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 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.

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 the pose below, the length of the line along the whole arm (yellow) is much shorter than that for the face (green). However, because our brains like to think of arms as long, we will unconsciously draw the foreshortened arm longer than we draw the face. 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. Imagine drawing a face from the front, as in the example below. You would probably be quite happy having the ears close to the eyes in the drawing. If we were looking at that face from the side, we’d see that the ears are set back, quite far from the eyes. There’s the whole side of the face between them, which is foreshortened from the front view. But we are happy to draw the eyes really near the ears in a front view because we are used to that and our brain accept that. So in the figure, we are ok with foreshortening we are familiar and comfortable with.

How the side of the face is foreshortened from the front view

The distance from the eye to the ear is foreshortened heavily in the front view, but we are fine with drawing that shortened distance because we are used to it

So we don’t have a problem with foreshortening itself – we draw it pretty much every time we draw anything. So why is a foreshortened arm or torso so hard to draw?

It’s because our brains think they know how to draw figures, but they assume that figures are always doing a straight and simple pose. It definitely doesn’t have a 3D understanding of the figure. So it’s happy with the foreshortening on the face above, but not with the foreshortening of an arm coming towards our eyes or a torso viewed from the top.

The problem isn’t the foreshortening, which we deal with successfully all the time. The problem is we aren’t used to thinking of certain body parts from certain viewing 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 2D 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 more subtle foreshortening 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 observational methods, and go through more techniques for helping get over this problem and successfully drawing foreshortened figures, so definitely check it out. Other than these observational skills, we can also start learning to see and draw the figure in terms of simple 3D forms as well. Eventually you’ll be able to combine these various ideas into a toolbox of skills, pulling out the right tools when you need them.

Part 2 of our foreshortening series is here.

And part 3 is here.

Check out Daniel Maidman’s explanation of how foreshortening is everywhere here.

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