Beginner Drawing: Linear Perspective: The Basics

It is critical for artists of all levels to understand and feel comfortable using linear perspective.
by Stephanie Kaplan

Understanding linear perspective is important for all artists, beginners included, regardless of their medium or subject matter, as the concept of linear perspective has revolutionized the way artists perceive and incorporate spatial depth in their work. Established in solid, mathematical terms in the 15th century, linear perspective creates the illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface, such as a piece of paper or canvas. Linear perspective is also based on the illusion that when parallel lines recede into the distance, they appear to get closer together. To create effective linear perspective, artists establish a horizon line, a vanishing point on that line, and multiple orthogonal, or vanishing, lines. The horizon line is a horizontal line that runs across the paper or canvas to represent the viewer’s eye level and delineate where the sky meets the ground. The orthogonal lines, which distort objects by foreshortening them, create the optical illusion that objects grow smaller and closer together as they get farther away. These imaginary lines recede on the paper to meet at one point on the horizon called the vanishing point.

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Both images from Art History, Revised Edition Volume Two, by Stephen Addiss, Bradford R. Collins, and Marilyn Stokstad (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, New York).

The difference between one- and two-point perspective is the number of vanishing points and where they are placed on the horizon line.

Saint Augustine Teaching in Rome (scene 6, south wall)
by Benozzo Gozzoli. 1464-65, fresco, 86? x 90?. Collection Apsidal Chapel, Sant'Agostino, San Gimignano, Italy.

The vanishing point on Saint Augustine’s hand and the orthogonal lines that radiate from this point create one-point linear perspective.

When first learning how to incorporate perspective into your composition, it is best to concentrate on one-point perspective with the use of one vanishing point (two- and three-point perspective use two and three vanishing points, respectively). One-point perspective is helpful when drawing or painting roads, railroad tracks, or buildings that directly face the viewer. According to Patrick Connors, an adjunct professor at the New York Academy of Art, in Manhattan, who teaches a graduate class on linear perspective, “The components of perspective are three: the eye (the artist or viewer), the picture plane, and the figure (or object). The science is about the relationship among the three. An introduction to perspective is necessary for the representational artist,” he continues. “Even a basic understanding of linear perspective will, at least, enhance an artist’s appreciation for the perceptual underpinnings of the illusions of space,” regardless of whether he or she is painting a landscape, a still life, or creating a sculpture. To help his students learn the basics of linear perspective, Connors instructs them to complete the following linear perspective exercise:

What You Will Need

  • 16”-x-20” sheet of paper
  • ruler
  • straight edge (a 30°– 60°– 90° triangle is recommended)
  • compass
  • protractor
  • pencil (Connors recommends an H graphite pencil)
  • red pencil
  • blue pencil
  • eraser
  • optional: a drawing board or drafting table with true 90° edges
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Step 1
Place your paper horizontally, parallel to the edge of the surface on which you are working. Draw a horizontal line with the graphite pencil about six inches down from the top of the paper.

Step 2

Use the graphite pencil to draw a vertical line perpendicular to the horizontal line 10 inches from the left side of the paper. The horizontal line represents the horizon line, or eye-level line (E-LL), and the vertical line represents the center line (CL).
Step 3
Place a straight-edged ruler along the CL and measure eight inches down from the E–LL. Place a mark on the line and label it the “eye” (often called the station point). This intersection is the vanishing point (or point of sight), which is crucial for placing figures in one-point perspective drawings.

Step 4
Place a protractor on the “eye,” making sure that the eye of the protractor is placed correctly on the eye of the CL and the 90° mark on the CL. Measure 30° to the left of the CL, which is 60° on the protractor, and place a mark on the paper.

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Step 5
Place a straight edge (the 30°– 60°– 90° triangle) at the “eye,” line it up with the 60° mark, and draw a line until it intersects the E-LL.
Step 6
Place the stationary point of the compass at the point of sight and place the recording point at the mark from Step 4 to draw a circle. (If your compass is too small, use a string with a pencil, taping one end of the string to the point of sight.) This circle represents the cone of vision (CV), which establishes the boundaries for the rest of the perspective lines.

Step 7

To draw the grid, draw a parallel line three inches below the E–LL with the blue pencil. This line should be eight inches long with four inches to the left and right of the CL. Then use the red pencil to mark off each inch on the line.

Step 8
Use the red pencil and the straight edge to draw a line between the point of sight and each inch-mark (eight lines in total). These lines are one set of the grid’s parallel lines and demonstrate that parallel lines vanish to the same vanishing point—one of the basic rules of perspective.

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Step 9
Next, measure the distance between the “eye” and the point of sight (eight inches here). Draw an eight-inch line starting at the point of sight and extending to the left to create a measuring point (MP).

Step 10
Once the MP is established, use a blue pencil and a straight edge to draw a diagonal line between the MP and the right ending point of the baseline, across the red vanishing lines. Also mark the eight intersections of the blue diagonal line with the red vanishing lines.
Step 11
Draw a blue line parallel to the baseline at each intersection mark that runs from the left-most to the right-most vanishing line.
The Completed Grid
by Patrick Connors

For students who do not immediately catch on to linear perspective, Connors has this encouragement: “Those who want to use it can work independently with it. Those for whom it is helpful can do great things with it.”

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Examples of student midterm projects from Connors’ classes at the New York Academy of Art, in Manhattan, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia, that build on the grid exercise mentioned above. All artwork this article courtesy of Patrick Connors unless otherwise indicated.

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