The Tate Gallery defines foreshortening as “the technique of depicting an object or human body in a picture so as to produce an illusion of projection or extension in space.” Essentially it is a technique to create the illusion of depth.
We were asked to lounge on a couch with a mirror at the foot end and then attempt to draw the body. This was not an easy exercise. I don’t actually own too many mirrors and none of them were really suitable for the job at hand, being too small to see much. Anyway, I endeavoured and here is a quick sketch:
The mirror wasn’t big enough to get much more than the feet in so I struggled to get some context in here. The feet are obviously larger than the rest of the body, my left foot in particular seems larger then the other one, that’s because I had to bend my right foot to see into the mirror! It was a bit of a disaster but it illustrates the foreshortening effect created by looking at your feet from a distance so that they are closer and therefore larger than the rest of the body.
Afterwards I watched this short video from the Croquis Cafe website which is quite useful, see this link. This website is also useful to practice drawing models and has tips on foreshortening.
Perhaps the most useful advice I received was to focus on the negative space when drawing the difficult parts, i.e. foreshortened limbs and hands and feet. I am still working on these as they are notoriously difficult. I think these areas are especially challenging because we know what they look like but when looking at them front on they don’t look how we think they should.
Probably a better way to look at foreshortening is to look at well known examples from art history.
Believed to be painted around 1490, the is a brilliant use of perspective to create the sensation that we are standing at the foot of the bed, with an incredible view of Christ’s body, so that one of the first things we see is the holes in his feet. It creates a very dramatic effect which serves to emphasise the tragedy. It was an unusual perspective for the time, but a very effective one, it makes us feel cramped as if we are in the tomb with him. Foreshortening creates depth and we can feel the physicality of the body from the feet to the face, we see the suffering and pain and are reminded of Christ’s humanity.
Luca Signorelli, Man on a Ladder, (1504-5)
This is a fragment of a much larger work of the Lamentation of Christ, this is the man who took the nails out of the body. Signorelli was clearly a master of foreshortening and the human body as he perfectly captures the man on a ladder, in a fairly complex pose.
A Supine Male Nude, Turner, The Tate, (c.1799-1805)
Turner made a few studies of foreshortening, probably as pre-sketches for paintings.
This painter used the device of trome l’oeil to look as if the boy is climbing out of the frame. He tricks the eye to create an optical illusion that blurs the boundary between make believe and reality.
Eualalia was martyred for refusing to honour the Roman Gods, and her young body lies half-naked in the snow. The foreshortening technique is again used for dramatic effect, the body of Eualalia points directly towards the centre of the painting which is empty, an effect that leads the eye straight back to the stricken Eulalia. She looks pure and serene, surrounded by doves despite a rather cruel death in reality that Waterhouse did not depict.
Andre Dunoyer, Nude with a Newspaper, 1921
It gives us an intimate view of this nude with real focus given to the body, the face is covered with the newspaper. This also seems to have been a preparatory painting for another work.
Even now it is a technique used to great effect, and Jenny Saville uses it for distortion, a statement on bodies and how we see them. In Plan, the viewer looks up, the body looks large and it’s a comment how how women are made to feel enormous in today’s society. It’s interesting because she uses her own body to work from, she’s a regular sized person, she is the artist and she is the viewer. She’s purposefully moving away from the idealised nude that has dominated western art for centuries, painting women in a realistic but exaggerated way. There is no background, the emphasis is on the body, discussing beauty in a man-made world.
Andrew Wilton, ‘A Supine Male Nude, Seen Foreshortened c.1799–1805 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, May 2013, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, April 2016, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-a-supine-male-nude-seen-foreshortened-r1178136, accessed 09 October 2017
Davies, Hunter, This is Jenny, Independent, 1st March 1994,