Monday, August 19, 2013

Drawing ellipses

Ellipses are everywhere, natural and man-made. An ellipse is a circle seen in perspective and drawing them is a challenge. When an ellipse is "wrong" or "off" or "hokey" it's obvious to the trained and untrained eye alike; and when it's right it can be a thing of beauty.

Lubin Baugin (c. 1610-1663), Le Dessert de gaufrettes (c. 1631), Musée du Louvre, Paris, image from Wikipedia. Many perfectly-drawn ellipses here, seemingly effortless.
Many people chafe at any suggestion of "right" and "wrong" in art, including me. There's a difference though between doing it "wrong" intentionally (e.g. Picasso and other masters), and lack of skill. I guess it's all down to the individual and his or her intentions in a given instance.

I've scoured books and the internet for methods and techniques. One method is the perspective method. That is, draw a square in perspective, mark various points around the square, then draw the ellipse around that framework. Even with this method there's potential for inaccuracy and besides, a square in perspective is not in itself the easiest thing to construct. It's no harm though to work through some examples because if nothing else it develops one's eye for the finer points of ellipses in general. A simpler variation is to draw long and short axes as a guide.

Using pins and a string is a mechanical method that is not usually practical for fine artists, but it's interesting to give it a try. Another way is to draw the ellipse on the computer and transfer it to the drawing.

Many artists draw the ellipse freehand without guides while looking at the object. When it comes out right it can be beautiful in a way not achievable by more painstaking methods. It may help to turn the paper upside-down while drawing.

The following advice is from Drawing for Art Students and Illustrators by Allen W. Seaby, 1921:
"Some students construct the ellipse on its long and short diameters, but these aids ruin the feeling for the curve. Sometimes the ends appear pointed owing to the fact that arcs of circles have been drawn. As a matter of fact no progress in object drawing is possible until the straight line and ellipse can be drawn freely in any position with a single movement of the hand and arm. If the student lacks this facility five minutes practice at a blackboard every day for a week at squares, circles and ellipses will set him free of these forms for life. One may observe that beginners are apt to draw the lower half of the horizontal ellipse flatter than the upper--to notice the defect is to cure it."
Practice, practice. Some methods for checking an ellipse:
  • Look at the drawing in a mirror. 
  • Turn the drawing upside down.
  • Draw the ellipse as you see it. Then take a photo of the object, trace over the ellipse and compare it with the one you've drawn.
  • Measure the depth and width of the ellipse (which depend on eye level/horizon), also check verticals and horizontals. (poor audio)

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