Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Naturalist Notebook: Putting things in perspective

Ok, here's the thing: Perspective is simple...and it's not. Like many things, once you understand the principles, it is easy to sketch something without using all the "rules." Or conversely, once you understand those principles--and a  few more--you can make a perspective drawing as complicated as your heart's desire.

But to get you started, I'm going to break it down as simply as I can.

First, if we look at a person standing at the end of a street, a block away, that person appears smaller than if he is standing right beside us. We know this to be true. It is also true of an object, like, say, a box. If we are very close to the box, then we might not see that the far end appears slightly smaller than the near end, but it does. If we were to draw the box with all sides equal, it would look funny to us. This is called "orthographic projection":

It almost looks as if the box is trying to fall forward, off the page--an optical illusion. But if we draw the box so that the measurements on the far side are smaller--in perspective--the box looks less odd, and more like it is sitting on the ground. Here are the two ways of drawing the box, side by side:

This is a classic example of the tension between drawing what we know to be true (all sides equal) and what we see (things in the distance appear smaller).

To learn to draw things in perspective, it helps to go through some exercises to see how to draw a box from different angles. First, you must imagine that there is a horizon in the distance, and that if something is actually on this horizon, it is so far away and small that you cannot see it anymore. This is called the "vanishing point" (abbreviated in these diagrams as "V.P."). If you place a box in front of you, looking at it straight on, and you could imagine that you could scoot it back toward that horizon line, it would grow smaller and smaller, until finally it "vanished." It would look something like this, which is called "single point perspective":

You will notice that I have drawn guidelines from the front of the box (shaded) all the way back to a single point on the horizon--the vanishing point--and then drawn a horizontal line across those guidelines to represent the back of the box. After that, it is easy to connect the top front of the box to the top of the back of the box with two solid lines, et voila', I have drawn a box in perspective.

But we don't always look at boxes (or buildings, or sidewalks, or fence lines...) straight on. Usually, in fact, we are looking at them from one side. When we do this, we have effectively turned the box so that we now have two vanishing points--one for one side of the box that we can see, and another for the other side that we can see. It looks like this:

How extreme the perspective is depends on how far apart we place the vanishing points:

If we want our sketches to look "normal" we probably won't have room on our pages to place the vanishing points, so we have to imagine where they are, off the page.

I have drawn all these images from the viewpoint of looking down on the box. I've drawn them this way for clarity in illustrating how to use the guidelines to draw the boxes. But we seldom see things from this viewpoint (unless we are high in a neighboring building, or standing on top of a hill). More often the horizon line is "eye level." And we also draw other things besides buildings in perspective. Suppose, for example, we were to plant one tree at each corner of a box, and then look at the placement of these trees in perspective? Here is what that "box of trees" looks like, looking at them from both eye level, and from above:

This has real life applications, as shown by this sketch by a former student in this class, Jay Daniel, of the trees in the English/Philosophy courtyard:

These are the most basic rules of perspective drawing, and once you grasp them, it suddenly becomes easier to see the objects you are drawing in perspective. After you have practiced using guidelines a few times, you will find you seldom need the anymore. However, there are occasions when it helps to use them to draw things that are more complex than simple boxes. For example, you can use guideline to draw evenly spaced fenceposts or trees:

To draw the shadows falling from trees:

And so on. It turns out that artists have been playing with ways to draw very complex scenes in perspective for centuries. But it wasn't until 15th Century that Italian artist and engineer Fillipo Brunelleschi codified the laws for all the rest of us. Leonardo da Vinci, another artist/engineer. was also famous for his complex perspective drawings:

If you are a person who likes puzzles, or making order out of complexity, I urge you to find a book on perspective and start playing around with this ancient art. Or, if you just want to be able to sketch a street scene and not have it look like it is falling off the page, practice until you get a feel for the basics, and then throw out the guidelines. Either way, have some fun.

Look around. Everything you see is follows the principles of perspective. Sidewalk lines. Houses lining a street. Mailboxes in the front yard. People sitting at a dining room table. Life itself.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Naturalist Notebook: Thought exercises

I think sometimes that people are afraid to write in their journals because they don’t know what to write. Or perhaps they think that what they write has to be fully formed, or grand, or flowery—something special. That can be really intimidating, and it is one of the reasons I have placed so much emphasis on simply recording our observations. But the observations are really just the foundation for our experiences in nature. It is a wasted opportunity if we don’t use them to shape our understanding of the world.

One way to get past the intimidation factor is to set up simple thought exercises for ourselves. For example, in my garden, I sometimes find fox scat (poop), and it is almost always on some elevated structure, like a garden stone. So I could just record the presence of the scat and that would be that. But I could also ask myself some questions about it. Why, for example, is it often on an elevated structure? This is different from what I have observed about coyote scat, which I tend to find in the middle of a trail. I would write these observations and questions down in my journal. I don’t have to know the answer—it is enough to have the questions. I can speculate on answers, though. For example, I have often hypothesized that the coyote leaves his scat in the middle of the trail to mark it as his territory. Perhaps it is the same for the fox in my garden. If it is in the middle of the trail or on top of a rock, it is certainly noticeable, after all. I would write these speculations down, too. Later on, when I have access to the internet or a library, I might try to find the answer. Surely somebody has studied this.

You can take this even farther though, as poet Pattiann Rogers does in what she calls a “poem of supposition.” Rogers rescued a baby cardinal one day and returned it to his father. Afterward, she began to wonder how her view of the world might have been shaped if she had been a baby cardinal, and the bright red color of his father was the color of safety, shelter, food, and life itself. If red is so important to the baby cardinal’s life, would it then influence how he sees all the red in the world?

So Rogers wrote a poem about this, “Suppose your Father was a Redbird” (“Redbird” is a colloquial name for cardinals). Below is a link to Roger’s poem in its entirety. Please read it and come back here for a discussion. I’ll wait. 

She begins the poem with a close, detailed observation of the father bird, as seen by the baby, and describes watching the father fly off. At first, in the stanza below, she describes the miracle of watching the father’s wings unfurl from his body, transforming him into something else—something that can fly. Then as he flies away, you watch him eagerly, hopefully—because, remember, your whole life depends on the red color of his body returning:

Suppose, before you could speak, you watched
The slow spread of his wing over and over,
The appearance of that invisible appendage, 
The unfolding transformation of his body to the airborne.
And you followed his departure again and again,
Learning to distinguish the red microbe of his being
Far into the line of the horizon.

How then, would this desperate searching for the red microbe--this red miracle--shape how you see everything else? Rogers speculates:

Then today you might be the only one able to see
The breast of a single red bloom
Five miles away across an open field.

In other words, because you have been studying the color of red since birth, because it is important to your survival, you are so finely tuned to the color of red that you can see a single bloom of a red flower five miles away.

Go back now and re-read the poem with this understanding. I’ll wait.

Rogers ends the poem with the point of it all, the prize for taking a supposition to its conclusion, the thing you can take to your heart and from which you can learn:

If your father was a redbird,
Then you would be obligated to try to understand
What it is you recognized in the sun
As you study it again this evening
Pulling itself and the sky in dark red
Over the edge of the earth.

Maybe it seems a little unclear why this is the prize, but here, too, we can speculate. Why, for example, are we humans drawn to sunsets? Is there something in it that we are obligated to understand that we have forgotten?

I like these supposition exercises. They don’t have to be written as poetry, though I think it is fun to try that. The purpose of them, though, is to make us look more deeply at what we have observed. Why don’t you try something like this? Go to your backyard or a park and make some observations. Then start asking yourself a series of questions. The questions should lead you toward looking at the world through a different lens—one that is not your usual way of seeing. And then, the ultimate question: with this new way of seeing, how are you obligated to understand the world?

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Naturalist Notebook: Drawing birds

It is hard to sketch birds in the field if you have not first studied them. Birds are not like plants, which very graciously stay in one spot for us, and allow us to take all the time the world to draw them. As you have learned from trying to identify birds, they can move around quite a bit. They also come in all shapes and sizes. But there are some commonalities we can count on that help us to take "short cuts" in sketching them while they move. There is a general shape to their heads, bodies, and wings, and how a species looks is primarily a function of variations on that shape. Here is a "stick figure" bird showing the basic shapes and placement of eyes, bill, wings, tail, and feet:

Note that I have drawn the head as a circle, divided latitudinally in half (an equator) and longitudinally into four sections. Note also that the bill sits slightly below the equator, and in this bird, the eyes are just above the equator, and just behind the first line. If the bird is a predator, the eye placement might move slightly forward (for binocular vision--we talked about this in class). You can give this bird "attitude” simply by tilting the angle of the equator and longitudinal sections:

It is still just a circle, and still divided longitudinally and latitudinally, but these lines are tilted. Try drawing a few circles, then the equator and longitudinal lines at different angles, and then place the bill and eyes accordingly and see what happens.

Now that you have a sense of the basic bird shape, it is useful to study how different species are variations on these shapes. I find it useful to use photographs for this. There are countless available on the internet that you can use, but this is a photo of a yellow house finch that was coming to my feeder one winter (same as a red house finch, but an anomalous color--it happens sometime):

I decided to focus just on the head to try to capture the pose:

I drew a circle, drew the equator and longitudinal lines, and then made some adjustments to the shape of the head:

This is the infused product:

You can do the same with the whole bird. In fact, you can even add a grid to a photograph to help you get the proportions right. You should recognize this bird--a white winged dove that came to my backyard one snowy day. Here is the whole sequence for drawing it, start to finish:

Find a photo of a bird and try this grid method. Once you have practiced this a few times, you begin to get a feel for how to draw different species. You form a "template" which you can use to draw birds quickly and accurately. 

If you know you are going to see particular birds in the field, find different photos of them in different poses and practice drawing those until you can do some quick sketches of them. Here are some practice sketches I did of the Lesser Prairie Chicken shortly before going out the field to watch their courtship display. I knew from experience that I would need to have a template of the chicken in my head that I could draw quickly in order capture their behavior. The first two pages are the practice, and the second two are actual field sketches of their behavior:

If you are able to get out and go to a park, or even if you are stuck in quarantine and can only look out your window, make a note of the common birds and study them with your binoculars. Then find some photos and practice drawing those species. When you feel like you have a good template, try drawing the birds from life. Here are some sketches I have done of birds in the field using this method of study: