Chris Ware and Perspective Drawing

The most recent Mad Magazine (the one with the insurance caveman on the cover) includes a Chris Ware parody among the gags in the “Fundalini Pages” at the beginning of the issue. Mad‘s comics/graphic novel parodies are usually presented in the form of a review, with text above and a (supposed) excerpted page from the work in question below. Here’s the drawing that accompanied the review:


Whoever drummed this up did a pretty good job I think capturing and riffing on some of Ware’s hallmark stylistic and formal devices. One thing, though, struck me as being not as “Chris Ware-esque” as it could be: the architectural scene in the upper left corner (highlighted in the scan above).

The drawing itself looked familiar, and a quick flip through the Jimmy Corrigan book revealed the source image the Mad artist had based his panel on, albeit horizontally flipped and with figures on the street eliminated:


This image has been beautifully executed in technically correct linear perspective, as you can see worked out below:


Filippo Brunelleschi or Albrecht Dürer couldn’t have done it any better. What’s interesting to me, though, is that this sort of mathematically accurate perspective drawing is really not typical of Ware. Unlike most draftsmen as accomplished as Ware, he most often employs “wrong” (perhaps “non-linear” would be a better word?) perspective in his work, drawing objects entirely flat on the picture plane, using overlapping or other visual cues to create visual depth; in isometric perspective, a type of drawing usually reserved for diagrams and technical drawings; or–even odder–with one surface of a structure drawing with one perspective scheme and another surface drawn via an entirely different scheme.

Here are some examples:

Flat “non-perspective”


Note how here the two surfaces of the house, which–were this an actual house, seen through the human eye–would be receding to vanishing points on the left and right, remain entirely parallel to the horizon and not at an angle to one another. Absent also is any perceived change it the spacing of regularly spaced features (think of how fence posts appear to get closer together the farther away they are) like the windows on the house. The only major device used to create depth of field here is overlapping of elements like the ice truck in front of the house and the bicyclist behind the tree. The whole thing’s flattened out, almost as if were a paper toy that hasn’t been cut out and assembled yet (hmmm….)

Isometric Projection


Ware very often also employs isometric projection-like drawing when depicting both interior and exteriors. In a true isometric projection the angle between the coordinate axes is 120°–in this example it’s more like 145° or so (72° x 2 is the arc between the blue orthogonal in the drawing and the corresponding red orthogonal to the right). Unlike in the first example, the two surfaces of the structures here are at angles to one another, but–and this is the salient feature of an isometric projection–the orthogonals remain parallel to one another, and would never meet at vanishing points on a horizon line. As with the example above as well, there is no perceived diminishment of scale along the axes. This sort of axonometric spacial representation is seen in early video games as well–and aped by webcomics like Diesel Sweeties.

The Mix-n-Match


In this example, Ware has treated each of the two visible surfaces of the structure with a different perspective method. The front surface of the building is drawn almost as if it were in one-point point perspective–as if we were standing directly in front of the building dead-center looking straight at it (or perhaps, in “non-perspective” as above). If this were the case, though, we’d not see any of the side surfaces of the structure. The left side of the building is visible here and gets treated entirely differently; it’s drawn as if it were in standard two point perspective and the viewer were eye level with the curb. It’s interesting to me that Ware has filled that side of the structure entirely with black, since it’d be interesting to see how he would have dealt with rendering windows and the like on that side of the structure. If they were drawn to “obey” the two point setup, they’d fall along those dotted orthogonals shown above. The left-facing surface of the front stairs, which might logically be treated the same as the left surface of the building itself, is done in “non-perspective” as in the first example above.

At some point it might prove interesting to go through Jimmy Corrigan and make note of at what points in the story Ware decides to employ traditional linear perspective, as in the panel aped by the Mad parody. A cursory look indicates to me that these instances are pretty rare (no doubt why I found that panel in the parody image un-Warelike). I’d be willing to bet that an in depth analysis of Ware’s use–and non use–of perspective would reveal that these instances of true linear perspective are utilized by the artist deliberately at certain points in the narrative and for very specific reasons.

Gimme a grant, and I’ll figure it out…


  1. J Chris Campbell says:

    Did you do this for a class or article?

  2. Ben says:

    Nah… I’m just a “perspective geek.” I occasionally teach classes in perspective, so it’s not like I really had to research anything for the post. I just thought it was interesting.

  3. Joost Pollmann says:

    Hello Ben, I just discovered your article about Ware’s use of perspective: thrilling and well researched. Do you have more articles on comics & perspective? (In 2000 I lectured at ICAF about Soundscapes: hoew noises can be drawn..)


  4. Ben says:

    Thanks, Joost. I’m glad you found the article interesting. I’m guessing we’ve probably crossed paths before. I’ve been to a few ICAFs and presented a paper at one a while back as well.

    Unfortunately, this is the only article I think I’ve done on comics and perspective. I’m primarily a cartoonist, which consumes the bulk of my time, so I don’t get to spend much time thinking about and writing about this kind of stuff.

    I’m really interested in linear perspective, both in practice and its history, and I think an analysis of the way Chris Ware uses these various types of perspective could be interesting. Looking into it more is on my ever-growing “when I get around to it” list, I guess.


  5. Isaac Cates says:

    Hey, Ben — I finally got around to reading this, and I think it’s a really smart start. I have a suggestion about the effect Ware gets from using isometric (instead of linear) perspective: I think it’s a way of distancing the reader from the “experience” of a scene, instead making it necessary for the reader to “read” the buildings (like a diagram) instead of “looking at” them.

    I ought to forward a link to this page to Dave Ball and the rest of the people on that MLA panel from last month: I think they’d get a kick out of it.

  6. Laura Lasworth says:

    Hi Ben,
    Thanks for this terrific blog!
    Laura Lasworth
    Professor of Art
    Seattle Pacific University

  7. Ben says:

    Thanks, Laura!

  8. Laura Lasworth says:

    Hey Ben,
    I’m working on a blog this morning for my Perspective class which is starting in a couple of weeks and I’ve just made you artist of the week! http://1104perspectivedrawing.blogspot.com/
    Let me know if sharing your site with our students is okay with you. I know they will be very excited to see your work and all the information you have posted. We have allot of border crossers like yourself at SPAC (Seattle Pacific Art Center).
    You know, ArtistPhilosopherIndierockerGraphicDesignerIllustratorWriter.
    Here’s another blog we’ve made for our Design Studio in COLOR Theory.

  9. jor says:

    Hi Ben

    I just came across your fantastic piece on Chris Ware and Perspective Drawing, really interesting. Do you know what pens and programs etc. Chris Ware uses?

  10. Ben says:

    Thanks! He’s done a few interviews over the years for Comics Journal and the like. I’m sure he gets into “tools and techniques” there. They’re worth tracking down if you’re a Ware fan.

  11. jor says:


  12. Andrei says:

    Actually, Ben, what you call mix-and-match could just be the extreme right-hand of a one-point perspective view. See here:
    or here:

  13. Ben says:

    Andrei – In one point, the vanishing point falls directly at the intersection of the line of sight and the horizon line–directly in the center of the field of vision–just like in that Fra Carnevale image you linked to.

    In the Ware panel, the VP is off to the far left of the line of sight, which makes it two point (in theory) and implying another VP off to the right at 90 degrees to the station point. I guess one could imagine that the Ware panel is a “cropped” part of a bigger image that’s in one point–where the VP is in fact in the center–but I don’t know if one can truly say that a drawn image like this has been “cropped.”

    At any rate, if this were just the left-hand side of a theoretical larger image in one point, we’d see all the left/right orthogonals receding to that VP–like the sides of those pitched roofs, or the horizontals of the steps, which here are completely horizontal and parallel to the horizon line.

  14. yprh says:

    Oh, what a fabulous blog! So interesting analizing Chris Ware perspective, He is God!

  15. Adam-Bin says:

    Wow Ben

    3.5 years later and you just blew my mind.

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