Lesson 1: Lines, Ellipses and Boxes

As of October 8th 2016, after roughly two years of offering free critiques, I will now be limiting my own critiques to patreon supporters ($3 or more). But don't fret - you are still welcome to freely submit your work and questions directly to the /r/ArtFundamentals subreddit to be reviewed by the community.

Over the many hundred of homework submissions I've critiqued, I've come to notice a lot of patterns in the mistakes people are making. Below are the most common mistakes made for this lesson.

The idea is that whether or not you choose to submit your homework for review, you can first go through your work on your own and catch common mistakes beforehand. It can be difficult to critique your own work, but it's an important skill to develop.

Do not go through this list while you're doing the work. It's a good idea to go through it beforehand so you know what to avoid, but after you've finished, you should set your work aside for a time, then sit down and go through this list mechanically, one by one, with fresh eyes.

Part 1: Lines

  • Fraying/Separation on Both Ends

    The goal of this exercise is to draw directly on top of a line eight times, ultimately striving to superimpose the new lines perfectly. This is no easy task however, and it is fully expected that fraying/separation of the lines will occur on the far end.

    If you see fraying on both ends of the line however, this is a sign of impatience and a lack of focus. It shows most often that the student is not taking the time to line up their pen correctly at the starting point, and are instead drawing lines without preparation.

  • Wobbling, Drawing Too Slowly and Carefully

    This one may seem a little counter-intuitive. We're always told, slow and steady wins the race - and while that's true in many regards, it is possible to spend that time in the wrong areas.

    This mistake comes from being too slow when drawing a line, which causes the resulting mark to come out wobbly. Instead, the time should be spent preparing to draw - placing the pen in the correct starting point, practicing the required drawing motion a few times, etc. Finally when it comes time to draw, it's important to do so with a consistent, confident, quick pace. That isn't to say that you should draw as fast as you can - but just fast enough to keep your brain from making little corrections as you draw. It's those micro-corrections that manifest as wobbling.

    This may make your lines a little inaccurate, so you'll certainly have to practice to reel those back in, but it's more important that your lines are drawn smooth and straight. A wobbly line is no good.

  • Overshooting

    At first this is okay, as you start getting used to the idea of applying the ghosting method to your lines, but after a while it will develop into a bad habit. It's best to work towards starting at the starting point and ending at the end point. It does take some practice to get used to this however, but as long as you keep aiming for that goal and working towards it, it will come, and it will bring greater control along with it.

  • Automatic Reinforcing

    This one is really common - many of us come in with a habit of immediately following up any line drawn with another. It is rooted in a lack of confidence, the sense that the first line won't be correct, so we've got to hit it up with another. It develops into a really bad habit that results in sketchy, and even at times chicken-scratchy linework. Always force yourself to think and plan before every single mark you put down. That way you can avoid wasting marks like this.

    In a similar vein, I'd also like to encourage you to avoid immediately correcting your mistakes. Often in an attempt to show the world, "oh oops I know that was wrong" we draw more attention to our blunders by adding more ink to that area. It's generally far wiser to leave it alone, as in a drawing you'll either ignore it or try and work it into your drawing somehow. When you're doing exercises, it is important to go back over your work and identify/correct your mistakes, but you should be doing this as a separate process, rather than a knee-jerk reflexive action.

  • Arcing Lines

    Some people will find that they have a natural tendency to arc their lines slightly when attempting to draw one that is straight. One approach I've heard to correct this is to consciously arc your line slightly in the opposite direction. The expected result is that this conscious adjustment will compensate for the issue and will result in a straight line that does not arc in either direction. Over time and practice, your brain will associate this motion with a straight line, and eventually you won't have to be quite so conscious of it.

  • Sloppiness

    This one is vague - reason being, all of the common mistakes I mentioned for the ghosting exercise apply here as well. Be sure to take your time planning and plotting each individual line, and draw each mark quickly and confidently.

Part 2: Ellipses

  • Not Drawing Through Ellipses

    I stress this a lot in the lesson - you should draw through every single ellipse you draw for the lessons here two or three times before lifting your pen. Two is probably best. This will help even out your elliptical shapes, smooth out bumps and generally allow you to draw with a more confident stroke. It will also give you the added practice you need to develop enough muscle memory to one day nail ellipses without going around more than once.

  • Drawing Through Ellipses Too Much!

    The opposite end of the scale is also a problem - you don't want to draw around the ellipse so many times that you lose track of the ellipse you're trying to draw. Remember that each ellipse you draw is intended to occupy a certain space at a specific location, and be of a certain angle and degree. If you draw around the ellipse too much, you'll get too lost in going round-and-around and will miss the point of the exercise. This is why you should go around the ellipse no more than three, no fewer than two times, with two being ideal.

  • Drawing Ellipses Without a Goal

    To extend off the last point, it is not terribly useful to draw ellipses randomly without any clear goal and criteria as to what kind of ellipse you're trying to draw. The most effective practice comes from deciding, "this is the ellipse I want to draw" and either getting it right or getting it wrong. If your practice does not leave you with the opportunity to fail, then there isn't a lot you will be learning from it. After all, we learn the most from our failures.

    When doing this exercise in particular, remember two things: aim to keep everything snug and tight - all the ellipses should be touching each other, but not overlapping, and they should fit perfectly into their rows. Secondly, every ellipse in a row should be the same, a repetition of an identical shape over and over.

    Also, drawing circles-in-circles is a terrible exercise, but I keep seeing people doing it. I think it's because I included an image of them in the lesson, stating "do not do this" - but people look at pictures more than they read, and so they probably misunderstood.

  • Stiff or Wobbly Ellipses

    This is a fairly common problem, and it is more or less the same as the wobbling issue presented in the lines section. Your lines, be they straight, curving, waving or elliptical, need to be drawn at a confident pace. If you draw slow-and-steady in an attempt to be highly accurate, your brain will be guiding your hand as you move, and in doing so, will force you to make little corrections along the way. These little corrections are both the source of this increased accuracy, as well as visible wobbling in the stroke. After all, wobbling is simply repeated course-correction.

    Instead of increasing your accuracy by drawing slowly, you must invest that time into the phase before you execute the mark. If you remember the ghosting method from the previous section, you invest all of your time in the preparation/ghosting stage, to build up confidence in the motion and to let your muscles get accustomed to what's required of them. In the end, you will not be trusting in your brain, but rather in muscle memory. It's true that early on your accuracy may still suffer, especially as you find out how much preparation you need to do beforehand, but this is entirely expected.

    Once you feel comfortable with the movement, draw your ellipse with a smooth, confident and persistent pace. Be sure to draw through your ellipses as I've mentioned before - you'll notice that drawing through them while drawing slow-and-steady is pointless, but when you do it with a confident pace, it gives you a little more freedom as far as accuracy goes.

  • Stiff, Uneven Ellipses

    I'll start off by saying that this exercise is surprisingly tough. We're told to draw an ellipse in the plane, so a lot of people end up trying to fill up the entire plane to the point that they sacrifice the roundedness and evenness of the ellipse, distorting it so it fits into each quadrant of the plane. Above all, respect the integrity of your ellipse's shape. Don't think about filling in the entire plane - just draw an ellipse within it. It often helps to draw an ellipse at an angle, as shown on the example on the right.

  • Not Aligning Ellipses to the Minor Axis

    If you don't remember what a minor axis is, you need to go back and reread the lesson section of lesson 1, part 2. A lot of people tend to ignore the center line (highlighted in red in both examples below), and its significance as the minor axis. That line cuts across an ellipse at its narrower dimension, splitting it into two equal, symmetrical halves. If you're not aligning your ellipses to it in this fashion, you're doing it wrong.

Part 3: Boxes

  • Not Framing Compositions

    I mentioned this in the lesson - it's important that you frame your compositions. This applies to the plotted perspective, rough perspective and organic perspective boxes, as they all establish scenes with clear composition.

    All frames must be drawn with a ruler or a straight edge. Taking the time and care to draw good frames before beginning the exercise will help you maintain a mindset of patience and care. If your frames are rough and half-assed right off the bat, what you draw in it will only go down hill from there.

  • Not Using the Ghosting Method

    As stressed in the lesson, every single mark you draw from here on in - straight lines, curved lines, ellipses, everything is to be drawn using the three-step ghosting method. Those three steps are as follows:

    1. Identify - where does your line start and end? Is it straight or does it curve? Is it an ellipse?
    2. Prepare - find the most comfortable angle of approach (rotating your page if necessary) and ghost through the motion of drawing it. Don't just do this a couple times - the point is to make your arm and muscles feel that the motion is familiar and comfortable. Do it as much as is necessary.
    3. Execute - Now your brain has had its say, and has given your muscles their marching orders. Keeping the rhythm of your repeated ghosting, lower the pen to the page and draw the mark using that same motion. Your brain should not interfere - your pace should be steady and confident, and quick enough so that your muscles can take over.

    This will help you develop the habit of thinking through every mark you put down, rather than just drawing on instinct and thinking on the page. When you think through your problems right on the page, you end up with chicken-scratchy, rough drawings with plenty of wasted lines. When you apply the ghosting method, the result is a greater respect for line economy and a more carefully executed drawing.

  • Not Using a Ruler

    This goes for this exercise only - the entire thing should be drawn with a ruler or a straight edge, not freehand. Most people abide by this, but there are a few who feel they will prove themselves by doing this freehand as well.

    This is a foolish notion that undermines the progression of this entire lesson, which starts off by introducing you into the shallow waters of perspective, focusing on the use of vanishing points in isolation. Later exercises push further into other aspects, gradually working towards a more complete and flexible understanding of the mechanics of perspective.

    Do the exercise as described even if you're well versed in the rules of perspective already. Another couple pages won't kill you.

  • Not Using Two Point Perspective (2 Vanishing Points)

    This exercise is intended to be done with two vanishing points. Not three, not one. Pretty simple.

  • Not Using One Point Perspective (1 Vanishing Point)

    I've had some people using 2 point perspective for this exercise - stick to a single vanishing point only.

  • Plotting Perspective Lines All the Way Back to the Vanishing Point

    So the point of this exercise is to get used to visualizing the lines going back to the VP in your mind's eye, rather than actually drawing them on the page. So, instead of drawing those lines, you can work on your accuracy by ghosting the lines all the way back to get a good angle, then drawing only the segment required for the box you're drawing.

  • Guessing, Instead of Knowing

    When adhering to a strict perspective system (one point, two point, three point), you immediately give up a fair bit of flexibility in terms of how the objects you're drawing will be oriented. For example, if everything is drawn according to the same two vanishing points, it will be as though everything was placed on a set grid.

    There is a vast advantage to this however - because the orientation of objects becomes restricted, we limit the possible behaviour of every line to only a few options. Many students ignore this fact, however - they lay out their vanishing point(s), then assume they'll know by instinct how every line should behave. Instead of knowing, they guess.

    If you ever catch yourself guessing or uncertain about how to draw a line, stop and step back. Take a look at the system you're working with, and think about the short list of possible behaviours. In one point perspective (which we are using for this exercise), you have the following behaviours:

    1. All lines that go off into the distance converge at the vanishing point
    2. All horizontal lines run perfectly parallel to the horizon
    3. All vertical lines run perfectly perpendicular to the horizon

    There are simply no other options. Every single line will adhere to one of these three behaviours. So, find which one matches the line you're trying to draw, and then apply it.

  • Lines Not Lining Up With Vanishing Point

    This one applies to just about everyone. Since we are estimating our perspective, it is completely expected that we will make mistakes, and that some of the lines that should be aligned to the vanishing point simply won't. This tends to be even more common as you move further away (horizontally) from the vanishing point. The further your line is, the harder it is to estimate its angle.

    Now, this isn't an error like the others - it's not a mistake that you've made, it's simply a lack of technical proficiency, which we are working towards fixing. What I outline below however will help you improve more quickly.

    Once you have finished this exercise, I want you to take a ruler and a different coloured pen or pencil. With these tools, extend every line that goes off into the distance back to the horizon. This will make your mistakes clear as day, by showing you how far off the intersection between those lines and the horizon are from the vanishing point. The benefit here is that in seeing your mistakes, you will be made aware of them - then you will be able to consciously compensate for them the next time you do this exercise.

  • Using Vanishing Points Incorrectly when Rotating Boxes

    I've come across this a couple times, and frankly I can see why - the rotation of boxes is difficult to wrap one's head around, and at this point I try and encourage people to leave the technical aspects of it (vanishing points and all that) in the back of their heads. Some people feel compelled to use them in more explicit terms, and end up relying on the same set of vanishing points for all their boxes, which is incorrect. Instead, I'll explain my way of thinking through the vanishing points. This approach may not be entirely correct, but it's worked for me thus far and it simplifies things a little bit.

    The first thing we need to do is think about our scene. What you see to the left is not a proper top-view of a scene with a viewer. If it were, we would not be able to see the horizon. This is just a theoretical diagram that helps us understand rotation. We will later place vanishing points on this horizon line, and will show lines converging to them - these are both things that would not happen on a proper orthogonal top view.

    So, at the center of this diagram we see the viewer, who is looking out onto the scene. Their eyes give them a certain field of vision - inside the blue section (which traditionally is something like 110°-120° wide, we see things with binocular vision. That is, both of our eyes can perceive objects in that range, allowing us to perceive depth. Outside of that range, for another 25°-30°, we have monocular vision. Here we cannot perceive depth (the core of perspective), and things tend to get unfocused and blurry.

    Remember that every box is composed of three vanishing points, whether we are drawing in one, two, or three point perspective. As discussed in the lesson, this is because a box is composed of three sets of parallel lines, each one being governed by a vanishing point. In one point/two point perspective systems, some of those sets of lines do not converge at their vanishing point, and in reality it exists more as an abstract concept, rather than a point we can draw relative to our scene.

    That's where this diagram comes in handy - it is an abstract representation. As a vanishing point moves along this semi-circular horizon line, it will start to move well outside of the field of vision of the viewer, eventually reaching the red line at the bottom (the one that goes through the viewer). At this point, the VP is completely to the side of the viewer. Try and think for a second how you would draw lines in an actual scene, converging to a point completely to the side of the viewer. It's not easy to wrap your head around.

    Let's look at it another way - take a look at the four frames at the bottom of the diagram in red, each depicting lines radiating from a vanishing point at a different position. With each subsequent one, the vanishing point moves further to the left, starting within the frame, and then moving way out. As it does so, the lines begin to level out, and their angles relative to the horizon line decrease. When the vanishing point comes to rest completely to one side of the viewer's head, we have the fourth situation - all of the lines converge at a point at infinity. In other words, they never converge, and are therefore parallel.

    Pretty much once a vanishing point escapes the field of vision of the viewer and goes into that 25°-30° monocular range, we can simplify things and just make the lines parallel.

    So let's step back from the wordy explanation and look at another diagram. Here on the left, we've added a box to our abstraction, which our viewer is seeing dead-on from the front. Ignoring the vertical vanishing point (since our diagram in in 2D), it's got two VPs: one at roughly the center of the horizon, and another far off to the left, into the abstract zone outside of the viewer's field of vision. Because of this, our box would be drawn in one point perspective, with its horizontals being drawn as parallel to the horizon line (going off to the left to infinity).

    Notice that since the sets of parallel lines that make up our box are at right angles to each other, the angle between our VPs is 90°. Even as we rotate our box, this fact will not change when depicted in this abstract form.

    Now, we've rotated the box in our diagram by some arbitrary amount. When seen like this, the rotation is obviously very simple. Let's take a look at how this impacts our vanishing points, however, so we can think about how we might depict it within an actual scene.

    The two relevant vanishing points have slid an equal amount along our semicircular horizon. The angle between the two VPs is still 90°, so that has remained consistent, but what has changed is that now both VPs are present within the viewer's field of vision. If you look at the little scene below the diagram, you can see that VP1 sits a little off-centre in the frame, while VP2 sits a little outside it. I specifically laid them out this way to clarify one thing - even though VP2 sits outside the frame, it still has an impact on the forms within it. In our abstract diagram, the point is well within the field of vision, so our box's lines are still going to converge upon it. Do not confuse field of vision with the frame itself.

    To further demonstrate this concept, I've put it together as an animated gif. Note how the angle between the vanishing points in the abstract diagram, and the distance between them on the actual drawing, remains consistent.

    Now that I've explained it with the use of explicit vanishing points, the point of this exercise is to get used to drawing these rotated boxes without plotting your VPs. Push yourself to construct the forms organically, while keeping the rules in the back of your head.

  • Far Planes Larger than Near Planes

    The laws of perspective state that as an object moves farther away from the viewer, it gets smaller. This is because all lines that are parallel to one another in 3D space converge towards a point in the distance when drawn in 2D.

    So, a box is made up of 3 pairs of identical planes, each pair consisting of a near plane and of a far plane. The only difference between them is the position - the near plane is closer to the viewer, and the far plane is farther.

    So, by this logic, far planes must be smaller than their near-plane counterparts.

    I will admit that at times this is much harder to see, especially if you are not drawing through your boxes. By drawing through the boxes, you include the lines that are otherwise hidden by the box itself, allowing the far plane to be defined clearly by a full 4 lines rather than just 3. So, if you're not drawing through your boxes, you can accidentally make mistakes like reversing that size relationship.

  • Inconsistent Foreshortening Between Boxes in the Same Scene

    This is a common issue. When you draw a single, individual box, you can apply whatever rate of foreshortening you choose. That is, the rate at which the far plane gets smaller than the near plane. Very dramatic foreshortening will have a far plane get really small very quickly. A very shallow foreshortening will have the far plane remain relatively similar in size to the near plane even if it is far, far away from it.

    When you're drawing a single box, it's not terribly important. When you're drawing many boxes, however, it becomes a problem, because this rate of foreshortening needs to be consistent across all of the objects in the scene. It is a characteristic of the viewer (specifically the focal length if you want to get technical), not of every individual box. If a box has very dramatic foreshortening on it, and then the box beside it has very shallow foreshortening, the viewer is going to realize something is wrong, and their ability to infer scale will be affected.

    The rule I generally use (even when drawing single boxes), is that dramatic foreshortening implies large scale, and shallow foreshortening implies small scale. A cardboard box at your feet isn't going to show a whole lot of foreshortening, but a skyscraper will.

    So, when you're drawing many boxes together, as you must in this exercise, it's important to keep the foreshortening fairly shallow. You will show depth in the scene using the whole population of objects - with those far away being small and those close up being very large - instead of using each individual box. Any single box will remain fairly shallow.