“Picture Planes”…What they are and why they’re so important (and how to use them).

Picture plane… if you look into enough art instruction books, you’ll definitely come across this term.

What is a “Picture Plane”? A quick answer is: It is exactly what you see directly in front of you, but without depth.  Let me delve into this topic a bit deeper.

One of the more difficult concepts is to teach people “how to see like an artist”.  It really is quite a bit different from normal everyday perception. The picture plane is one of the descriptions we use to help folks make the first steps towards developing the art of seeing. A picture plane is simply whatever you are looking at minus the depth of field. Sort of like if you were to see everything about you through a viewfinder.
The reason for this is to help you break the image before you into shapes you can recreate more easily. You could also think of it as a stained glass window you might see in church depicting the stations of the cross. The images there are two dimensional, with the big shapes broken into smaller pieces which were easier to manipulate. Another similar example is of something called “intarsia”, which is making pictures out of wood. Notice each shape needed to be cut out and reassembled into a picture.

This is something we do as artists. We take the image projected in front of us and break it into component lines, curves, and shapes. Looking carefully at the wolf, you see the ears, both the outside and the inside, look at those complicated lines. You see the inside of the ear where the fur is, the illusion of depth due to the difference of light and dark (more on that in another post). Yet there is no depth since all of the wolf lies within the same plane and is more or less flat.

One of the things which helps most folks get the “aha!” “now I understand!” is to take a piece of Plexiglas and look through it. Now imagine what you are seeing isn’t actually behind the Plexiglas, but being projected onto it. No longer do you have to worry about trying to draw “distance” or what is behind a tree, you just draw exactly what you see.

So here is a drawing of an exercise I use in my classes. It demonstrates the use of the Picture plane using a piece of Plexiglas to have a physical or solid representation of a flat plane in front of you.  On the Plexiglas I have drawn some cross-hairs to help break the image into smaller and more manageable components.

These can be had cheaply at a Dollar store, or perhaps you have an unused frame lying about the house you can use to make a picture plane.  Notice if you move the glass, you have an new image. The picture is contained within the picture plane. Every time you turn your head there is a new image. Remember this key concept: What you see is flat. You are recreating the shapes you see.

Finding things to use to represent a picture plane.

A picture plane helps to not only find a picture, but it also will enclose its edges. It will give limits to the size of your picture so you can only fit a defined area onto your paper. To do this, you can cut a rectangle into some card stock, use an old frame, find a piece of Plexiglas, cut out the bottom of a box, a picture mat, or anything else which you can think of to “frame” a space to draw. We want to enclose this space. Define its edges. Use it as a finder.

Using a Picture Plane

We need to keep the picture plane AT THE SAME DISTANCE FROM YOUR EYE AT ALL TIMES!

Remember that.

If the picture plane is closer or farther away, then the area it is defining is getting smaller or larger. Your picture size will have changed.

Keep the PICTURE PLANE VERTICAL and Parallel with your eyes.

Remember that too.

The reason is the same. If you tip the picture plane towards you or away from you or to the right or the left, then it will enclose a different space than when you first sighted the area you are trying to draw.

Hold a sheet of clear glass, plastic, or Plexiglas in front of you and imagine what you are seeing is an image pasted on the back of the glass.

An example of Picture plane in practical use.

On the example of the bean pot, what is the shape of the inside of the handle? What is the shape of the opening into the bean pot? How far apart are they? How far is the inside edge or the handle from the outside edge of the handle? How far from the edge of the Picture Plane is the edge of the handle, or the bottom the pot?

On a flat surface this can be measured. (we will get into how to measure this stuff in another post), but hopefully you begin to see how this is a useful concept. When something is flat, it can be measured and compared to other things. This goes a very long way to drawing accurately.

The picture above shows a drawing and some of the component shapes making up the drawing. The description at the bottom says “Artists will break a picture into its component parts. Much like a puzzle which is fitted together.”

Like the intarsia wolf, shapes simply slide right next to each other to create a realistic drawing. So by having a flat surface to replicate, we simplify many of our issues. We begin to see what is around us as the sum of it’s parts, that each piece of what we see slide together to fit seamlessly in the world around us. Looking at a barren tree, we no longer see just a “bare leafless tree”, but we notice how the sky meets with each of the branches, and how the sky is contained within that small space. Just the same as the area contained within the handle on the bean pot is contained by the handle. Everything you see around you are not just things (cars, buildings, trees) but meet together in edges and blocks and a staggering variety of line. Spaces become shapes which are incredibly intricate.  This is much easier to appreciate when you look at things through a picture plane. Wait a minute… did you notice what is going on here? Isn’t noticing detail something the RIGHT brain does? (Yep. It do.) I hope you recall from the previous post the RIGHT brain is the part that can draw!

Next week, the actual process of making a drawing using a picture plane.

5 thoughts on ““Picture Planes”…What they are and why they’re so important (and how to use them).

  1. Pingback: Practice and Science of Drawing – LINE DRAWING: PRACTICAL | artwithmark

  2. Pingback: Art class: week 1 – Chris Lovie-Tyler

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