Saturday, September 26, 2015

Perspective and Elevation in the Figures You Draw

-By Ron Lemen

Hello all and happy September.  We are in Montana at the moment, taking in some breathtaking scenery while visiting my family.  I will finish the second part to the False Start article I began a few weeks back when I return to San Diego.  While we have been out of town I have been pondering many additional topics I am adding to my figure drawing book and I would like to share one of them with you here.

I draw from the figure almost daily.  I teach several classes during the week that allows me to stay close to the subject and the rest of my work time is spent doing illustrations, character designs and commissions where I am constantly working with and manipulating characters.  I am constantly reminded of the problems we face when drawing, and especially when working with the figure.  

The most universal problem I have found with many artists, beginners, and intermediates as well as with many seasoned professionals is matching everything drawn in a scene to the horizon line, especially organic shapes and of course the figure.  Many times the figure is drawn with a flat forward look to every part of the body.  In other words, there is no real elevation change in the figure from head to toe and/or if there is, it is only emphasized where it is most obviously recognizable. 

There are tools that the artist can use to solve this issue long before investing time in the rendering.  If we use landmarks, ellipses and overlap shapes using a strong draw through method, as well as indicate a ground plane and possibly a horizon line, unless we fall asleep at the drawing wheel theses tools should work well setting up solid armatures to take to a finish.

Landmarks, also known as subcutaneous boney surfaces, are the bones under the skin that influence the surface.  The skull for the most part is one large subcutaneous landmark.  With exception to the cheeks, most of the skull is just below the skin.  The clavicles, the sternum, the elbows, the knees, etc. are landmarks we look for.   One use of the landmarks is to compare the left side of the body to the right side of the body.  Using the centerline as a gauge for these landmarks, we align the left side with the right side or the front with the back based upon the landmarks, their elevation and their distance to one another.  The following skeletons show the landmarks of both the front and the back of the skeleton.

The mannequin is the starting point for the figure, or the armature that represents the skeletal structure of the pose.  The core of the skeleton is called the axial skeleton while the arms and legs are called the appendicular skeleton.  Ellipses should be drawn around the axial skeleton near the neck, the 10th ribs, the pair of iliac crests and the base of the pelvis including the greater trochanters.  The upper and lower half of each leg and arm should have ellipses drawn around them dividing each segment of each appendicular limb into thirds.  This division will come in handy when drawing out the proportions of the muscles and tendons.

These ellipses drawn help us understand a few things we are looking at.  The first is the foreshortening of a space.  The more circular you see the elliptical lines the more you are looking straight through the object.   The flatter the ellipses, nearing a straight line, the more perpendicular we are facing that ellipse.   The other use of the ellipses is when we draw these ellipses around the cylinder forms we are placing markers on the body to help us with volume as well as with elevation.  If we sit low to the model then we should be looking up under the ellipses more and if we are above the model we should be looking down at the ellipses.   This diagram below further illustrates this concept.

Overlapping lines and shapes also help with identifying the spatial relationships with the body.   Overlapping shapes can and usually indicate foreshortened sections of the body.  The shapes should be drawn using the draw through method.  With the draw through method shapes are completed, spaces are totally resolved and more information than is necessary is found helping the artist fully realize where all the parts of the body are with any pose.  Overlapping lines are very similar and are used in places like the hips or any bending segment of the body.  Of the converging lines, one ends abruptly called a broken line and the other becomes the tangent.  The tangential line indicates one volume passing behind another volume indicated with the broken line.

Now, when starting the figure drawing elevation is critical to the delivery of convincing forms in 3D space.  When drawing from a photograph it might be more difficult to indicate where the eye level is.  Hint:  If the reference is a full figure from head to toe then look at the feet.  The rise of the heels in relationship to the toes and the reverse is very telling of the perspective of the pose.  If the photo is cropped then it will be more difficult to observe where the proper eye level is to the horizon line.  When life drawing or shooting photo reference for an illustration we have to be fully aware of our position to the model.

Drawing in a ground plane is always helpful and beneficial to reminding the artist that the figure drawn exists in 3D space.  Gridding the floor plane is always smart as it helps us with measuring up through the figure and determine distances between feet, knees, etc.  It does not need to be absolutely accurate, it just needs to remind the artist to constantly measure the figure not just for likeness but also for elevation and dimension as well.

I would also strongly recommend that for every object, figure, or anything else that you draw should have a horizon line indicated relative to your position or the photographer’s position to the reference.  This will constantly remind you of elevation and to remember to exaggerate whatever features are necessary to maintain a solid elevation in the pictorial space.  There is no need for vanishing points or connecting back to the horizon line, it is not complicated perspective. 

One last tip for drawing the figure in 3D space at the correct elevation is to create was is called a bounding box around the reference.  By doing this the box will help the artist remember all sides of the figure as well as dimension and elevation reference points.  In fact, this method can be taken one step farther by taking the bounding boxes and rotating, tipping, tilting and turning them in different positions and redrawing the pose to fit within them.  I will cover this in greater detail in another future article.  

Put these concepts to work and practice them as much as possible.  They are simple exercises but do not rush them.  This exercise should be thoughtful and slowly developed.  The more you practice it the easier and quicker it will be to use.  Good luck and enjoy your development.


  1. Thank you Ron. Can't wait to try it!

  2. Ron Lemen is a genius, and sites like these need more fundamental instruction like this.

  3. Thanks, Ron! Much appreciated reminder.

    I took your CGMA class last spring--really helped me with understanding anatomy. I'll look forward to reading your future Muddy Colors posts!

  4. Nice! And does this mean you have a full anatomy book of your own coming out?