligning with the tail-lights of the cars across the road (B).
Notice that this scene doesn’t conform to the totally flat scenes that are normally used to explain perspective and eyeline. I use these type of diagrams all the time, but when I am out on the streets I need to adjust these principles to suit sloping ground and what’s the best way to do this? Careful observation and my next point…
Relying on Relationships
I believe this is the biggest issue, as without it all the perspective theory in the world will not help you draw what you see! You must check and rely on relationships!
The key to sketching fast is to work out which are the important elements in a scene that will set out the rest (this is something that I explain more fully in SketchingNow Edges).
So for me in this scene I used the windscreen of the front car (A) as my important reference point and then related the size and position of the cars across the road (B) from there, abstracting shapes for the overall outline of each. I next established a vertical of one of the shops opposite (C) and then completed the rest of the elements based on these key edges.
Fighting Foreshortening (BTW this is a good fight!)
And the final big part of the sketch was fighting my ‘object brain’ when it came to foreshortening – in particular in relation to the side of the cars. Notice how from my viewpoint the backs of the cars appear much wider than the sides.
This is a case when using your pen for a little sight-measuring helps a lot, but these days I am trying to do it mentally – so it is a lovely battle in my brain between my object knowledge and my visual perception. Lengths on foreshortened side of things are nearly always shorter than I think!
I don’t think I will ever get over the excitement and wonder of this: how clever our ‘object brain’ is to perceive and judge how long an object is even though we can’t see it – and how when we sketch we have to turn this amazing skill off and learn another one!
I could go on and on… but I hope you get the picture of how much fun I had with this sketch. And I haven’t even mentioned what pen (and ink) I was using, or which pigments etc etc. So quickly here are a few more comments:
- I was using De Atramentis document black ink in my Green Sailor Fude pen.
- I painted shapes first and then drew into them, so some of the ink pigment has floated over the top of the watercolour washes.
- The sketch was completed in under 15 minutes
- This sketch is a good reminder to me that I should sketch more cars – I mean they are an easy subject matter to find
I hope you enjoyed this explanation and please let me know if it was helpful – and if you have any questions!
Just for the record, this is an example of what my SketchingNow lessons are like – with the addition of video demos of course! I really love breaking down the process of my thinking and especially love doing diagrams like these. It helps me so much as I am then about to analyse a similar scene more easily the next time I sketch one, and my hope is that it will for you too!