What is Foreshortening?

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.

Definition

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. The object appears compressed. Foreshortening applies to everything that is drawn in perspective, including buildings, landscapes, still life objects, and figures. 

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, 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 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. Foreshortening can help to create drama in a painting.

The use of foreshortening became popular during the Renaissance. A good example of foreshortening in a figure is The Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c. 1490, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan), by Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna. Christ's chest and legs are shorter in order to convey a sense of depth and space and to draw us in and make 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 Christ's feet smaller, though, in order to be able to see and draw the viewer's attention to Christ's head. 

Watch Khan Academy, Andrea Mantegna, Dead Christ, tempera on canvas, c. 1480-1500

Another example is A Supine Male Nude, Seen Foreshortened (c. 1799-1805), by J.W. Turner at the Tate Gallery, in which the arms and torso are compressed.

 

Small wooden mannequins (Buy from Amazon) are useful to practice foreshortening.

To see an example of foreshortening in a tall building, take a look at by Dana Roach, in the Unexpected Angles Monthly Painting Project.

Updated by Lisa Marder 4/29/16