Foreshortening in art refers to the way we perceive an object as it recedes in space. It is perhaps best explained visually. Take a moment to do the following:
- Place your arm in front of your body, bent at the elbow so that your forearm aligns with your chest (refer to the photo below on the left). Observe the length of your arm, from elbow to fingertips. This is an example of limited foreshortening.
- Now, extend your arm straight out in front. Notice how, from this perspective, your arm appears compressed. The perceived distance from the bottom of your elbow to your top finger does not reflect the actual length of your arm. This is an example of extreme foreshortening.
The photos below are examples of what you should see, modeled by yours truly. On the left: limited foreshortening; on the right: extreme foreshortening.
You will be dealing with some extent of foreshortening whenever you paint a three-dimensional object in space. In that sense, it is a rather general term. But it is typically only used to describe more extreme cases, such as the painting below:
You can see the effects of foreshortening in my draw-over below, including overlapping and compressed shapes. But more on that in the next section.
Below is another example from my sketchbook. It depicts a shape arrangement at varying degrees of foreshortening. The shape in question is a series of connected cylinders.
At the top is the shape without any perspective; it is two-dimensional or flat. In the middle is the shape at a slight angle with slight foreshortening. At the bottom is a rendered version of the shape with extreme foreshortening. Remember, the three individual drawings depict the same shape from different perspectives.
Here are the main effects of foreshortening:
- Objects appear to get smaller as they recede into the distance.
- Objects appear to be shorter or more compressed than they actually are.
- Objects at the front will overlap objects behind.
The extent of these effects will vary based on the extent of the foreshortening.
Going back to my drawing example (below), notice how:
- The shapes get smaller as they recede into the distance. If the shape continued, it would eventually converge at a single point on the horizon line (vanishing point).
- The shape appears shorter than it actually is.
- The sections at the front overlap the sections at the back.
As with any matter of perspective, foreshortening can be as complex as you want to make it. The effects of foreshortening could be determined with absolute certainty through mathematics, but where is the fun in that? Artists do not need to be perfect, we just need to be convincing (unless your audience is full of esteemed mathematicians).
Here are some tips for rendering a foreshortened object:
Where is the object in space? Understanding the object's position in space relative to your own position is essential for accurate foreshortening. Ask yourself: Is the object coming back at me, away from me, up, down?
Use perspective lines (lines that extend from a single point on the horizon line). You can use these lines to determine the relative size of objects as they recede into the distance. You can see the rough perspective lines I used for my shape drawing below:
Look for basic, overlapping shapes. Foreshortening is easier to comprehend if you break the object down into basic shapes. Steve Huston refers to it as "box logic". Seeing the object in this way will help you understand how the shapes overlap and are positioned in space.
What would you see if the object was made up of boxes, spheres, cylinders, and cones?
Draw through the object. Imagine the object is transparent. Allow your pencil to draw through the object, following the contours over, under, and around. This will help you better understand the form of the object and how it is positioned in space.
Edges and contours. What are the important edges and contours? Some edges are more important than others. It can be effective to narrow down on those important edges and accentuate them.
Continuity. Foreshortening typically comes with many overlapping shapes and therefore many broken edges. This can interrupt the sense of continuity throughout the object as a whole. You can see what I mean in white below:
To add a sense of continuity throughout the arm, you could pick up some of the long, sweeping lines that follow the gesture of the arm (indicated in yellow below). These lines help connect the dots so to speak.
Below is another example by Leonardo da Vinci. Look at the bottom hand: notice how the overlap between the hand and forearm breaks up the inside edge. The other side of the arm, however, has a continuous edge that connects the forearm, hand, and fingers.
Exaggerate or understate. You could push the drama and distortion by exaggerating the effects of foreshortening. Or you could go the other way and understate the effects, giving your artwork a flat and cartoonish feel.
Foreshortening is typically associated with portrait and still life painting, where the effects tend to be more noticeable. But you also need to understand it for landscape painting.
Below are some examples, starting with Silent Abode by Isaac Levitan. Take a look at the bridge over the river: notice how it appears compressed? This is an example of foreshortening. The far shoreline on the other hand has no foreshortening; it reflects the actual length of the shoreline. If you were to place the bridge and shoreline side-by-side, they would probably be similar in length.
Here is another example by Levitan. Take note of the various paths receding into the distance. The main path around the middle covers the most actual distance, even though it appears compressed in the painting. Now, look at the small path that zig-zags horizontally across the painting: it is longer in the painting than the main path, but it covers much less actual distance.
Some other examples of when you might encounter strong foreshortening in landscape painting are:
- A fallen tree (refer to Ivan Shishkin's Logging below);
- A river winding into the distance;
- A tree branch extending forward or back in perspective; or
- A crashing wave from a sharp angle.
The best way to learn and understand foreshortening is to sketch it out. Theory will only take you so far. You need to train your hand and eyes to see objects in perspective. Here are some basic exercises you can do:
- Draw simple shapes in extreme foreshortening.
- Draw multiple overlapping shapes in extreme foreshortening.
- Draw the same shape at varying degrees of foreshortening (like my drawing at the start of this post).
- Draw over master artworks that demonstrate foreshortening.
- Practice using perspective lines and one-point perspective to draw shapes at relative scale.
You do not need to be perfect with these exercises. Rough sketches are fine. Below are some examples from my sketchbook:
I will run through some more examples, but first, here is an example without foreshortening (or hardly any): John Singer Sargent's Portrait of Madame X. She stands upright with her arms hanging down. Nothing is coming back at us or receding away. The depth of field is extremely narrow.
Sargent's Siesta, on the other hand, is a great demonstration of foreshortening. Imagine for a second that the two ladies are basic shapes in perspective. What do you see?
Say the two ladies are represented by cylinders (in yellow below). Notice how the cylinders get narrower as they recede into the distance and how the ellipses closer to us are larger than the ones at the back.
Here is a beautiful portrait by Joaquín Sorolla. Try to see her body as basic shapes in perspective. Notice how her back arches upward; her legs extend away then come back at the knees; her head is tilted back; her left arm comes forward then back at the elbow.
Her leg above the knee has the highest degree of foreshortening. Her torso, by comparison, has hardly any. I have also drawn what her leg would look like without (much) foreshortening (see the arrow below).
Here is a basic sketch by William Turner and a great example of overlapping shapes.
In Édouard Manet's The Plum, the subject's arms demonstrate varying degrees of foreshortening, with her left forearm resting on the table and her right hand leaning against her face showing the most extreme foreshortening.
Here is a painting by Mary Cassatt featuring a girl reclining in a blue armchair. Notice the varying levels of foreshortening between different parts of her body, particularly her legs.
- Foreshortening in art is much more a case of how extreme the effects are, rather than if it exists or not.
- A foreshortened object will appear to get smaller as it recedes into the distance; will appear compressed; and will overlap.
- The effects of foreshortening could be determined with absolute certainty through mathematics, but where is the fun in that? Artists do not need to be perfect, we just need to be convincing.
- To capture the effects of foreshortening, try to draw through the object. Let your pencil follow over, under, and around. Imagine the object is made up of basic shapes and is transparent.
- The best way to learn foreshortening is to sketch it out. Practice by arranging simple shapes at varying degrees of foreshortening.
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