Perspective Drawing

Many of Peter's workshops echo the frustration of artists struggling with perspective drawing and its multitude of lines. While lines are foundational for understanding perspective, most artists don't need to draw them all; instead, they use rulers or pencils to guide their eyes.

Perspective, derived from the Latin "perspicere," meaning "to see through," is a term that describes our unique view from a specific vantage point, which changes as we move. This concept is crucial in perspective drawing.

Ancient Greeks laid the groundwork for perspective, which has been refined through the ages. Books on this topic often present complex diagrams that can be more perplexing than enlightening to students.

Two types of perspective drawing

In perspective drawing, artists must understand two main forms: aerial and linear perspective.

  • Aerial perspective deals with how light creates the illusion of depth, causing distant objects to appear lighter and cooler in color.
  • Linear perspective focuses on understanding the geometry of a scene, such as the diminishing sizes of a road or building sides, which aids in creating a realistic rendering.

While the fundamental concepts are simple, mastering perspective drawing can be challenging.

Aerial Perspective

In perspective drawing, aerial perspective refers to how the distance from a viewpoint to the horizon within a scene affects our perception of element placement through color and clarity.

Although it sounds complex, it's quite straightforward.

The viewpoint is simply where the scene is painted or photographed from.

The perceived distance, whether near or far, is influenced by atmospheric light scattering due to dust and water vapor. This tends to make distant objects appear lighter and bluer.

In creating a picture, our goal is to convey depth on a flat surface, giving a sense of space between the foreground, middle, and background elements. Regardless of whether the scene is an expansive landscape, an urban setting, or an intimate still life.

We can create visual separation using three techniques:

  1. Color: Cool colors like blues recede, while warm colors like reds and yellows appear closer.
  2. Definition: Keeping edges crisp in the foreground and blurred in the distance emulates natural vision focus.
  3. Color Intensity: Fainter colors give the illusion of depth, whereas vivid and intense colors seem to advance.

In the art world, 'rules' are more like flexible guidelines that artists may follow, or intentionally diverge from, to create a certain effect.

Consider a landscape scene where a grey cloud dulls the foreground, yet a distant hillside and buildings are illuminated by a break in the storm, presenting a vivid contrast. Such striking visual moments often captivate observers.

To enhance the depth in our paintings, we can accentuate area separations by using cooler blues with a violet tint in the background and warmer reds in the foreground, avoiding greenish-blue hues.

Using lighter shades and minimal detail for distant elements can create a sense of depth

To illustrate the impact of rain in our drawing, we might decide to reduce the clarity and color intensity.

To authentically depict a heat haze, concentrate on adding some distortion to the landscape. Also keep in mind that the colors in a printed reference may not resemble the real-life vibrancy and intensity of a sweltering summer day.

You can always enhance a scene in your artwork. You don’t need to add every detail to distant objects like buildings and trees.

Apply the principles of aerial perspective to create clear separations in your composition. This technique will add depth to your piece without cluttering it with unnecessary elements.

Linear Perspective Drawing

Mastering linear perspective drawing starts with understanding its core principles. A key concept is the horizon line – an imaginary line that signifies the viewer's eye level and greatly contributes to the overall depth of the piece.

Both aerial and linear perspective are essential techniques in perspective drawing for understanding how shapes are formed and how they appear on a flat surface.

Sometimes, when looking at a picture, you feel something is off, but you can't quite put your finger on it. Standing back and observing from a distance often reveals the issue: a perspective problem. Consider this mural from the wall of an Italian restaurant.

Venetian buildings often appear misaligned due to centuries of settling. In this instance, the artist seemed to have indulged in too much Chianti. Compare the top window lines on the left with those on the right and notice the difference.

The overall effect was annoying during my meal, prompting me to return the next day to take a photograph. The Maitre'D was so proud I wanted a record of the mural on his wall!

Venetian mural where the perspective is wonkyI have marked the correct line in red (left) and blue (right) which you can compare with the artists lines shown in yellow.

Just for the record, here are three actual Venetian examples:

The perspectives in Venice are often skewed due to the buildings sliding into the mud. However, my mural example takes this to an extreme

example photo of skewed perspective in buildings
Photo of a Venetian canal where the perspective lines don't match up
Another example of wonky Venetian buildings

While the basics of linear perspective might be easy to understand, the real challenge is in accurately applying it to your drawings.

In learning linear perspective drawing, start with simple exercises that focus on understanding the concept of eye level.

Normal landscape and townscape images typically assume an eye level of about 5 feet from the ground. The average pedestrian's eye level is about there. If you're seated or painting a scene, your eye level will be different. Adjust your perspective accordingly.

The eye level can be projected forward, resting on a point in the distance. This is crucial for creating accurate drawings. If you can't see a distant horizon, use a level line between your eye and the distance as a starting point. Look at the image below.

Diagram explaining eye level in perspective drawing

The eye level line is perfectly horizontal, displaying only the end of the building and its surroundings at that level.

When viewed from a hill above, our perspective changes, revealing more of the building's roof. The presence of nearby buildings can help determine a level line for the horizon, with the converging rooflines providing the Vanishing Point.

Here are two watercolours by Paul Talbot-Greaves. I have copied these with his permission together with his comments on the perspective of his pictures.

watercolour by Paul Talbot-Greaves

WHY are we getting the impression of looking downwards here?

This painting is at Stickle Tarn in the English Lake District.  Paul writes...

‘The painting does not contain any buildings and yet we feel as if we are up high. The eye level here crosses the picture near the top of the left hand rocks and the illusion of height is gained by the downward slopes of the rock walls. Reinforcing the high viewpoint is the water of the tarn painted way down below this imaginary line. Because the brain associates this with ‘ground level’ we assume the position of a higher viewpoint.

farmyard watercolour by Paul Talbot-Greaves

The second image is at Hepworth, near Holmfirth, in the Pennines. Paul writes...

‘In this painting the eye level is situated just over a quarter of the way up the picture with the buildings situated mainly above it. The lines of the stonework, roofs and doors all slope downwards towards the eye level in accordance with the rules of perspective. From this view we assume the position of looking uphill.'

How do perspective lines work?

Understanding lines of perspective is crucial for drawing and design. They connect points that are at the same level above ground, but appear to slope down or up due to the angle of our view.

This effect can be observed in one-point perspective, where all edges converge to a single point.

Country house showing perspective lines

For example, consider the Somerset country house above, where our viewpoint is at an angle to the building. The vanishing point (VP) is off to the left, and we may need a long ruler to mark it accurately.

Remember, when determining lines of perspective in photographs, use tracing paper to avoid damaging the reference image.

The position of a Vanishing Point is crucial for linear perspective. For horizontal structures, it lies at the same level as the viewer's eye. Looking at photos makes plotting the Vanishing Point easier. Here are two examples:

Photo shows how tiles recede into the distance

In the Loire Valley chateau photo, tile lines, floor lines, and ceiling lines all lead to a central point at eye level.

Most of the heads are aligned, but the feet vary due to some people being seated. We'll explore drawing black and white tiles with angled patterns soon.

A scene in Brittany

Here, we are in St Gustain, a popular tourist spot in Southern Brittany.

Our position is on the quay, where we can see the old town above us. The vanishing point is at the top of the nearby lane, which is at ground level.

Most buildings on the left have a shared vanishing point with the picture to their right. However, the lane curves, and the left-end building has a different vanishing point.

Modern buildings with straight lines often have precise perspectives, while old buildings with curved lines provide more visual challenges.

In the next part of this topic, we'll explore Gold Hill, where a familiar street scene offers various vanishing points due to its curves and descent.

One Point Perspective Drawing

one point perspective - block

One-point perspective involves a block in front of us, with the simple shape of the square end visible.

By assuming eye level at the center point, we can determine the right-hand side's appearance and the shadow, which follows the same rules.

All perspective lines meet at eye level.

Two Point Perspective Drawing

In two-point perspective, two or more vanishing points arise. Here's an example from our block:

two point perspective - block

Here, two edges recede away from us. Both vanishing points (VPs) and the shadow line rest on the same eye level.

The closer VPs create an impression of greater height.

The front lower edge of the block lies beneath us, making the block appear lower.

Two point perspective house example

Above, we see an example of a street scene drawn out.

Note that the building appears taller due to the lower eye level in this scene, compared to the previous example.

diagram of vanishing point

If you lower your gaze to the ground, the vanishing points appear more distant, making the block seem farther away.

Higher viewpoint eye level

If we position the eye level higher up we assume a higher viewpoint.

(Thanks to Paul Talbot-Greaves for the block illustrations.)

In the slightly more complicated world of two-point perspective, we now need to consider how it relates to real-life scenes.

Roads don't always go straight, buildings are constructed at different times and angles, and surfaces can be seen from multiple perspectives.

While we shouldn't ignore perspective rules, we must be more cautious in depicting surfaces.

Showing perspective lines on a sloping street

This Italian street scene features two separate sets of buildings, a slope in the road, and walls that are not vertical.

It is possible to calculate the lines to be followed to capture the effect of distance on the walls and windows. The two facing lines of buildings may not be parallel, as the road appears to be narrowing. This distinction results in two separate lines of perspective and two vanishing points.

Nearer home,  we look at another problem picture at Gold Hill, Shaftsbury, Wiltshire.

Gold Hill, Shaftsbury, Wiltshire in the snow

Nearer home, we find another problem picture at Gold Hill, Shaftsbury, Wiltshire – the famous scene of the Hovis bread advert. The boy cycled downhill to deliver a loaf of bread.

This inviting scene, was captured in snow and at night. Compare it with the usual image below.

Perspective lines on top of photo of Gold Hill

In the lower photo, the perspective of the nearest buildings on the left (yellow) differs from the next pair of buildings on the left (light blue). These buildings are where the VP is located.

Meanwhile, the lines for the set of posts on the right (red) present a challenge.

If you try to draw all your VPs, you might not be able to see the original picture for lines.

Look at how eye level in a picture can change our assumptions about our position.

When painting a scene, we must determine our eye level and ensure that nearby buildings' perspective lines relate to their vanishing points at that level.

In the Gold Hill example, the lines on the buildings closest to the viewer rest on a line close to the sky. Posts on the right follow the road's slope.

Perspectives are simpler when they align with a single surface and angle.

One other image to understand fully. This works in reverse and is a Venetian cloister. 

Photo of Venetian cloister

Where will the lines of linear perspective and the vanishing point appear in this picture on the right?

Check the perspective in this photo
  • Look out for VPs finishing close to the edges of the picture.
  • Remember that spaces between objects may appear narrower as they get farther away.
  • Calculate how much narrower the spaces should be due to perspective.
  • Be aware that there may be a slight curve in the building line.
  • Focus on the lines of linear perspective and the vanishing point.

Bridges and Arches

Photo of an arched bridge
Photo of an arched bridge from the side

Looking at a bridge, observe how the arch shape changes as we move around. Our viewpoint shifts, so do shapes like circles and arches. How do we draw these?

What about the tops of glasses and other circular things? How do we draw tiles and arches that appear to recede into the distance?

Diagrams showing the perspective of a circle at different angles

Once we understand the technique for drawing a circle inside a square, we can distort the square to follow the rules of perspective and then draw the circle within it. This provides the basic shape needed to draw arches in perspective.

Diagram showing the perspective of arches
A bridge with lots of arches

As the arch moves further away, the circle becomes flatter. This method helps to draw structures like railway viaducts, as seen in a photo. The near arches appear more circular, while the far ones are more pointed.

As arches extend further away, the gaps between the stonework diminish. This presents a challenge when drawing series of fence posts or church cloister pillars, as the distances must be accurately represented.

There's a simple method for finding correct spacing.

Diagram showing the spacing when drawing arches in perspective

First, draw three lines for the VP's horizontal guides: top, bottom, and middle. Draw your first upright and then the second. Place a cross in the first space and copy the exact angle of the upright line in the second space. This gives you the distance to the third post and the cross gives you the bottom position. Refer to the diagram on the right.

Repeat this across your drawing, and you'll notice each space is smaller than the one before and accurately positioned. This results in accurately spaced posts at the right height.

Perspective drawing - Floor tiles

Drawing tiles on a floor can be challenging, but I'll guide you through the process step by step.

1. Start by drawing a square in the correct proportion.

2. Identify the vanishing point and use it to create the vertical lines.

3. Add diagonal lines to the far side of the floor.

4. Cross the diagonal lines with vertical lines at each intersection.

5. Refine the drawing to form a set of tiles in perspective.

If you follow these steps, you'll have a clear and concise understanding of how to draw tiles in perspective.

Perspective drawing of tiles

If your tiles are being viewed diagonally, be careful with your measurements and drawing.

The tutorial below shows you how to maintain shape and position, so don't worry!

Diagram showing the starting point when drawing tiles in perspective

Image 1: You need to use two-point perspective and a true vertical line to draw the tiles, spacing them correctly with flatter, smaller ones at the back and larger, more upright ones at the front.

Diagram showing adding lines for tiles on a floor

Image 2: shows the addition of two perspective lines to define the front tile. The vertical guide line should serve as the point where the two lines intersect. Please ensure that you maintain this alignment to achieve accurate results.

step 3 in drawing tiles in perspective

Image 3: Put down a marker horizontal, level with where the previous pair of perspective lines crossed the middle (see left).

Diagram showing the second row of tiles

Image 4: Then connect up to the VPs ( making sure that these lines also cross at the centre). Then put down a further pair of outer markers level with where the last perspective lines crossed and connect those up.  I found it helped to make a single mark on one side and draw the crossing line with reference to the centre. You should then be able to build up your tiling to completion.

completed tile drawing

Image 5:  Now remove unnecessary marks and you have your tiles.

Obviously this is a long way from being a comprehensive review of perspective.

To gain a better understanding, explore additional resources and insights from various writers. But we hope it has given you a starting point.

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