My perspective on perspective

School’s back on and NYU students wander through my neighborhood, clutching new books and pencils. Quite often, I see some of them set up in the park, preparing to draw Washington Square arch. It’s a beautiful landmark, and I’ve often tackled it myself.
I like the ones who slop around with paint and charcoal but I can’t relate to those who show up with t-squares and turn out tight engineering schema, that look more like blueprints than any expression of soul. To me, drawing is about observation and sensuality more than perfection. That’s my esthetic.
I draw a lot of architecture because they define the landscape we New Yorkers live in. While I’m no Brunelleschi, I understand the principles of perspective. I know generally how to locate a vanishing point and that knowledge can be useful if I’m really stuck. But I think of it as more like understanding the principle of the internal combustion engine; I get it but it doesn’t enter my mind much when I’m driving down the road.
Here’s how I’d go about drawing* the view down my street. perspective-pen.gif
It’s a fairly complex scene so I lay down some little marks first. I find the midpoints of my page (in green) using my pen as a rough ruler. I take the same sorts of measurements of the thing I’m drawing. I also uses my thumbs as rough rulers� so and so many thumb widths to this point, so and so many pen cap lengths to this point � that sort of thing. If I didn’t measure things out like this, I’m sure I would have misjudged how wide the library’s facade was in the foreground. The actual part of the scene that is of interest only occupies about 1/8 of the whole space.
I usually start drawing in the upper left hand corner and work my way across. I’ll make little marks if need be to tell me where things intersect. When I just whip out a long diagonal line like the one in the upper left, it probably won’t hit the mark unless I set a target point.
I’ll also look for some sort of large and broken line somewhere to use as a reference point. In this case, the building on the right has a regular pattern of tiles down its length; I can use this like an in situ ruler to guide the other buildings’ proportions. I count down three tiles and say, ‘Okay, the roof of the ornate building in the center hits this height. Go down one more tile and that’s the point at which the angle of the receding part of the roof hits. Down two more and that ‘s the roof of the building behind it…’ and so on. If there’s no guide in the landscape (as there wasn’t horizontally here) I can also use my pen length to bifurcate the space and create a partial grid to set my reference points.
Remember to check your verticals. Unless you have birds’ or worms’ eyes, make sure your verticals are straight 90 degree angles to the ground. It’s so easy to start leaning them over and soon all of your lines will be out of whack.
I measure other sorts of angles by holding up my pen horizontally and then rotating it to meet the angle. That action temporarily imprints the deviation of the angle from the horizon into my brain. When I go down to the paper, I just repeat the rotation and I can usually get it pretty dead on.
I like to do all these little measurements rather than ruling down the artificial lines of perspective and then erasing them because I am trying to record my own observations in my drawings. I find that all these little measurements bring me closer and closer to my subject and that’s the goal of my work. I don’t care if it’s all accurate and perfect but that it reflects what and how I am seeing. The deeper I go the better. Somehow rulers and perspective lines make it all seem more mechanical and artificial and I just don’t like it.
In any case, the results seem okay to me. In fact, I will often be a lot wilder and just draw lines and angles on the fly. I don’t care that much of my buildings are misshapen and irregular, so long as they feel alive. Those T-square folks seem to make drawings that lie on the page like dead, academic fish.
Drawing buildings is just like drawing anything else. Be slow. Keep your eyes on the subject most of the time. Don’t freak out if you make a ‘mistake’. And do it as often as you can.
Drawing isn’t a science. Don’t reduce it to one.
*Atypically, I drew this in Photshop on a tablet so I could use layers to demonstrate my methodology.

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