Foreshortening Tutorial – How to Draw Foreshortened Figures

Foreshortening can be so tricky! With the principles, tips and exercises in these videos/articles, it’ll become easy! Or, you know, a bit less of a pain in the arse anyway. You can watch the video, or read the article below:

Mayko and I talked through this topic, and realised it’s a pretty big one. We got a bit over excited, and we’re going to make a little series on it. And I think by the end of it, you might even start to like foreshortening.

The first thing to do is understand what makes it difficult. The challenge with foreshortening is not in the model, not in the angles and all that. The difficulty comes from our brains. And if we can break down that bit of our brains that causes problems, this whole thing is going to be easier. This may sound like a lot of nonsense now, but you’ll see what I mean!

Quick explanation of foreshortening

Ok so lets very quickly go through an explanation of what foreshortening is. Look at this cylindrical shape. When this length is parallel to our eyes, we see, and would draw, the entire length.

As this length starts to turn away from our eyes, the lines become shorter from our point of view.


The length is reduced on this plane, but depth is being added. But we have a 2D surface, we can’t draw the depth. We can create the illusion of depth, and among other things that includes capturing these shorter lengths with shorter lines.

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The common struggle

And let’s get the common struggle with foreshortening out of the way really quickly too. When a figure, or parts of a figure are foreshortened, it can get very difficult to draw. In this figure, the distance from the tip of the nose to the crotch is less than the length of her foot. When we draw it, we’ll unconsciously stretch out the torso and make that distance too big.

Or here the line for this foot is actually a lot larger than the one for the whole shin, but we will unconsciously draw the foot shorter and the shin longer. We just keep warping everything, and that’s the challenge.

Why the problem is our brains

But wait a minute, drawing a foreshortened cylinder isn’t a nightmare. In fact, it’s a lot easier to make a cylinder look like a cylinder when it’s at more of an angle and foreshortened.

So maybe it’s because figures are more complicated shapes than cylinders, so that plus foreshortening makes things extra hard, right?

But wait a minute again, a mountain range is a load of complex shapes, spaced apart. We normally view them from the side, so from our point of view these distances are often foreshortened. But we are happy to draw them with the appropriate small distances between them.

And wait a minute a third time, there’s loads of foreshortening in the figure even when we are looking right at it. Anything that’s not parallel to our eyes is going to be foreshortened. Draw a simple face from the front. If we were looking at this face from the side, we’d see that the eyes are not super close to the ears. There’s the whole side of the face between them. But we are happy to draw the eyes really near the ears. That’s foreshortening the side of the face massively, and we don’t struggle drawing it that way.

So we don’t have a problem with foreshortening itself – we draw it every time we draw anything. So why is something like this so hard to draw? Why is it a struggle to draw the knee close to the belly button? We were fine with drawing the ear right next to the eyes right?!

It’s because our brains think they know how to draw figures, and that image of how a figure should look is doing this pose. It’ll allow us to move the arms around a bit on a plane parallel to our eyes. It definitely doesn’t have a 3D understanding of the figure. So it’s happy with this foreshortening, but not this foreshortening. Maybe it’s because we start out drawing people like this when we are kids.

The problem isn’t the foreshortening, which we deal with successfully all the time. The problem is twofold:

  • We are not used to thinking of and drawing figures from straight on angles
  • We are way too used to thinking of and drawing figures from “foreshortened” angles

So what can we do?

We need to start breaking this bad habit in our brains. We’d do a better job if we were aliens that had never seen a human before, without this preconception. Recognising that the issue isn’t scary and difficult foreshortening, it’s our pesky brain’s preconceptions again is a great first step.

Next we can learn to see the figure without this preconception, as if we are taking in a landscape we’ve not seen before. We don’t have as many preconceptions of the shapes in a landscape like we do with figures. Can you see how this figure could be seen in terms of the rolling hills of a landscape?

Alternatively, you can see the figure first in terms of abstract shapes. We don’t have preconceived ideas about abstract shapes.

The more extreme the foreshortening is, the easier it is to switch over to this abstract shape mode. So sometimes, it’s the subtle foreshortening, like this, that can be really tricky. So we also need to use other tricks, like negative space, alignments and measurements and things like that.

In the next part we will go into more detail on these methods, and go through more techniques for helping get over this problem and successfully drawing foreshortened figures, so definitely check it out. Don’t forget to sign up for our fantastic newsletter and get the free guide ‘Life Drawing Success’.

Part 2 is coming soon. In the meantime, check out Daniel Maidman’s explanation of how foreshortening is everywhere here.

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