Foreshortening Can Fool You: 3 Tips for Accurate Foreshortening

Published Mar. 17th 2009


We all think we know what we see. It’s only when we start to draw or paint something that a battle begins to wage between what our mind wants to see and what our eyes are actually looking at.

And then, just when we’re certain we’ve got it right, we’ll stand back and discover a wacky proportion problem due to an incorrectly foreshortened subject.

What is foreshortening?

Foreshortening happens whenever we can see at least two sides, or planes, of an object. As a flat plane recedes into the distance, it gets easier and easier to see the distortion occurring in the width and height of objects on that plane.

foreshortening

Subjects such as buildings, animals and people reveal faulty foreshortening more blatantly than other subjects, but in any situation the problem can be easily solved by using a rather odd little scheme involving plumbing, charting, and angling. Here’s a brief description of each.

Plumbing originated with a plumb line, which is simply a string with a weight at the end. When you hold the string so that the weight hangs loose, it creates a perfect, vertical line (great for architects and builders).

plumb

For the artist, it’s less cumbersome and just as effective to use a brush or pencil handle instead. This gives us our perfectly straight vertical line at any time.

Charting is a way of visually measuring foreshortened objects. Place your plumb where two planes of a shape intersect, then gauge the apparent distance between the plumb line and the shape’s edges on either side of it

charting diagram

Angling is something else entirely. Rather than following contours as we normally do when drawing, angling uses straight lines to render major edges of a shape, as shown in the example below.

angling

Now, here’s how we can combine these three techniques to accurately depict a foreshortened shape:

Step 1. Plumbing

Position your plumb line at the intersection where two sides of a shape meet.

argus intersection

In the photo above, the dog’s body is bent so that his shoulders, neck and head form one plane with the rest of his body form another. It’s at the intersection of those two planes that we place our plumb.

Once the intersection is located, draw a corresponding line on your canvas or paper. Begin your line at the top of the shape and end it at the bottom. This will help establish the height that your drawn image will be.

Step 2. Charting

Take a look at both sides of the image, on either side of the the plumb line. Make a mark on your paper or canvas corresponding to the width of the right side of your subject. This line should start at the plumb line and extend to the farthest point on the right. Repeat for the left side.

charting argus 1

With that, you now have a chart showing the apparent width of each side. Put your two sides together and you also have the total visual length of your foreshortened subject, giving you all the reference points you need to begin your drawing.

Step 3. Angling

Using the points of reference in your chart, you can start creating angled strokes to estimate the overall shape of your subject.

argus angled

For images tilted strangely, or with multiple sides, the method still works—just create another plumb line at the second intersection as illustrated in this photo of a toad.

multiple sides

No matter what you’re drawing or painting, that’s all there is to it!

If foreshortened objects have challenged you in the past, just start out with this “plumb/chart/angle” technique and then move on into your painting with confidence that your foreshortening is correct.

Did you like this article? Share it!
Then check out the related posts below.
This article contains step-by-step images of the process I use to create realistic looking drawings, as well as tips I've picked up over the years which anyone can use to improve their drawing skills. There's a lot to cover, so let's get started! 1. Make sure there’s a direct light source. Bef. . . read more
As with any drawing, the beginning of a painting is the most important step. Successful starts lead to good finishes. In the next few paragraphs I'll explain what I do to start a painting off on the right foot. Phase 1: Blocking in the initial drawing I'm starting with a gray (neutral 5) toned. . . read more
If you paint on canvas—either in acrylics, oils, or watercolor—you've probably noticed that your unframed paintings look much better from the front than they do from the side. Anytime you catch a glimpse of those raw canvas edges, they look startlingly white against the painted front. Worse ye. . . read more
I've always had a love of flowers. Some of my earliest memories are planting pansies and sweet peas with my grandmother in early spring. As a military brat we moved a lot, but my mother always left her yard filled with flowers for the next family. Combining my love of flowers and art was a nat. . . read more
If the lights were to suddenly go out on a dark night, you wouldn't be able to see a thing. Everything would be in darkness. This makes it easy to understand darkness as the absence of light. . . but can you imagine light without any dark? That's a little more difficult. To see anything we mus. . . read more
Stay current.
Subscribe to EmptyEasel's free weekly newsletter for artists. Sign up today!
CanvasFlyer
Art Contests
More art contests. . .
EE Writers
Alyice Edrich Cassie Rief Steff Metal Niki Hilsabeck Brandi Bowman Michelle Morris Lisa Orgler Adriana Guidi Carrie Lewis Aletta de Wal Erin SparlerLuke Montgomery

If you'd like to write for EmptyEasel, let us know!

We love publishing reader-submitted art tutorials, stories, and even reviews.Submit yours here!