Saturday, March 7, 2015

Eye Level in Complex Street Scenes

In the upcoming issue of International Artist magazine (April/May 2015, Issue #102), I'll present an article about how to establish the eye level line in a scene, and why it's important.

If you were standing in front of an ocean or a flat desert, the eye level would be the same thing as the horizon. But in many scenes, the horizon is not visible. So you can think of the eye level as the line of your level gaze, where the horizon line would be if you could remove everything in front of it.

Layout sketch for Dinosaur Boulevard, pencil on tracing paper, 5 x 10 in.

When I planned the painting "Dinosaur Boulevard" for Dinotopia, I did a lot of small layout studies like this one. The eye level is drawn right through the whole scene, and marked "EL." The eye level is important here because it establishes the height of the viewer in relation to the scene. The line intersects all the forms—human and saurian—about five and a half feet.

Dinosaur Parade Layout, pencil layout, 7 x 14 inches
Here's an early sketch for Dinosaur Parade, drawn in pencil from my imagination, before I sought out any references. The actual ground plane shifts as the figures descend the stairs, but the eye level is still essential for the construction of the perspective and the placement of the figures.
This will be my 34th consecutive article for International Artist, the magazine which GurneyJourney readers rated #1 overall.
The paintings in the article are all currently on view in Stamford, Connecticut through May 25.
I cover this topic in Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist
It's also covered in How to Draw by Scott Robertson


Tom Hart said...

A very helpful post, especially the reminder that the eye level is established by the level gaze, the important reminder for me being the word "level". I find that I sometimes confuse myself by forgetting that.

Can you say a little about the change in ground level introduced by the stairs, and how that changes the generally helpful concept that the eye level intersects all forms at about five and a half feet?

James Gurney said...

Tom, good question. If you figure that an average stairstep is 9 inches, then four steps would be 36 inches or three feet. So you'd have to add three feet of distance above the top of each figure (or dinosaur) to match up with the point at which the eye level intersects the other figures on the higher platform.

Kevin Mayes said...

James~ If you could clarify your response to Tom's question since it seems a bit confusing. There can only be one eye level/horizon with each platform receeding to the same point on that horizon line. So my question is how does adding anything above the ground level items (people, dinosaurs, etc.) solve anything? Frankly, I don't see how adding a landing at the top of a stair can alter the eye level since that eye level is a constant and not a variable. The only thing that would change is the level of perspective. Or am I just all wet on this and missing the point?

Richard Cave LBPPA said...

really helpful article, helps me a lot, that thank you,

James Gurney said...

Kevin, sorry if I was confusing. The eye level stays the same no matter what part of the picture you're talking about. A given horizontal plane will be a certain constant unit of distance above or below the eye level. If another horizontal plane is introduced, and that second plane is lowered or raised by a certain amount, the distance from that plane to the eye level is raised or lowered by the corresponding amount. Does that clarify?

Robert J. Simone said...

Great stuff, James. Thank you and congratulations on your long run with International Artist!

Kevin Mayes said...

Thank you, James.
I was certain that is what you meant but it was just a bit foggy.
It is interesting to see how you visualize your scenes and work through the challenges.

Jason Lipow said...

Hi Mr. Gurney,
I was wondering if you consider eye level when hanging or showing your paintings? Do you find that your paintings have a different effect on the viewer depending on their height?
And do you ever plan compositions where the viewer is intentionally placed in a disembodied or bird's eye view, such as with Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World"?

James Gurney said...

Jason, good questions. The hanging height that the curators used for the Stamford museum show puts the center of the picture at an average adult eye level. I forget how many inches that is, but it's around 5 1/2 feet. So if the eye level within the picture is close to that position, the illusion can be very compelling. The great diorama backdrop painters, such as James Perry Wilson, were very conscious of this.

And yes, I do use bird's eye views or worm's eye views to convey feelings of detachment, omniscience, or a childlike feeling.

Also for dino science paintings (where humans or architecture can't provide a clue), I'm aware that the eye level often helps provide a sense of scale to the dinosaur in the scene.

Payton Wood said...

Hi Mr. Gurney , not sure if you get to older comment sections but I am wondering if you have a good way to measure receding distances in perspective. I've been trying to figure this out and its one of those cases where I have all of these clues but I just can't piece it together.

James Gurney said...

Payton, yes, it is possible to measure foreshortened distances in perspective by superimposing a ground plan on your drawing. It's a little too involved for me to explain here, but you can find it well explained in Scott Robertson's book on drawing or other books on perspective.