4. Getting in Shape

Now you know to edit your view to simple and basic shapes, and you have some idea how to find those shapes. Let’s talk about how to measure those shapes in order to get them right, that is with correct PROPORTIONS.

1– Just what are “proportions” anyway? The answer is simple: proportions are basically the relationship of the height to the width of something. That’s it. Simple, but important, as proportions are key to how we see the world accurately and in particular, how we perceive beauty. Imagine the Taj Mahal looking squat or the elegant and timeless proportions of the Parthenon being off. So how do we capture accurate proportions when sketching in the field, and how do we apply that to our sketches?

One of the comments most often posted to my Craftsy/Bluprint classes is that people are so happy to finally understand how to measure a scene with their pencil. Apparently, lots of artists have been told in colleges and universities around the world to fully extend their arm and pencil, lock their arm in place, then use the pencil to measure things in their view… so it was a joyous ah-ha moment for many folks to realize instead that they should, 1) close one eye to flatten out the view, 2) align your pencil with a prominent vertical (or sometimes horizontal) edge, 3) THEN lock your arm and 4) use that pencil length to measure. Here it is in the recent book:

2– For lack of a better term, I call this vertical edge my “Measuring Line”. It is a line that I use to measure and reference many things in my view. For example, in the photo above, I can see that the 2nd floor balcony in the distance is just about half way up my Measuring Line/pencil, information that helps me locate the height of the 2nd floor in my sketch. And the top of that arch in the distance just about lines up with the top of my Measuring Line, also useful to know. I can also use my pencil to locate other buildings in my view, see this example from Rome below.

In this view, I align my pencil with a prominent edge of the building (which I used as my Measuring Line ;), then I lock my arm and drop the pencil horizontally to measure the distance to Trajan’s column and then the corner of the Wedding Cake building. Analyzing the scene with my pencil before I start sketching helps me locate things accurately in my sketch.

3– It’s critical to note that you are not transferring the actual height of your pencil to your paper (it probably wouldn’t fit anyway), you are really just transferring the RATIOS you have measured with your pencil. Is a wall 1 pencil high to 1 pencil wide (a square), or maybe a tall rectangle, or a wide rectangle like in the sketch from the Met above? Seeing this gets easier with practice. And once you start looking, you will see 1:1 SQUARES everywhere!!!!

4– And last, I want to add that the Measuring line is the first thing I sketch on my paper, and its size determines the size of everything in my sketch. Its location on my page determines what I will be able to include in my sketch. Remember, the Measuring Line should probably be lower than you think!! By starting with the Measuring Line the right size and low on my paper, I have room to include the ceiling! See the quick thumbnail below.

2. It’s all about your eye level…

When I wrote my book on perspective in 2015, I came up with several unique ways of describing perspective terms and processes — things that I have seen no where else but are a product of my 25+ years of teaching perspective sketching and the crazy ways I explain things 😉

Here’s an example. Instead of using the concept of “Horizon Line” used in every other book or class I’ve ever seen on perspective, I use the concept of “Eye Level Line” or “Eye Line”. This is literally a horizontal line that represents the height of your eyes above the ground (shown in blue in the photo below.) Why use ELL instead of HL? Unless you are sketching at the beach or West Texas or from the second floor of Basilica San Marco in Venice and can see the horizon (where the ocean or land meets the sky), the concept of your Eye Level Line is more relevant to urban sketching.

Your EYE LEVEL = Horizon Line, but ELL is better!!

From The Urban Sketching Handbook: 101 Sketching Tips. You can see that my eye level aligns
with the actual horizon in the distance. You can also see that the vanishing point for the building
on the right is ON the horizontal line at my eye level, my ELL!

Now let’s apply it to sketching interiors. From lesson 1, you know how to use converging lines to find your Vanishing Point. Next thing to learn is that nearly all the vanishing points will live somewhere on your Eye Level Line!! This line is so important for so many things, I draw it into every sketch I make.

How do I find my Eye Level Line in my view? Here are a few methods:

  1. Hold your pencil or pen at your eye level in front of your eyes, and compare this horizontal line to your view. Where does this line hit something in the scene that you can use as reference?
  2. If you are sitting, find a door handle. You’ll notice my eye level is just about the height of the handle on the door to the left.
  3. Find where parallel lines that are receding away from you converge to one point, that Vanishing Point will be on your Eye Level Line.
  4. Horizon = Your Eye Level, so if you can see the horizon, use it! Keep in mind that your Eye Level Line is different if you are sitting (about the height of a door handle), standing (about 5′ from the ground), on top of a building or in a plane, just remember that the vanishing points will be on this line!
  5. Use the concept of Foreshortening. Vanishing lines ABOVE your eye level will angle down, receding lines below your eye level will angle up, and receding lines that appear dead flat are ON your eye level line! The example below shows the floor lines of an office building, but you can also see this when looking at shelves in your home. Where the lines of the shelves flatten out to a true horizontal line, that is your eye level!
  6. Reference other people in your view. If you are sitting, other people in the view who are also sitting will align with your eye level. Same if you are standing and the ground is more or less flat– the eyes of other people standing will be just about the same as your eye level!
From The Urban Sketching Handbook: Understanding Perspective.
From The Urban Sketching Handbook: 101 Sketching Tips.

The New Burke Museum, Seattle. Notice how when I’m standing, most everyone else who is standing has the same eye level as I do, provided the floor is pretty flat and they are roughly as tall as I am. This is true no matter where people are in your view. Knowing this can help me find my ELL and VP, and helps me to accurately add people to my sketches! In an eye level perspective view, heads will align!

Try taking some photos around your house of things like bookcases, drawers, horizontal wood siding, etc. to see if you can find where these lines flatten out to a horizontal–that will be your eye level line! Watch this line change as you sit or stand and how this change impacts other lines.

It’s really important to understand where your Eye Level Line is in your view and in your sketch… much more on that coming up!