Drawing Technique of Perspective: History, Quadratura.

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Lamentation Over The Dead Christ
By Mantegna (Pinacoteca di Brera)
A classic example of foreshortening,
in Early Renaissance painting.



What is Foreshortening?
Types: Artistic Foreshortening Compared to Photographic
Foreshortening in Illusionistic Frescos
In Landscapes
History and Development
Other Painting Techniques

Apollo and Beatrix of Burgundy
By Giambattista Tiepolo.
From his celebrated
Wurzburg Residence frescoes (1753)

See our educational articles:
Art Evaluation
and also: How to Appreciate Paintings.

What is Foreshortening?

In drawing, the term "foreshortening" refers to a method of representing an object in a picture in depth. For example, imagine how a standing man looks in terms of dimensions, seen from the front. Now imagine that this figure has been allowed to fall gently backwards, until stretched lengthways on the ground, with his feet pointing towards you and his head furthest away. If you wish to sketch this figure, the law of linear perspective dictates that, since his head is further away than his feet, you should make it appear smaller, so as to convey the illusion of 'depth' in the drawing - i.e. that it is receding away from the viewer into the picture space. Conversely, since the feet are now closer, they should appear larger. Most importantly, the figure's torso and limbs should be compressed or 'shortened' in the sketch, to give effect to the optical illusion that an object appears shorter than it actually is when angled towards the viewer. Foreshortening was first studied during the quattrocento (15th-century) by painters in Florence, and by Francesco Squarcione (1395-1468) in Padua, who then taught the famous Mantua-based Gonzaga court artist Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506).




An excellent example of this type of foreshortening in fine art painting is The Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c.1470-80, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan) - a classic work of the Italian Renaissance by Andrea Mantegna. Notice how the artist shortens the length of Christ's chest and legs in order to represent perspective or depth in the picture space.

Other commonly cited examples include: Battle of San Romano (c.1438-1440, National Gallery, London) by Paolo Uccello [see the truncated corpse of the dead knight, bottom left] and Supper at Emmaus (1601, National Gallery, London) by Caravaggio [see the shortened arms of the apostle on the right], and Study of a Supine Male Nude (c.1799-1805, Tate) by J.M.W.Turner.

Types: Artistic Foreshortening v Photographic Foreshortening

A sketcher or painter is likely to shorten objects slightly differently from a camera. This is because, while a camera never lies, an artist may not wish to replicate the full brutal effect of foreshortening. Instead, he will often reduce the relative dimensions of the nearer part of the object (in the case of The Lamentation, the feet) so as to make a slightly less aggressive assault on the viewer's eye and incorporate the truncated image more harmoniously into the overall composition. Indeed, this is exactly what Mantegna did in The Lamentation. He deliberately reduced the size of Jesus's feet so as not to block our view of the body. Whereas, if a photograph was taken from the same angle, the feet would have been so big that they would have obscured our view of the legs and torso.

Illusionistic Ceiling Frescos

Shortening an object is essentially an illusionistic device to simulate depth in a picture. This enables a painter to suggest three-dimensionality and volume in his figures. This leads to a noticeable increase in realism. The same applies to landscapes, where foreshortening adds considerably to the naturalism of the view (see below). However, the most visually stunning application of foreshortening is in architectural decoration, such as illusionistic fresco painting, especially on ceilings. This type of mural painting uses techniques such as perspective di sotto in su ("seen from below") - invented by the Forli-born artist Melozzo da Forli (1438-94) - and quadratura (ceiling paintings that simulate the extension of real architecture into an imaginary space), in order to create the illusion of three-dimensional depth in an otherwise two-dimensional ceiling surface above the viewer.

Foreshortening in Landscapes

This technique is most commonly associated with figures or objects, although in fact it is also used regularly in landscapes. The road that will appear relatively long if it runs straight ahead of us up a tall mountain, will be much shorter if it stretches away on a flat plain in front of us. Rivers and bridges will also seem shortened or compressed if sketched at anything like ground level. For good examples of landscape foreshortening, see: Ville d'Avray (1867, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) by Camille Corot, The Thames Below Westminster (1871, National Gallery, London) by Claude Monet, Footbridge at Argenteuil (1872, Musee d'Orsay) and The Watering-Place at Port-Marly (1875, National Gallery, London) by Alfred Sisley, and Road to Vladimir (1892, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) by Isaac Levitan.

History of Foreshortening

This illusionist technique was first pioneered during the Early Renaissance. As well as Paolo Uccello (1397-1475), and Vincenzo Foppa (c.1430-1515) (many of whose works have been lost), Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506) was perhaps the greatest early exponent, and his method is exemplified in the Lamentation and the di sotto in su ceiling oculus in the Camera degli Sposi frescoes (Camera Picta) of Ludovico Gonzaga's Ducal Palace in Mantua. A younger contemporary of Mantegna was Luca Signorelli (1450-1523), noted for his frescoes of the Last Judgment (1499–1503) in Orvieto Cathedral.

The next great practitioner was Michelangelo (1475-1564) during the High Renaissance, whose Sistine Chapel frescoes (1508-12) - notably the picture of The Separation of Light from Darkness in his Genesis Fresco - in which he makes God appear as if he is rising above the viewer by shortening his body.

After Michelangelo there was Correggio (1489-1534), the great painter of the Parma school, whose illusionistic methods and dramatic foreshortening - see for instance his incredible Assumption of the Virgin (Parma Cathedral) (1526-30) - influenced a number of later works. These include the Assumption of the Virgin (Cathedral of Forli) by Carlo Cignani (1628-1719); frescoes for the cupola of S. Maria dei Miracoli in Saronno, by Gaudenzio Ferrari (1480-1546); the Allegory of Divine Providence (1633-39, Palazzo Barberini), Four Ages of Man (Sala della Stufa) and the Planet paintings (Pitti Palace, Florence), by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669); as well as works by Lanfranco (1582-1647), Baldassare Franceschini (1611–1689) and Il Baciccio (Giovanni Gaulli) (1639-1709). The apogee of High Baroque trompe l'oeil mural painting was the 55-feet wide ceiling fresco Triumph and Apotheosis of St Ignatius (1688-94), in the Jesuit church of S. Ignazio, by Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709). Along the way, Paolo Veronese's ceiling paintings for San Sebastiano, the Doge's Palace, and the Marciana Library, established him among his Venetian contemporaries as a master of foreshortening able to combine the figurative subtlety of Correggio with the heroic figuration of Michelangelo.

The greatest Rococo exponent of foreshortening was Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) whose fresco paintings in the state dining room (Kaiseraal) and the ceiling of the Grand Staircase (Trepenhaus) of the Wurzburg Residenz proved to be the greatest masterpiece of his career. The focus of the work is the soaring image of Apollo Bringing the Bride (1750-1) in the centre of the Trepenhaus ceiling, which exemplifies Tiepolo superb draughtsmanship, foreshortening and perspective, as well as his shimmering luminosity of colour. These architectural decorations of the Wurzburg Residenz effectively bring to a close the Italian tradition of fresco painting initiated by Giotto (1270-1337) four hundred years earlier.

Other Painting Techniques

For more illusionistic painting methods, see:

The use of light and shadow to suggest volume in figures.
The handling of light and shadow for purely dramatic purposes.
Monochrome underpainting or stand-alone grey monotone painting.
The use in oil painting of imperceptible graduations in tone.
Building up layers of paint to create a crusty texture on surface of a painting.
Not a technique but the Renaissance concept of overall design.
The painting equivalent of disegno.

• For related terms, see: Art Glossary of Terms.
• For more about painting techniques, see: Homepage.

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