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What is foreshortening?

Renaissance artists used foreshortening to create naturalistic art. This technique compresses long objects to appear shorter, giving the illusion of depth. Raphael's 'School of Athens' showcases foreshortening, with Aristotle's hand and Diogenes' thigh appearing closer. This tool was crucial for Renaissance artists to depict a convincing natural world.

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Video transcript

(upbeat piano music) - [Beth] Artists of the Renaissance are interested in presenting the world that we see, presenting it naturalistically. And by natural world, we don't mean nature. We don't just mean trees and grass. We mean everything in the world that we observe and one of the tools that they used to do that is something called foreshortening, which is one of the ways that we see the world. - [Steven] And foreshortening refers to seeing a long object head-on so that it looks compressed. - [Beth] Or another way to think about it is that when you're looking at painting, it looks as though something in the painting is going back into that illusionistic space, or coming out toward you. - [Stephen] But that we're looking at it more or less head-on so that we don't see the full length of that form. Let's take a look at Raphael's School of Athens because there are some great examples of foreshortening here. Probably the most obvious is in the hand of figure of Aristotle, in the very center of the painting. - [Beth] And because his forearm looks as though it's coming toward us, we immediately have a sense of an illusion of space, because if his had moves out toward us, there must be space, or an illusion of space, for it to move back into, and we know that this illusion of space was critical for artists of the Renaissance. - [Stephen] Raphael's painted such a convincing illusion that we can image that we can walk into this space, and if we did and we walked to the right or the left of these figures, we would see the full extension of that arm. But instead, we have that arm collapsed. It's a successful illusion, but if we focus on it, it does look a little funny. - [Beth] Our mind interprets what we see, and so we know that we're not just looking at a man who has no forearm with his hand stuck on his elbow, but our mind interprets this as an arm that exists in space. - [Stephen] So, how does the artist actually pull off this successful illusion? If you look very closely, you can see that Aristotle's fingertips are bright. There's light on them, but the underside of the fingers are in shadow. There's a little bit of light that touches the pads of his thumb and of his palm, but then there's shadow, again, under his forearm. Two other obvious examples of foreshortening in this painting are Diogenes, who seems to lounge on the stairs. If you look at his thigh, it is not a full extension. Again, it's foreshortened. Or, the representation of Heraclitus who writes seated in the foreground, and if you look at his thigh, you can see that it is also foreshortened. - [Beth] As is the piece of stone that he's leaning on. And so, foreshortening is a tool that Renaissance artists really relied on to create a convincing illusion of naturalism, of the natural world. - [Stephen] And there you have it, foreshortening. (upbeat piano music)