How do I draw like MC Escher?
January 28, 2015 9:35 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to understand how Escher made his architectural illusion drawings so I can model similar environments in 3D and then use those models to draw my own creations out on paper. How do I even get started?

Since I was a kid I was fascinated by MC Escher's impossible architecture drawings. I particularly loved the infinite waterfall, endless stairs, and drawings where there are warped or overlying perspectives where you are looking up and down at the same time.

It occurred to me recently that I could MAKE these sort of images myself.. if I only knew how. I have a fair amount of art training and have lots of ideas for what things could look like and what sort of odd creatures I could populate them with but zero idea on how to actually get started. Most books on Escher I have read don't really include any detailed information on how he actually planned and created his images, only vague allusions to grid paper and models that he used.

My question is in several parts.
1. How do I understand perspective and the perspective tricks underlying optical illusions? Most books on learning art and drawing perspective have been on basic 1, 2, and 3 pt perspective which is not really what I want to learn at all. Is there a good book on understanding warped perspectives and/or the visual basis of his sort of optical illusions? Looking for good books on understanding/creating optical illusions has been rather fruitless as well.

2. How do I model Escher-esque environments in 3D so I can then draw them? I'm willing to learn whatever 3D program (I only know 2D Adobe programs right now) that could get the basic forms down (mostly to model arches, stairways, and etc) but I haven't the foggiest idea on which would be most suitable. I know Escher illusions only "work" in 2D, so they can't really be modeled properly in 3D. The 3D models would only look right from certain angles. But the goal would just be to output some kind of limited shading 3D rendering that I can then draw over.

So: Is there a simple 3D program that includes perspective grids and the like that you can fiddle with? Is there even options in 3D programs for that? Is there a 3D program that can do isometric views? Which 3D programs could do this that aren't hard to learn?

3. Once upon a time I used Google Sketchup. Could Sketchup be used in this way?

I'm honestly flummoxed here on how to even begin or what to even research, so any information or suggestions at all would be highly appreciated.
posted by everyday_naturalist to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
Watch this video.

Then watch this one.

Short answer: fake it til you make it.
posted by Catblack at 9:53 PM on January 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


not sure if this helps, but somebody just told me recently that Escher really didn't enjoy his work. In fact, the repetition annoyed him no end. Yet he felt compelled to do it. Like he had no other option. The aesthetic gods had spoken and he had to do their will.

This is purely anecdotal but it makes a certain weird sense.
posted by philip-random at 10:35 PM on January 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


Most books on learning art and drawing perspective have been on basic 1, 2, and 3 pt perspective which is not really what I want to learn at all.

Are you currently pretty good at 3 point perspective with pencil and paper?

Is there a good book on understanding warped perspectives and/or the visual basis of his sort of optical illusions?


I would start with an art book of his work and some tracing paper. Figure out and characterize his visual illusions and only after that, see how other people have characterized his work. "Ah, that chair's made up of two impossible triangles. Looking that up later, those are Penrose Triangles."

Tracing paper would help immensely at learning warped perspectives as well.

How do I model Escher-esque environments in 3D so I can then draw them?

If you know Sketchup, use that. There are apparently rendering plugins that work with it, or you can export it into other software for rendering. It does have an isometric mode, as do most 3D modeling programs.

Or you can build paper models and then carefully light them.

If you are crafty you could have something useful pretty quickly.

You may want to do some master studies in architectural rendering unless you're
good at that already. Escher tromped all over Italy drawing the architecture and streetscapes before he started doing the illusionistic stuff he's known for.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:39 PM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


If you want to fly through different spaces/topologies of the sort that Escher took artistic license with, Curved Spaces is a free OpenGL app that you might find fun in exploring. It might inspire your work along the same lines.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 10:53 PM on January 28, 2015


The entire Monument Valley game (App Store link) takes place in an Escher-esque world. You might enjoy seeing the different ways the designers have taken these types of images and made them interactive. It certainly gave me more insight into the process and is a phenomenally beautiful game to boot.
posted by HoteDoge at 11:01 PM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


There's a number of places that will help you print isometric graph paper.

I'd suggest very strongly working through Schuiten and Peeter's albums. While there's little to no visual illusions, they have a way of dealing with surrealistic imagery that always feels fresh and not over-labored or cliche. That being a constant danger when working with surrealistic themes or visual illusions.

Mathew Borrett and John Powers are a bit the same way and I think it comes down to a simple clever idea buoyed by masses and masses of hand skill.

I just saw a show of Escher's stuff at the National Gallery here in Ottawa and one thing which struck me was simply how good Escher's draftsmanship and rendering skills were. His ability to work tight and his ability to render form and atmosphere drive his work. (On that note I need to find my copy of Guptil.)
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:36 PM on January 28, 2015


I very much came to recommend the Monument Valley game for help with wrapping your head around Escher-like physics. Being able to (and having to) manipulate the environment and utilize the crazy physics was really cool, and I got better at it as the game progressed. (I really need for them to make more levels. I'll pay real monies. Please?)
posted by Weeping_angel at 12:31 AM on January 29, 2015


Join art classes. Learn perspective in class.

Then spend endless hours actually copying Escher's drawings.

That will do the trick, you'll eventually "understand" the way he thought. There is no other way I can think of.
posted by gaston.garcia at 7:24 AM on January 29, 2015


Thanks for all the thoughtful responses! I'm still looking through all the links, and I've gotten more of an idea of what to do to get started. Seriously, thanks all!

@sebastienbailard: I can do basic perspective exercises on paper and fudge a working observational perspective when drawing from life, but besides boring me to tears I don't yet grasp the connection between basic perspective drawing and more complicated perspective things. Yet another gap in my knowledge I suppose. Would you say that these are more essential? Maybe they are and I don't get it. Like in an algebra and calculus way.

@gaston.garcia: Well, yes you're absolutely right, but I'm lazy and if there's a shortcut somewhere, you bet I want to take it ;)
posted by everyday_naturalist at 7:44 AM on January 29, 2015


Totally off the wall, but I am reminded of Ender Wiggins' statement in the Battle Room of Ender's Game: "The enemy's gate is always down". It forced the kids to rethink perspective from where they started (the same orientation as they entered the room) into something that would work for them.

Now think about the Escher drawings - at the bottom of the pillars (for example), a certain line is perceived as the lefthand boundary of a column, but when you get to the top, that same line has become the righthand boundary of a column. Throughout the middle, the lines are just there and you don't have to think of them as either left or right, but our brains are wired to continue the same perspective that we started with until we meet other points of reference that throw it out of whack.

Another similarity is the full moon. Many people say it looks enormous when it's on the horizon but looks very small when it's high in the sky. Actual measurements show it to be the exact same size, but the different points of reference cause our brains to perceive it differently.

So if I were going to study this, I would look for books using "point of reference" in their curriculum, or I might go through Escher's work with a few covering papers to only expose one section at a time and study how that section works, then how it connects to the next section.
posted by CathyG at 7:57 AM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


I got started drawing impossible objects with the book Adventures With Impossible Objects, by Bruno Ernst, which is currently $0.27 (??). I also see via Amazon that he's written a whole bunch of books on Escher. As I recall it goes into some mathematical depth.

Basically, though, I started by copying other drawings of impossible objects.

As for modeling, I'm not sure what you mean since, well, they're impossible objects and at best illusions that only work from a single point of observation.
posted by cmoj at 9:31 AM on January 29, 2015


I was going to say to check out Monument Valley too. It's made in Unity which is a 3D language/development environment, there are some videos that the designers and makers of the game made which go into various amounts of detail about the design & development process.
posted by symphonicknot at 2:08 PM on January 29, 2015


@sebastienbailard: I can do basic perspective exercises on paper and fudge a working observational perspective when drawing from life, but besides boring me to tears I don't yet grasp the connection between basic perspective drawing and more complicated perspective things. Yet another gap in my knowledge I suppose. Would you say that these are more essential? Maybe they are and I don't get it. Like in an algebra and calculus way.

In some places you're running into cylindrical or spherical perspective, which gives you curved perspective grids.

At some point you'll want to slog through an advanced guide and set of tips on it. So that you don't make stuff that looks wonky. And so that you can then put more gruntwork into the rendering and composition.

The curved grid lines and multiple vanishing points are something you would just discover, by going at Schuiten and Escher with a straight edge and tracing paper, identifying vanishing points and tracing gridlines.

For journeyman artists, whatever we find to be difficult is the essential thing to work on as a side project. With me that means comparative measurement (p86) with a knitting needle and copying master drawings and eventually working directly from casts.

You might find that longform masterstudies of perspective drawings in some sort of tonal medium, using a 9-value scale and careful mark-making, might extend your primary artwork a bit. Master studies would have been an essential part of Escher's instruction. Or even Picasso and Van Gogh's instruction. Pick masterpieces rather than just a page from a random magazine or image search, those being more useful for your clipping files for art reference. Keep an eye out for the stuff that gives you that little aesthetic shiver or frisson when you see it.

I have a tendency to sometimes just noodle around in my comfort zone, art-wise, in a way that only improves my skills slowly. The academic stuff helps fight that, because there's no way for one's brain to shy away from the bits one finds to be hard.
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:39 AM on January 30, 2015


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