Ah, perspective. We see and experience it every day, but it doesn’t really register until we try to translate it onto a flat surface. Whether you love or hate it, perspective is one of the most powerful tools to create the illusion of depth. It’s also convenient for quickly communicating the idea of a 3D object without sculpting something out of clay!
In this tutorial, I’ll take you through the basic types of perspective and how to use each one to your advantage.
What is Perspective?
Boiled down, perspective in art is the method of representing the 3D world on a 2D surface. It gives a sense of depth and scale and shows each object relative to both shape and size.
The most basic perspective is one-point perspective. This is pretty easy to do: draw a line across the middle as the horizon line with a pen, then place a single dot on that line. That is your “vanishing point” – i.e. where the most distant point is in your drawing.
Next, using a ruler and pencil, draw some straight lines that radiate out from the vanishing point. They can be evenly spaced to make them easier to see.
Now, all your side-facing horizontal lines will be affected by these guidelines. Things that are further in the distance will get smaller and narrower (if all the objects in the drawing are the same size).
Draw a cube below the horizon line within this perspective grid. Note the side that’s directly facing the viewer is still square because these lines aren’t affected by perspective.
Also, vertical lines are still vertical. However, half of the horizontal edges are affected by perspective (which I’ve marked here with 2 dashes).
This narrowing is what creates the illusion of depth. Now, draw a cube above the horizon line, to the left, or to the right. Notice how the perspective grid affects the edges of each cube.
One-point perspective is great for creating a “tunnelling effect” and can apply to any shape in a drawing or painting. Rectangular objects (like buildings) will be the most affected, while irregular items like trees are only affected in terms of size (i.e. trees in the distance near the vanishing point will be smaller than the ones in front).
One-point perspective is relatively straightforward after some practice. It forms the foundation for all perspectives, even when you add more vanishing points – which we’ll do next.
Itching to learn more? Check out this blog if you want a more in-depth look at one-point perspective!
Once you’re comfortable with one-point perspective, it’s time to try two-point perspective. Two-point perspective is precisely as it is called – there are two vanishing points instead of one.
To draw it, make the horizon line like before, but place two points on it that are far apart. For your guidelines, draw one vertical line between these 2 points. This is where the 2 perspectives will meet! It doesn’t always have to be in the middle, but for now, it will be easier to understand how perspectives meet.
Next, draw guidelines radiating at an angle above and below the horizon line, with each line meeting at the vertical line in the middle corresponding to its counterpart on the other side.
All sides of your objects will now be affected by perspective, minus any sides directly facing the viewer (which I will demonstrate later). Try this new mode by drawing a cube with an edge on the vertical line, and see how both sides vanish – one to the left and one to the right.
When you place an object to the cube’s left, the side facing left will be affected by the vanishing point on the left, and the side on the right will be affected by the right one. It sounds complicated in words, so look at the image to make more sense of it.
An easier way to draw objects on this grid is to put a dot for each corner of the cube, then use a ruler to connect the dots. The vertical edges remain unaffected while the other edges are slanted toward the corresponding vanishing point.
Two-point perspective is fun to play with, especially when drawing urban scenes. However, you get two tunnelling effects instead of just one, so keep in mind which direction each wall faces.
We've got a wonderful Mini Workshop recording on sketching in a two-point perspective if you want to learn more about it!
Surely two-point perspective is the limit, right? Not quite. I will briefly touch on three-point perspective, which is where things get pretty neat.
As you have probably guessed, we’ll add a third vanishing point to the drawing. Draw a horizon line and two vanishing points, then add a third somewhere above or below the horizon line. I drew mine above the horizon line because I find it slightly easier.
Here is where your guidelines can get a bit crazy. Draw one single vertical line perpendicular to the horizon line, this time connecting to the third vanishing point. This line will be the only completely vertical one because all the other vertical lines will now be slanted towards the third vanishing point.
Draw the lines as you did for the two-point perspective, then make a third set radiating from the third vanishing point. I colour-coded each set of lines – blue for left, red for right, and green for top-down.
With this third vanishing point, it will feel like you’re looking up from street level toward the sky. You can draw fascinating skyscrapers or even trees using three-point perspective.
Tip: If you place the third vanishing point below the horizon line instead, it will feel like you’re looking down from an aerial point of view.
The great thing about three-point perspective is that you can make the viewer feel incredibly small (as if looking up at a giant building) or that the world is small (like looking down from a helicopter).
Of course, it’s all an illusion, but it sets the tone and atmosphere of an art piece. It’s a good idea to practice different perspectives, even if you plan to break these “rules” further along your art journey.
Want to take a deep dive? Check out this wonderful article that focuses on three-point perspective.
Once you get the hang of how vanishing points affect your linework, you’ll eventually be able to break away from drawing the guidelines, which can feel a bit rigid at times. Try it the other way around – draw the objects first, then add the perspective guidelines to see if they come to the same vanishing point(s).
Purposefully violating the guidelines of perspective significantly changes the feel of a piece. A distorted perspective will make the viewer feel uncomfortable or nauseous, like a drunk person trying to walk straight.
Ultimately, perspective is another tool you should master early because it helps you see and understand 3D objects and the world in relation to distance and depth.
Of course, you can always apply the basic principles in wacky ways! We've got a great post on how to have fun with perspectives when drawing houses!
Have you ever tried these perspectives before? Do you like including precise perspective in your artwork, or would you rather wing it? Let us know in the comments.
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