This week I am sharing a new lesson on perspective and am moved to write about perspective drawing. Teaching perspective drawing, in my experience, was like taking cough medicine. Something necessary and best done quickly and with as little fuss as possible. Some students loved the process and the comfort of predictable steps to follow.

What I observed in my students

When I taught perspective to seventh graders I stepped into a curriculum that required a two-point perspective. I taught it and I felt I taught it as well as the seasoned professional I was working with. Generally, the kids liked it. So what was the problem? The problem was that my students would successfully follow the steps from the two-point perspective but most would not be able to see how that system applies to any other drawing they might do.

Even earlier in my career, I taught ninth graders two-point perspective by doing three-dimensional mazes. Like my seventh graders, most could follow a rote system of perspective. A portion of the ninth graders was better at seeing and grasping the larger visual applications of perspective. Many, but not all could start to visualize how the third dimension was taking shape in their head, how they were carving the mazes out of a block. But, for some students it was just still steps they got better at remembering and applying. Once they had a cube they could then visualize what was happening or how to change or add to it. It was progress though.

Perspective is about READINESS

I am constantly reminded that learning is about readiness. It’s about exposure, practice, and brain development. Basic art education texts like Lowenfeld’s Stages of Artistic Development suggest that students aged 9-11 are ready for spacial and perspective skills. Possibly why it is so frequently you will find it in upper elementary and middle school curriculums. It’s not wrong but from what I observed, it may be later for many people.

What I observed was a wide range of spatial kills and readiness. Obviously, more of my 9th graders grasped perspective in a deeper way than the bulk of my seventh graders. Yet, every year a  handful of quick seventh graders would get it while a handful of my ninth graders still weren’t there. Frankly, even when I was teaching a class called  Portfolio Preparation (mostly 11 and a few 12th graders) I still had one student that struggled with it. She could visualize that objects that are closer appear larger and understand how they appeared to get smaller in the distance. We sat in our hallway and took site measurements of a door at the end of the hall and a door near us. And as much as she could grasp that intellectually. it all fell apart when she went to draw. Sometimes these students who struggle more may have visual learning disabilities and it may benefit consulting appropriate resources in your school.  And, in my experience, it wasn’t just students. As a department chair, I once observed a teacher who struggled to teach two-point perspective correctly as well! Perspective isn’t something we master all in one go.

Getting rid of the ruler and rules

So, over the years I committed to teaching perspective more by site rather than by ruler and “rules.”  And hence, the lesson about drawing the paper lunch bag was born. It’s intended to be a quick hit. I start off with one forty-five minute period introduction to one and two-point perspective drawings in the sketchbook. Then we jump right to observation, no rulers! Check out the lesson here.

These are a few examples of how my students applied perspective to observed drawings (and the last one is an example from a colleague’s advanced placement class).