Drawing Basics: The Cube

28 Oct 2008

The Three Graces by Jon deMartin, 2002, burnt sienna and white Nupastel drawingLearn to draw the cube and you have a good introduction to basic perspective and drawing essentials, plus the cube is one of the geometric building blocks of all objects—including the human figure.

The Three Graces by Jon deMartin, 2002, burnt sienna and white Nupastel drawing

The Three Graces
by Jon deMartin, 2002, burnt sienna and white Nupastel drawing on toned paper, 25 x 22. Private collection.

by Jon deMartin

I remember one of my instructors saying, “What’s the point of drawing the model if the student can’t draw the model stand?”, meaning the model’s platform in its proper perspective. For the beginner, geometric object drawing is a vital first step to learning how to draw. In drawing even simple shapes the beginner will need to learn basic perspective.

The cube is the easiest object to draw in perspective. The ability to draw a cube from any angle, from both life and imagination, is essential for good draftsmanship. Once skill is gained in drawing a cube, it’s not difficult to apply that knowledge to more complex subjects. The cube looks simple, but it’s actually complex and requires both keen observation and knowledge of construction and perspective. If one can’t draw a cube in perspective, then a head will be impossible.

It’s always best to learn how to draw from actual objects—from life, not from photographs. The drawings should not be about value, but rather shape and perspective, because values are of little importance if the construction is wrong. As a rule, it seems best for beginners to confine their early attempts to outline, to getting the main proportions as accurate as possible. It’s not necessary to draw on good paper since these are just exercises, but I’d recommend a fairly smooth sketchpad with graphite pencil and eraser.

Angular perspective is when a cube is placed in such a way that no surface is seen at a right angle; it doesn’t appear in its true shape. When drawing the cube in this perspective, set it up askew so it’s at unequal angles. Think of the cube first as a flat, two-dimensional shape. As this is a linear drawing, it’s better not to light the cube so shadows won’t confuse the purity of the outside shape. Do not make your drawing of the cube too small—proportional errors are much easier to identify on a larger scale.

Illustration 1: One- and Two-Point Perspective by Jon deMartin, 2000, charcoal pencil drawing

Illustration 1: One- and
Two-Point Perspective

by Jon deMartin, 2000, charcoal pencil drawing on newsprint, 18 x 24. All artwork this article collection the artist unless otherwise indicated.

First establish the height of the cube by making horizontal marks at the top and bottom. Lightly draw in the outside shape relating to the height, then estimate the cube’s width. Focus on four points: the top, bottom, left, and right extremities that contain the outside shape. Compare them to one another using horizontal and vertical lines. Keep estimating the outside shape before drawing the interior planes. The same principle would apply for drawing a head; you wouldn’t start drawing the features before the outside shape. The danger of drawing the parts before the whole is that it decreases the odds of getting the main proportions accurate.

Now add the interior planes to better visualize the whole—the outside shape—in relation to the parts—the interior planes. Keep the early stages as simple as possible so it’s easier to make corrections. Revise the drawing where needed. Addressing the simple visual appearance of the subject before considering the interior parts is a principle that you can apply to any kind of drawing—always think of the whole first and then the parts. If the cube’s outside shape looks correct and the interior planes appear to fit, you’re ready for the next step.

Next is the structural phase. In this case, structure means perspective. The cube may look accurate, but does it work in perspective? Here’s where a grasp of freehand perspective comes into play. Without some basic knowledge of this concept, it’s impossible to draw anything with authority.

Illustration 2: Tipped, Turned, and Tilted Rectangular Volume by Jon deMartin, 2008, charcoal pencil drawing

Illustration 2: Tipped, Turned, and Tilted Rectangular Volume
by Jon deMartin, 2008, charcoal pencil drawing on newsprint, 18 x 24.

Note where the horizon line is and try to give the corners of the cube the appearance of vanishing to it. Anything you draw is related to a horizon and vanishing points, although it is not always necessary to draw them. If you were to tack up your drawing on a wall and project the corners in straight lines you would see if they vanish at a common horizon line at your eye level.

Illustration 1 shows the cube in several perspectives, both parallel and angular. Parallel perspective means that the front face of the cube is at right angles or parallel to the line of sight or the viewer. In parallel perspective the corners of the cube converge to a single vanishing point on the horizon that is at the viewer’s eye level. The bottom portion of Illustration 1 shows the cube turned so the front face of the cube is now in angular perspective—its front face is now turned away from the viewer at an angle. The corners converge to two vanishing points at the viewer’s eye level. When drawing the cube it’s advisable to locate the horizon line; that is, the eye level on the paper, making sure that the lines appear to converge at the proper vanishing points on this level. Remember, the horizon line is always at eye level. Try doing a page of cubes in your own arrangement. This will test your freehand judgment in drawing cubes in perspective.

Illustration 3: Cain and Abel by Luca Cambiaso, pen and wash drawing

Illustration 3: Cain and Abel
by Luca Cambiaso, pen and wash drawing,
111/4 x 61/4. Collection
the Woodner family.
Overlay of boxes added by author.

Applying the Cube to Figures
The human body can be reduced to basic geometric volumes. The head, ribcage, and pelvis are the three main masses of the body, and they are connected by the vertebral column, which can independently tip, turn, and tilt. The front, side, and back views of the figure, built as cubes, illustrate the variety of these movements. Each mass is in a different position in space. Note the imaginary center marked on each mass, describing the orientation in space. Many artists find it helpful to use the cube to understand and re-create complex forms in nature, as shown in some of Luca Cambiaso’s drawings.

When imagining the head, ribcage, or pelvis as boxes, we find that they are rarely seen at predictable views but are continuously changing in their positions in space. Illustration 2 shows a series of rectangular cubes presented as a head thrown into different perspectives. In the center row and middle rows the cube is tipped and turned and all of their respective positions appear to be vanishing to a true horizon—that is, all lines are vanishing to the eye level of the viewer. The outside rows show the cube tipped, turned, and tilted, which means all lines are vanishing to a false horizon—they are no longer vanishing to the eye level. This is most often the case when drawing the head. Note the axis of the head that orients its position in space in Illustration 2. The axis is an imaginary rod running through the middle center of the mass.

Good drawing requires developing the ability to depict anything so that it appears structurally correct and undistorted. By far the best method for learning to draw is to draw actual objects from life—not copying reproductions or photographs. Mastery comes through constant practicing of drawing skills. Keep nurturing your creativity while working on the more formal exercises. In the long view they will help one another.

Jon deMartin is a New York City artist whose work can be found in many private collections. He teaches life drawing at Studio Incamminati, in Philadelphia, and at Parsons The New School for Design and the Grand Central Academy of Art, both in New York City. DeMartin is a contributing artist at the Hirschl & Adler Modern, in New York City, and the John Pence Gallery, in San Francisco. View his work at www.jondemartin.net.

Illustration 5: Tipped and Turned Head drawing by Francesco Trevisani

Illustration 6: Tipped and Turned Head drawing by Francesco Trevisani

Illustration 5: Tipped and Turned Head
drawing by Francesco Trevisani, black and white chalk on toned paper.
Illustration 6: Tipped and Turned Head
drawing by Francesco Trevisani, black chalk.

 

Drawings After Sculpture by Eliot Goldfinger by Jon deMartin, 2008, charcoal pencil drawing

Drawings After Sculpture by Eliot Goldfinger by Jon deMartin, 2008, charcoal pencil drawing

Drawings After Sculpture by Eliot Goldfinger by Jon deMartin, 2008, charcoal pencil drawing

Drawings After Sculpture by Eliot Goldfinger
by Jon deMartin, 2008, charcoal pencil drawing on newsprint, 18 x 24.

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