How To Let Go Of Perspective Drawing Perfectionism

A Guide to breaking perspective the right way


The Pains of Perspective

Have you ever encountered the drawing exercise of railroad tracks vanishing towards a horizon? Did you feel lost out there on the plain, wondering how all these construction lines relate to your artwork? I know I have been there numerous times. And I always come back with sunburn.

The artist´s business is to be able to draw an object so that it will look solid and not flat like the surface of the paper on which it is drawn. In so doing the artist employs a method that we call perspective
— Ernest R. Norling “Perspective Made Easy”

Mr. Norling suggests that perspective is a way of drawing, a skill in your toolbox. Certainly, one can learn how to construct horizon lines, vanishing points and grids. But is it really every artist´s business to make objects look solid? Last week I talked about how art depicts someone else´s perception of the world. What if you think that there are more important things to emphasize than solidity, let alone perfectly constructed perspective grids? 

Perspective is the relationship between what is being looked at and from where it is being seen.

Perfect perspective breakers 


Have you ever noticed that children do not draw three-dimensional? They draw objects flat in their essential nature and, depending on how they typically see the object, from up top, from the side or head on. The child combines these different viewpoints freely into one image. On the left you see a drawing I did of our garden when I was seven years old (Wunderkind, I know). The swings are drawn from head on, whereas the pond is drawn from up top. The row of trees falls flat to the left side, while they are seen from up front at the top. 

Powerfully flat  

Not only children have a natural approach to translating their experience onto paper. If you look at the paintings found in Egyptian tombs, you will notice that a single scene is depicted from multiple station points. Each object in the scene- may it be a person, a plant or animal– is depicted from a different station point; as if the artist had moved directly in front of each object in order to draw it “face on”. This emphasizes the relative shapes and sizes of objects. 

  My sketch of a part of a wall-painting from the tenth tomb at Gourna, Thebes.

My sketch of a part of a wall-painting from the tenth tomb at Gourna, Thebes.

Pulling It all together

Margaret Hagen, a psychologist with a specialty in visual perception, points out how our human perception deals with specific information about constant properties in our environment: size, shape, distance, slant, color etc. A cohesive image succeeds because the artist has consistently structured these invariants as they are perceived from a certain station point or viewing position of the artist. 

Style means a consistent use of geometries and station point options.

Picking Priority

If the geometry shifts, there is a change in style. You may notice that I did exactly that in the image at the top- while the sun is a flat shape, the railroad tracks are dimensional and drawn in perspective. Hagen suggests that the Egyptians prioritized clarity over natural perspective. In other words, their love for clarity informs their decision on a station point in order to draw the object. They chose the most recognizable angle much like children do. Both create complex composite images that provide more information than a single station point could.

In order to draw in perspective, you just need to know where to stand.

Don’t let the delight of seeing the world be cut by perspective lines. I don’t mean to diminish the skill of construction. I just want to remind you that you can choose to do so - or not. Art is not a math problem with one correct answer. 

Breaking Perspective in a Nutshell

  • Drawing perspective grids is a tool in your toolbox - nothing more, nothing less.
  • Emphasizing other aspects than solidity is in fact allowed.
  • Translating your experiences truthfully onto paper may call for flatness. 
  • Finding the essential truth of an object to be drawn requires moving around it.

I would love to hear your own love/hate relationship with the scholarly approach to perspective drawing. Who are your favorite perspective breakers?