Over the past few weeks, Michael Holter (7 Steps to Watercolor Landscapes now available here) has helped us understand one of his favorite tools for representational landscape painters, perspective.
Now that you know three different types of perspective including aerial (or atmospheric), linear and solar, how do you utilize them in your art?
"If an artist doesn’t understand the basics of perspective, even the casual observer might say “something looks wrong with that painting." Michael says of painters dealing with perspective, "People don't always know what it is but when they look at it they intuitively know, "That doesn't seem quite right. The colors are pretty. It's got something going for it, but there's something wrong.”
The solution is practice. Below Michael recommends three ways to practice seeing perspective in the world around you.
“Practicing these skills apart from painting finished landscapes,” says Michael. “This is specific practice to get you more comfortable with perspective. It isn’t about painting a good painting, it’s about learning the tools to paint a good painting.”
Here are four exercises help you practice getting better at perspective:
Exercise 1: Work from Life
From a perspective standpoint, working from life is easiest. Your camera lens isn’t as sensitive as your eye. It will change angles and show fewer values and less saturation in your photos than you could see with the naked eye.
So if you are just starting out with perspective, grab a sketchbook and add a walk to your week. Go outside and analyze how perspective plays out in real life.
Look out onto a scene and think through the concepts of aerial, linear and solar perspective. Write down how the scene in front of you reflects each.
Exercise 2: Practice Finding the Horizon Line / Eye Level
All lines lead to that horizon line. If you want to create realistic paintings, it’s important to practice knowing where it is.
“Establishing the Eye Level is the first step to creating a sense of reality on a 2-dimensional surface” Your Eye Level is just that, a level, horizontal, and imaginary line that is at your “Eye Level” and proceeds horizontally across whatever you are looking at,” says Michael.
Finding the Horizon Line or Eye Level is easy when you’re overlooking an ocean. The horizon line is where the sky meets the water. Done.
It gets more complicated - and here’s where the practice comes in - when you can’t see a clear horizon line and you need to use your eye level to find it.
Practice both finding that eye level in the real world and committing it to paper in a quick thumbnail sketch.
You may hear yourself say, “Oh, I’ll figure it out later,” but later is too late. Figure it out now. Look for cues around you.
Practice doing this again and again. See it. State it. Draw it in. Where you place the Eye Level on your page will define the composition and establish your point of view.
“You might try sketching the room you are sitting in. Start with the Eye Level line. Use a straight edge if you like. Find the upper edge of a wall and observe carefully how the edge appears to angle down. Follow that edge line with your straight edge all the way to your Eye Level line and you will have found a vanishing point. You will find other edges that will end at the same point…. Then keep on observing and drawing what you see. Do not draw what you “think” something looks like. Draw what what is actually in front of you.”
As you become more and more comfortable with finding the horizon line in real life, transition to photographs.
You’ll feel your old habits begin to kick in. “I’ll figure it out later.” Push back. Practice seeing it (and placing it in your drawing) now so that when you are ready to paint either in the studio or en plein air you’ve practiced finding it quickly.
And when you are ready to paint, put the horizon line in first. For perspective, it’s your most important starting point.
Exercise 3: Practice Thinking About Objects as Shapes
There’s a reason perspective - linear especially- feels so much more straightforward in a city. It’s because man-made shapes are more readily visible as shapes. A building is almost always a box of some sort.
It’s more complicated with organic shapes. However, rocks and trees are still made up of shapes. Once you know what that shape is, you can practice thinking through how that shape changes based on where you are standing and where the horizon line (which you’ve already found!) exist.
For example, think of tree trunks not as trees but as cylinders. The bark on an Aspen or Birch tree directly at eye level will appear to have rings that are a straight line. Just like with a building, the section of the tree above you will slant down toward the horizon line and the tree below you will slant up, changing the shape and direction of the circle.
With this in mind, take your sketchbook outside and look for objects in the landscape. Practice turning them into shapes. Once you’ve made them a shape, practice adjusting that shape so that it follows rules of perspective.
Exercise 4: Emphasize Perspective in Your Work
Your job - if you’re painting realism - is to find places in your landscape where you can create depth in your painting. This may mean using perspective even if you don’t see the rule clearly in your photo reference.
Choose a reference photo of a landscape. Think through the elements of perspective and choose one that you could use to make a scene feel more three-dimensional on your paper.
For example, if you decide you want o use value to show depth and distance, sketch the scene only using grey markers. That way you hone in on that one element and emphasize it.
Next, try the same scene using saturation as your perspective tool. Make the trees closest to you the most saturated and the ones at the very back the least.
Feeling bold? Try to combine a few.
Michael has seen some of his students catch on to perspective right away. But he knows they are the exception. Learning perspective takes time and practice.
Just as scales teach musicians’ fingers muscle memory for how far apart keys are (among other things), perspective studies will help you hone your eyes to seeing perspective all around you.
If you’re a representational painter, that’s an incredibly powerful skill to help give your paintings a sense of distance and depth. So stick with it. You’ll be glad you did.
And if you want to see how Michael Holter uses perspective first hand, check out his new video from Creative Catalyst Productions, 7 Steps to Watercolor Landscapes.
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