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Ditch the Rules! A New Perspective on Perspective


by Dianne Mize

How often do you think about the rules of linear perspective when you draw or paint? One-point, two-point, three-point—just establishing a horizon line and finding vanishing points can be such a chore that many artists find it too stifling to deal with.

But there’s a way to find the correct angles of perspective for any object without having to memorize a single rule, and it’s something that artists have been using for centuries: the angle finder. A brush handle, pencil, finger or even a stick can be turned into an angle finder. All it takes is holding your tool of choice at arm’s length, closing one eye, and aligning it with the edge of the object you’re planning on drawing.

Locating the angle of an oak tree trunk by using a brush handle as an angle finder.

Finding the angle is simple enough, but sometimes there’s a disconnect that occurs somewhere between reading the angle and translating it to a drawing or painting. Years ago I recognized this problem among a number of my college students.  I discovered that when students were unsure about the tilt of an angle they were looking at, they could see it better if they could label it.  (It’s odd, but labeling seems to be something we humans need.) To enable an accurate labeling system, I came up with a method to teach angle finding by equating each angle to a number on a clock face.  

It works like this: Stand in front of a clock face holding your angle finder at arm’s length. Position it so that it becomes like another hand attached at the center of the the clock. Looking with one eye closed, align the angle finder with a number on the clock by rotating it either clockwise or counter clockwise to find 7 o’clock, then 9, 12, and 2. You have just read four perspective angles.

Now try this: Lay a book on a table, pick up a pencil to use as an angle finder, stand back three or four feet, hold the pencil on the eraser end, straighten your arm so your elbow won’t bend, close one eye, then rotate your pencil until it aligns with the edge of the book’s cover.  Look at where the pencil is pointing, then name the angle according to its corresponding number on the clock. Try this again along the front edge of the book cover.

Keep your attention on the pencil so that it doesn't flop forward or point backwards. It must move only clockwise or counter clockwise, else it will mislead you.

The photo on the left (above) shows the pencil pointing to a 10 o’clock angle while the one on the right points between 2 and 3. Labeling these angles according to where you find them on a clock can enable you to draw these angles—bypassing perspective rules.

Try doing a simple line drawing of the book, labeling the angle of each line like I’ve done in the drawing below.

Practicing this exercise several times can give you an idea of how the system works. After feeling secure, try the same exercise using a building as your image.

Just like any skill, the more you practice this the more adroit you’ll become at using it. Eventually, you will have the clock positions firmly engraved in your memory and you’ll no longer need the clock diagram to help you out.

You will also discover that you’re recognizing angles in many more places and that it’s much easier to draw them accurately—without ever being concerned about the actual rules of perspective again.

Dianne Mize is an artist and retired teacher of art, living and creating in rural Northeast Georgia. For more of her writing and a look at her artwork, visit her website

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