What Is Foreshortening in Art?

Extreme Control of Perspective

Foreshortening in a painting
Foreshortening in a painting makes parts of an object or subject closest to you appear much larger relative to other parts, for instance a head can appear as big as a leg. The key to painting it successfully is believing what you eyes are seeing. Photo ©2010 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Foreshortening is a technique used in perspective to create the illusion of an object receding strongly into the distance or background. The illusion is created by the object appearing shorter than it is in reality, making it seem compressed. It is an excellent way to maximize the depth and dimension of paintings and drawings.

Foreshortening applies to everything that is drawn in perspective. This includes buildings, landscapes, still life objects, and figures.

Visualize Foreshortening

A familiar example of foreshortening in the landscape would be that of a long, straight, flat road lined with trees. The two edges of the road appear to move towards each other as they reach into the distance. At the same time, the trees look smaller and the road looks much shorter than it would if it were to go straight up a very high mountain in front of us.

Foreshortening in a figure drawing or painting affects the proportions of the limbs and the body. If you are painting a person lying on their back with their feet facing towards you, you would paint their feet larger than their head to capture the illusion of depth and three-dimensionality. 

In essence, foreshortening can help create drama in a painting.

The Emergence of Foreshortening in Art

The use of foreshortening became popular during the Renaissance period of art. A good example in a figure is "The Lamentation over the Dead Christ" (c.

1490, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan), by Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506).

Christ's chest and legs are shorter in order to convey a sense of depth and space. It draws us in and makes us feel that we are at Christ's side. However, Christ's feet seen in foreshortening would actually have appeared larger in this pose.

Mantegna chose to make his feet smaller in order to be able to see and draw the viewer's attention to Christ's head. 

More Examples of Foreshortening

Once you learn to recognize foreshortening, you will begin to see it in many famous paintings. Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel (1508–1512), for instance, are filled with the technique. The artist used it often and that is why his paintings have such great dimension.

In particular, look at "The Separation of Light from Darkness" panel. In it, you will see that God appears as if he is rising. This illusion relies on foreshortening.

Another example is "A Supine Male Nude, Seen Foreshortened" (c. 1799–1805), by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) at the Tate Gallery. You can see that the arms and torso in the foreground are compressed.

It is simple and an effective way to give this chalk on paper sketch real depth. Even though it lacks background elements to give us an idea of dimension, we get a sense that the figure stretches out from the scene.

How to Practice Foreshortening

Adding foreshortening into your own artwork is a matter of practicing the technique. You will want to do this by looking at things from an extreme perspective that gives your subject incredible depth.

The more dramatic the perspective, the more distinct the foreshortening will be.

You might begin by standing close to a very tall building such as a skyscraper or church steeple. Look up and draw your perspective of the object, with the building stretching into the center of your picture. Notice how short it seems from this angle and how the part of the building closest to you is considerably larger than the top of the building.

To practice foreshortening in figure drawing, small wooden mannequins are useful. Artists use these all the time to study the human form and they're perfect for perspective as well. Place your mannequin in a pose similar to the figure examples we've discussed, then manipulate the body, limbs, and angle from there.

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With time and practice, you should have no problems incorporating foreshortening into your artwork.

-Edited by Lisa Marder