What Is Perspective In Drawing

What Is Perspective In Drawing? (Secrets to Realistic Art)

In different eras of art history, artists strived to realistically depict the illusion of space in their own way, using some form of perspective. But what exactly is perspective in drawing?

Perspective is used in drawing to realistically represent the 3-dimensional space on a 2-dimensional drawing surface. By applying the rules of perspective, we can realistically depict the depth of space and the spatial relations of objects in our works of art. 

In his notes, Leonardo da Vinci expresses the essence of perspective as follows: „The art of perspective is of such a nature as to make what is flat appear in relief”.
The application of perspective in the pre-Renaissance ages was done empirically. In the 15th century, the great masters of Renaissance art developed the linear and atmospheric perspective that is still in use today.
The illusion of depth can also be expressed in our drawings through the use of tonal rendering, shadows and colors.

The rules of perspective are an important part of drawing fundamentals. By applying the rules of perspective, we can elevate our works of art to a professional level.

You will benefit from the understanding of perspective, whether you use traditional materials and techniques or digital tools.

Types of perspective

Linear perspective

The elements of the perspective are:
  • The horizon line is always at the eye level of the observer.
  • The vanishing point (there can be more than one in a drawing) is located on the horizon line. The vanishing point cannot always be determined within the drawing sheet, sometimes it goes beyond.
  • Orthogonal lines that converge at the vanishing point.
  • Transverse lines that are parallel to each other and to the horizon line.
The following rules apply to the linear perspective:
  • Moving towards the vanishing point, the objects appear smaller and smaller, as Leonardo explained in his notes:

„Linear Perspective deals with the action of the lines of sight, in proving by measurement how much smaller is a second object than the first, and how much the third is smaller than the second; and so on by degrees to the end of things visible.”

„The object that is nearest to the eye always seems larger than another of the same size at a greater distance.”

„Small objects close at hand and large ones at a distance, being seen within equal angles, will appear of the same size.”

  • As they converge toward the vanishing point, the distance between objects that are otherwise equidistant decreases. The sleepers of railway tracks are often given as an example.
  • Objects appear in real size when perpendicular to the viewer’s line of sight (they are parallel to the picture plane). When they turn away, shortening occurs.
  • The elements closer to the viewer partially cover the elements located further back in space.
  • To illustrate the three-dimensional nature of objects, we can also display the effects of light and shadow on our drawings.
  • Objects may be located at eye level, below, or above the horizon line.
shadow of cube in paralell light
Shadow of a cube in perspective

1 point perspective

The cube is the simplest geometric body, so it is often used to illustrate the principles of linear perspective.

Cubes in one-point perspective

We look at the object exactly from the front. The otherwise parallel lines of the side planes meet at one vanishing point located on the horizon line. The depth of the object is shortened, but the height and width on the front plane do not change.

2 point perspective

Let’s take the cube again as an example. In a two-point perspective, we see two sides of the cube with one edge pointing toward us.

cube in two point perspective
Cube in two-point perspective

The orthogonal lines converge towards two vanishing points on the horizon line. In this case, the vertical lines of the elements remain unchanged and all the other lines converge toward the vanishing points. The depth and width of the objects are shortened.

3 point perspective

A three-point perspective is used to represent a very tall object or a large depth, such as a tall building observed from below or a cityscape from above.

In this case, in addition to the two vanishing points defined on the horizon line, we also define a third one that is below or above the horizon line.

3 point perspective
Three-point perspective examples

The third vanishing point also allows you to draw objects in an oblique plane, such as a roof.

Atmospheric perspective

In his notes, Leonardo da Vinci defined in detail the rules of atmospheric (aerial) perspective.

The rules of atmospheric perspective are as follows:
  • due to the influence of the atmosphere, the outlines of more distant objects are depicted as less sharp than those closer to us.
  • As the object moves away from us, we draw less and less detail.
  • The colors of objects closer to us are more vivid. As they move away, the colors become more and more neutral.
  • As a result of the atmosphere, the tones become brighter and the colors more bluish as the object moves away from us.

Leonardo da Vinci masterfully applied atmospheric perspective in his painting The Virgin and Child with St. Anne.

Leonardo da Vinci The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne
Leonardo da Vinci: The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. Public domain. Image source

Color perspective

Colors can express the depth of space and the spatial position and distance of objects. On the same background, warm, saturated, and light colors appear closer than cold and dark colors.

According to Leonardo: „A dark object seen against a bright background will appear smaller than it is. A light object will look larger when it is seen against a background darker than itself.”

The development of perspective in the history of art

It has always been a challenge for artists to depict the 3-dimensional world on a flat surface in an authentic, believable way. Some form of representation of space has always been present in artistic practice.

In the course of art history, several methods have been developed for the visual representation of the illusion of space and depth.

The art of the prehistoric era

The prehistoric artist has already tried to creatively solve the problem of depicting space in cave drawings.

In the composition representing bison in the Lascaux cave, we can see how the planes located at different depths in space were separated by the artist. It is clear that the bison in the foreground partially covers the animal further away in space.

The hooves of the bison in the first plane are elaborated in detail, while those in the background appear only at the level of outlines.

Ancient Civilisations

In ancient Mesopotamian, Assyrian, and Egyptian art, space was depicted in the form of bands on which objects were arranged side by side.

Perspective in ancient Egypt

The differences in the size of human figures in Egyptian murals did not primarily reflect their spatial position, but their place in the political and religious hierarchy. Therefore, the figure of the pharaoh is always the largest.

tutankhamen egyptian artwork
A painting of Tutankhamen in his chariot
Photo by Chaos07 via Pixabay

The vertical perspective was a more advanced way of representing the depth of space. In their paintings, the Egyptians depicted the elements on several bands lined up one above the other. The different rows represent objects located at different depths of space, with the bottom row containing the elements closest to the viewer.

Egyptians also applied partial overlap of objects to create the illusion of depth in their paintings.

Perspective in ancient Greek and Roman art

The desire to depict three-dimensional space also appears in ancient Greek art. The technique used in the stage scenery depicted the depth of the space by painting larger shapes in the foreground and a smaller cityscape in the background.

The perspective representation in the murals found in Pompeii and Herculaneum is similar to the ancient Greek stage scenery, with larger elements in the foreground and a smaller cityscape in the background.

The fresco in one of the villas in Herculaneum is made from a one-point perspective, but the orthogonal lines move in the direction of not one but several vanishing points.

The aerial perspective also appears in this ancient Roman mural, as the elements in the background are less vivid and bluish, giving the impression that they are distant.

Fresco from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale
Cubiculum (bedroom) from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, public domain. Image source

Perspective in medieval art

There has been a decline in medieval art since ancient times, and ancient knowledge of perspective has been forgotten. In medieval painting, two-dimensional representation was used, in which objects were arranged in a vertical direction.

The size of the human figures in medieval works of art, just as in ancient Egypt, sometimes depends on their importance rather than their spatial position.

The inverse (reverse) perspective was used in pre-renaissance eras in Byzantine religious art and Orthodox iconography. In the inverted perspective, elements closer to the viewer are depicted as smaller than those farther away.

The reverse perspective differs from the linear perspective in that the vanishing point is located in front of the image plane, on the side of the viewer. This gives the impression that the space opens up in front of the viewer.

Parallel perspective or axonometry was also a common technique in medieval art.

In Paolo Veneziano’s painting of Saint Nicolas, we can see the use of the inverted perspective (image on the left) and the parallel perspective (image on the right).

Paolo veneziano due storie di san nicola
Paolo Veneziano: Due storie di san Nicola di Bari. Public Domain. Image source

Perspective in Renaissance art

After its decline in the Middle Ages, perspective was rediscovered during the Renaissance and its development was elevated to a scientific level. The development of linear perspective began with the work of two Italian architects, Filippo Brunelleschi, and Leon Battista Alberti.

In his notes, Leonardo da Vinci analyzes in detail the principles of linear perspective. Da Vinci also deals with shadows, color perspective, and aerial perspective.

Leonardo Perspective study for the Adoration of the Mag
Leonardo da Vinci: Perspective study for the Adoration of the Magi. Public Domain. Image source

The use of perspective was also adopted by the Flemish artists after the Italians. In Western European art, Albrecht Dürer applied perspective to his works. He made woodcut illustrations of different techniques for applying perspective.

Albrecht Durer woodcut print
Albrecht Dürer: Man Drawing a Lute, woodcut print. Public Domain. Image source

In the following centuries, mathematicians worked to define the geometric method of linear perspective still in use today.

Final thoughts

The need for a realistic representation of the three-dimensional reality around us has led to the development of perspective and its application in drawing and painting.

With our drawings, we can perceive the spatial effect in several ways, using linear perspective, atmospheric perspective, or color perspective.

By using different types of perspectives, we can depict the depth of space in our drawings, so our works of art will be convincing to the eye. Perspective is an important part of the basics of drawing. We need to apply it if we want to take our art to a more professional level.

Whether we work with traditional techniques and materials or digital devices, knowledge of perspective and other basic principles of art is essential.

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