Ellipses: Don’t Start a Still-life Without ‘Em

Newberry Art Tutorials

Ellipses make or break any drawn plate, glass, or bottle. When beautifully done they transport the viewer to experience serene harmony. It’s rare not to have a man-made cylindrical object in a still life.

It should not be surprising that da Vinci painted/drew beautiful ellipses. This detail is a from The Last Supper–it is the plate in front of Christ.

Ellipse demo Da Vinci

The outer side, top, and bottom edges of the ellipses are always perfectly aligned: straight up and down and straight across on the horizontal. Think of a “+” sign.

Below, I overlaid the plate with a “+” in purple. This process is really pure math. Most artists make either the right or left side unbalanced and fail to keep the two outer edges on the same horizontal plane.

The exception to this would be if the surface that the plate is on or the plate itself is tilted. Then you would tilt the “+” to correspond with the tilt of the object.

Ellipse demo Da Vinci

A tricky part about ellipses is that there is a slight discrepancy in size between the back half of the plate and the front half. Notice that the top half of the green box is smaller than the bottom half.

In perspective, as objects are further away from us, they shrink; and as they are closer to us, they expand. Hence the difference between the front and back halves of the plate.

Ellipse demo Da Vinci

In The Last Supper, the edge of the table is also horizontal which might confuse us about the ellipse’s horizontal. But if the table is on a flat surface and not tilted, the plate would always be perfectly horizontal no matter what perspective we have of the table.

Ellipse demo Da Vinci

Here, for example, I have changed the angle of the table. The plate would still remain horizontal.

Ellipse demo Da Vinci

The last very important thing about ellipses is that the rim gets rounder, more circular, the further they are placed either above or below our eye level.

“Eye level” is literally the horizontal plane which is the same height as our eye, hence the term “eye level”.

In the diagram below, the blue line represents our eye level. The green ellipses get progressively rounder and open more as they get further way from our eye level.

For example, if you were looking across to a book shelf that had several shelves containing plates, the closest plate to the height of our eye level would have a very narrow rim, and a very wide rim on the lowest shelf.

If the bookshelf were up to the height of the ceiling and way above our eye level, the same thing would occur-except that we wouldn’t see on top of the plate, rather we would see it from below. This means we would only see the front half of the rim, as the orange rims suggest. This means we would only see the front half of the rim, as the orange rims suggest.

Ellipse demo Da Vinci
Here is an example of ellipses from a recent charcoal drawing of mine. The eye level is somewhere near the top of the paper. There are three bowls and one plate; all on different heights below eye level.

The highest bowl has a very narrow rim and the black plate at the bottom of the paper has the roundest rim.

I hope you enjoyed seeing, in a fresh way, this very technical and mathematical side to the still-life.

Himalayan Flight by Newberry
Newberry, Himalayan Flight, 2006, charcoal on Rives BFK, 19 x 26 inches

Michael Newberry
New York, August 30th, 2006

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