Sunday, 7 September 2014

Heads hanging on a line......

I recently read a post from a beginner, on an art forum.  He said that he had recently read that "all heads hang on a line", in a room scene.  He was slightly baffled by this statement, since, as he rightly said, people are different sizes, so he questioned how can it be right that all heads in a scene would be on the same level?

I find it worrying when I read things like this.  Perhaps the student mis-read the quote..or didn't read on for the explanation, which can be the only excuse for such a sweeping generalisation.  We all like to have nice, simple "rules" like this to tuck away in our memory banks. BUT they can let us down if we do not fully understand them and use them willy-nilly.

When you begin to include people in your pictures, there are lots of things to bear in mind.  The most important one is YOUR EYE LEVEL.  This will vary, depending on whether you are standing, or sitting, to paint/sketch.      Then, after that,the relative heights of the individuals in the scene can be taken into account - children, for instance, will be shorter than adults obviously......but relative heights MUST be a secondary consideration.  Understanding your eye level fully is essential.  To find it, put a small sketchbook horizontally onto the bridge of your nose, make sure it is level, not tipped up or down, and look out across it. Where it visually "touches", that is your eye level.

Here is a sketch I found in an old book - look at the clothes, you will get a sense of how old the book is!!!  I was most amused. However,  It really explains, visually, why the eye level is so important:

The bottom sketch illustrates the "heads on a line" idea.  Clearly, the painter was standing, so HIS head, and eyes, are on the same level as the other standing people in the scene.  Perspective comes into play....the road lines converge on the VP, the vanishing point, on the eye level line.

In the middle image, the painter's eyes are at chest level, and in the top image, the painter would have been sitting down, because his eye level cuts across the skaters' KNEES!  There are two vanishing points....but both are still on the eye level.  Notice that the heads of the figures marked a and b are on the same level;  this is because they are approximately the same distance from the painter.

If you put people into a scene, particularly if you are taking them from different sketches or different sources, or if you are sketching outdoors and people are coming and going,  you need to be very careful to ensure that the eye level is taken into account and your figures remain true to it.

I stood to sketch this scene, so all except the kids are more or less the same height, heads on a line!  My eye level is where their heads are.  Looking at it now, I am a bit suspicious of the lady in the orange coat......?? ( Maybe she was very tall.......and just a smidgen closer to me....that's my excuse and I am sticking to it)

Here, I sat to paint, so the closer people are larger and heads higher, the ones further away much smaller and their heads are lower in height - so this means that my eye level was much lower for this scene, probably about the height of some of the central boxes.  Of course, if someone is bending, that's a whole different matter.........

Keep the eye level firmly fixed in your mind - and perhaps mark it on your canvas too - you should find it helpful.


  1. Thank you for this post Jackie! It is one of the best tips I have read in a long time. Great explanation and good tip using your sketchbook to get a good view of your eye level.

  2. Great article! It's possible to also account for personal height in working out perspective, but the differences are going to be smaller than the effect of distance from the artist. This is a wonderful demonstration and thank you for comparing both the old illustrations and your own excellent paintings.

    Kids are smaller, women might be a bit shorter, some people are exceptionally tall or short and can be put in specifically to show that - but that shows up best if they're in the same picture plane, like the typical couple of a quite tall man with a very short wife or girlfriend.


please feel free to leave me a message