Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Putting perspective into perspective

This article was first published in my newsletter "Notes From My French Easel" – February 2012 

In his book “The Elements of Drawing”, John Ruskin declared that:

“No great painters ever trouble themselves about perspective, and very few of them know its laws; they draw everything by the eye, and, naturally enough, disdain in the easy parts of their work rules which cannot help them in difficult ones. It would take about a month's labour to draw imperfectly, by laws of perspective, what any great Venetian will draw perfectly in five minutes, when he is throwing a wreath of leaves round a head, or bending the curves of a pattern in and out among the folds of drapery.”

I was almost outraged when I first read this statement. But, after reflexion, I believe Ruskin’s observation to be true… for most part.

Staircase in perspective by Luciano Testoni

It is true that, in practice, artists often forego the formal construction of perspective with a ruler and vanishing points. Ruskin observed with irreverence that: “Turner, though he was professor of perspective to the Royal Academy, did not know what he professed, and never, as far as I remember, drew a single building in true perspective in his life; he drew them only with as much perspective as suited him.”

At times, when drawing buildings for instance, a formal approach to perspective makes sense. For most subjects (clouds, people, trees…) a more hands-on approach does perfectly the job. A good eye and an acute sense of observation go a long way.

It does not mean that studying perspective is useless. I would argue this is one of these disciplines you must practice and assimilate to make it your own and then forget about it. It should be there, in the back of your mind, as all objects are subject to the rules of perspective.

When you tackle a complex cityscape or paint from an unusual viewpoint, taking the pain to construct perspective lines will save you time in the long run. Another instance where formal perspective should be brought back in is when you feel something is not quite right in your painting. In this case, check with a ruler in hand that you applied correctly the laws of perspective. 

Otherwise, go with Turner and draw only with as much perspective as suits your needs.

Related resources

If you are in the US (Amazon affiliate link)
The Elements of Drawing by John Ruskin

If you are in the United Kingdom (Amazon affiliate link)
The Elements of Drawing by John Ruskin

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