Education Forum

Perspective - Part 3

By Margaret Saul

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist – Volume 14, Issue 3


Atmospheric concepts help beginners “to see” in 3-D  

As part of the beginner level drawing curriculum I designed for the school of botanical art in Maryland, beginners learn to develop a drawing by first drawing the gesture as they observe the main attitude, of their subject. They then progress by working over this gesture to develop the 2-D shape of the subject (picture plane image, or contour) then zoom in to illustrate more detail–without shading. Our teachers explain to students why line can be generally viewed as an abstract element used to establish the shape of the subject, but that more importantly at this stage, using line without tone helps them to develop the observation required to accurately draw the finer structural details – prior to a comprehensive study of “value.”  

Here they are also introduced to the concept of a consistent light source and atmospheric perspective, (generating a sense of 3-D or depth within a picture, without the use of shading) by manipulating the line-only drawing (Image 1).  

It is designed to develop the ability to tune in to a third dimension while drawing on the flat sheet of paper but as the course progresses this awareness of perspective and the consistent light source sees students create paintings that appear to “pop out” from the paper. Sensing your pencil at a certain position in the three-dimensional space in and around the subject is an absorbing process, providing a great deal of satisfaction, especially for novices who have taught themselves to draw from 2-D images and who often complain prior to class that their drawings look flat. (It is useful to point out to students that many drawings or paintings copied from photographs can appear flat and lifeless because they have not been interpreted three-dimensionally.)  

Drawing in depth (Refer also to Drawing Basics in The Botanical Artist, Volume 13, Issue 3, page 9) is a term I use for introducing what I view as creating atmospheric perspective in a line drawing, one that has no tonal rendering and where the tone of the line is used to promote either prominence or recession: recognizing the edge in shadow is a major key used in generating this application (Image 2). Such a drawing is created by working over the initial detailed drawing using a well pointed soft-grade pencil, and varying the pressure on the pencil according to the lightness or darkness of line required.  

Noted more thoroughly in the reference listed above, this instruction sees that edges that are foremost, or closer to the picture plane than others around it, are those edges whose value is manipulated so they have the greatest contrast with the background, while those receding “into the distance” are drawn so they are closer in value to the background. For example, if working against a light background to make an edge appear closer than others to the picture plane, a darker line is drawn by using heavier pressure on the pencil and so creating greater contrast with the white paper, whereas a lighter line will recede (Image 3). As instruction progresses to value study and then painting students learn to define edges without resorting to outline, an abstract element that in a painting does not promote a sense of three-dimensionality.  

The subject of atmospheric perspective (tonal) will continue in another Education Forum as in the next issue I would like to share my approach to instruction that develops proficiency in drawing curled or twisted leaves, one that enables students (and teachers) to check for accuracy in their drawings of leaves or petals. It can be a difficult aspect for many to grasp but this exercise helps students to see if an error has occurred, and it is another useful exercise for developing the ability to sense 3-D while drawing. Accuracy in this area of drawing is vital, and necessary for successful entry into prestigious botanical art exhibitions.

  • Image 1 – (three leaves) Left leaf at natural dimensions, middle leaf a foreshortened view – note the approach to illustrating the serrations – and leaf on right illustrates the general concept of “drawing in perspective” using a similar shape but without the detail in the leaf margin.
  • Image 2 – Sprig of leaves demonstrates line work manipulated to enhance a sense of perspective, “prominence and recession” of edges. 4.5x5” graphite drawing.
  • Image 3 – Fig leaf, line work manipulated to enhance perspective with care taken not to over emphasize the venation, 5.25x5.5” Medium: Graphite, Artist: Margaret Saul – illustrations completed Aug ‘08