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I am indebted to Professional UK Artist and Tutor, Paul Talbot-Greaves for permission to use some elements of his excellent set of articles on perspective published in 2009


‘I can’t get my head around ‘Perspective’ – all those lines and things’

Lines are essential to explain linear perspective, but most artists, once they understand the principles, manage without drawing guide lines, they simply check with a ruler or follow along the side of a pencil

The word Perspective is derived from the Latin word perspicere, meaning ‘to see through’   We have a perspective on something.  We can see it from a particular position., and that  view is particular to the position we are in. If we move, the perspective changes.   The word has come also to refer to the way a three dimensional view is seen in two dimensions.

The original theories of perspective were developed by the ancient Greeks and perfected over many centuries.  

Look at any book on the subject and you will be faced with many diagrams – some more complicated than others.

They try to explain the subject, but some may often succeed in confusing the student more than ever.

The artist must be aware of two types of perspective in drawing and painting

1/Arial Perspective and        2/Linear Perspective

Arial Perspective relates to the effect of light interference between the viewer and the different parts of the subject.  

Thus distance shows up as paler and cooler in the colour temperature as it recedes.

Linear Perspective relates to the shapes you see in the landscape (or still life).

For example the way we see a road recede or the walls of a barn or house and how the windows and walls appear to your eyes. The basics are pretty straightforward but the drawing is not always as easy.

Let us start with Arial Perspective

Arial perspective can be defined as the distance between your viewpoint and the background or horizon within a scene and how we determine the position of elements of our picture from the relative colour and definition of them.  

Sounds tricky! , but it is simpler than it sounds.

First the viewpoint:  This is the position from which we have painted or photographed our scene.

The distance or horizon is very subjective. It may be a few feet away, or it may be miles away.

Whichever it is, it will be affected by the scattering of light caused by dust particles and water vapour in the atmosphere.

It is this interference which causes the distance to appear paler, and often more blue in colour.

When constructing a picture, we often try to compose it so that the three dimensions we see with our two eyes can be replicated as much as possible on the two dimensions of the paper surface.

We want the viewer to get the feeling of distance and separation between the foreground, mid ground and more distant features, whether these are in an extensive landscape, a town view or a still life on a shelf.  

We can achieve this separation in three ways.

Firstly, by using colour.  Blues and colder colours tend to retire into the background, reds and yellows convince the eye that they are closer to hand

Secondly, by using definition. We can keep sharply defined edges and surfaces to the foreground and allow features to become less distinct as they appear further away. This mimics the way the eye sees objects when it focuses on something in the front of the viewer, and loses definition where the eye isn’t looking.

Thirdly, in the strength of colours we use. Paler colours sit back, while brighter and stronger colours come forward.

( Illustration to come )

These are not hard and fast ‘rules’ any more than any other rules are in the art world.  They are simply guides that have been found to work, and you may well see examples of cases where an artist deliberately breaks the rules to achieve an effect.  Think of cases where the foreground of a landscape is under grey cloud with colours and definition reduced in the cold grey light. However the artist has seen an area in the more distant part of the scene where bright sun catches a hillside and buildings, and shows them up in clear, bright colours against a stormy sky. No doubt you have seen such scenes yourself and stopped to take them in.

There are several ways we can work our painting to show the separation between the areas.

We can take the opportunity to emphasize the separations by deliberately showing more blues to the back and more reds to the front of the picture.  The distant blues tend to be Blue/Violet in shade so be careful of your choice of blues, and stay away from the Green/Blue mixtures.

We can add more white to the actual colours we show for the background – choosing more pastel versions of the colours we see.  

We can hint at features in the background, rather than show them in every detail – a real challenge for the realist artists among the Coloured Pencil fraternity!

We can sometimes take the opportunity to show the effect of rain in part of our picture by reducing the definition and colour in that particular area.

A heat haze on a hot summer day could be emphasized – you don’t have to stick too rigidly to your reference – especially if it is a photo – as the colours shown in photo print can be way out from the actual colours seen on the day.

You always have the opportunity to improve on the scene. Even though the distant view may be far off, and you can still see plenty of detail in buildings, walls and trees, this doesn’t mean you have to show the detail.  Just remember the principles of Arial Perspective, and tweek your composition to allow for the separation of areas – even though the picture may be only of a pot on a shelf !

Venetian buildings are frequently out of line with windows and walls askew as the old buildings have settled over the centuries.

In this case, I feel that the artist had a little too much Chianti to drink during his lunch break.  Look at those top windows on the left. Look at the windows just visible on the right in the arch of the tree branch and compare the bottom sill line with the windows below.

The whole picture annoyed me so much during a meal sitting facing it, that I went back again the next day to take a camera to photograph it. The Maitre’D was so proud I wanted a record of the mural on his wall !

Just for the record I show three actual Venetian examples below.

The basics of Linear Perspective may be relatively easy  to understand. The difficulty is often in doing the drawing bit!  

We will start with the simplest of exercises.  

The first fact we need to know, is where our eye level is

Sounds odd, perhaps, but it is crucial and needs to be settled at the outset.  

Normal landscape and townscape pictures assume an eye level of about 5 feet from the ground.

This is the average height a pedestrian will be looking at the scene. His or her eyes will be about that height from the ground.

If you are seated and painting a scene, then your eye level will be lower and the perspective of buildings and people walking about will be different. If you crouch down or lie on the floor, the perspective will be very different.  

That eye level can be projected forward and will rest on a point in the distance, somewhere around where the horizon would fall if we could see it.  This eye level is vital to our picture making. If you can’t see any distant horizon, then a level line between your eye and the distance will serve as the basis of the construction of your scene.  Look at the image below

The eye level line is perfectly horizontal, and the building seen at that level would display no roof structure – just the end of the building and the trees and bushes beside it.  

If we were to see it down below us at the base of the slope, our view would still look at the end of the building.  However, note that because we are above the roof level, the whole shape of the building has changed and we see more of the roof.

If you are looking at a scene in real life, determining a level line to the horizon can sometimes be difficult, particularly if there is an abundance of buildings all around us.  Sometimes it is easier to look at where most of the rooflines are pointing – the convergence of such lines will often supply the required Vanishing Point ( often referred to as the ‘VP’ ).  

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

This first image is at Stickle Tarn.

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’

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’

So now we come to the little matter of understanding how lines of perspective work.

Quite simply, they join points that we know to be at the same level above ground, but which, because the surface we are looking at is at an angle to where we stand or sit, appear to slope down ( or sometimes up ) to the distance.

Easier to demonstrate than to write !

First we will look at one point perspective. Here all the edges slope to a single point.

This can relate to a single line of buildings in front of us as in this example :

Here we have a Somerset country house where our position is at an angle to the walls and roof.  The vanishing point (VP) is off screen to the left.  In this case you might need a longer ruler and a second piece of paper to mark the VP.

Just a hint, here,

If you are trying to determine lines of perspective on a photograph, use a piece of tracing paper to draw your lines so that you don’t ruin your reference.

The position of a Vanishing point is critical to the whole matter of linear perspective.  

The VP for horizontal structures lies at the same level as the viewer’s eye

Looking at photographs, it is often much easier to plot the Vanishing Point or points.  Let us look at one or two examples.

From this photo taken in a chateau in the Loire valley, we can see clearly how the lines of tiles, the lines along the edges of the floor and the lines along the edges of the ceiling all go towards a single point which falls around the centre of the end wall, at eye level

We can also note how most of the heads line up and the feet are at different heights. Any variation in head heights is mainly down to the fact that the people on the right hand side are sitting down.

We will come back to this picture later when we look at how we can accurately draw such things as a set of black and white (or any other colour) tiles, where the pattern is set at angles to our line of vision.

If we look at a structure head on, there will not usually be any perspective in the shape. Here we have a simple block.

The block is in front so we see the simple shape of the square end. If we assume eye level to be at the centre point we can work out what the right hand side will look like and also the shadow – which will obey exactly the same rules.   All the perspective lines meet at eye level.


The interesting work comes when we see buildings ‘corner on’ – this is when two or more vanishing points arise.

Let us look at our blocks again.  These are examples of TWO POINT PERSPECTIVE

Here we see two edges receding away from us.

Both VPs and the shadow line lie on the same eye level line as before.  Note that the closer the VPs are to the structure, the higher will appear the block.

Here the front lower edge of the block lies below us and the block appears to be lower as a result

Here we see an example of a street scene drawn out

Note the eye level determines the height of the door at the front of the shop which assumes head height. Here the eye level is lower than the block example above and as a result the building appears higher

If we put eye level at ground level and the vanishing points more distantly placed, the block appears to be further away

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

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

Next Page



Linear Perspective

Whilst Arial Perspective looked at the way the effects of light show distance, Linear Perspective relates to shapes and how we see them as they recede in a picture and as they become more distant. The way these shapes are formed and change and can be transferred to the flat plane of the paper surface can be the hardest part to grasp.  Sometimes we look at a picture and ‘something is wrong’ but we can’t just see what it is.  Stand back and look from a little way away, and many times you will see that a point of perspective is wrong. Look at this mural from the wall of an Italian Restaurant.

Here we have a scene in St Gustain in Southern Brittany, a quaint little port which is a favourite with tourists. Here our position is on the quay looking up into the old town.. Vanishing point is at the top of the lane at ground level as we are lower than the buildings.  Some of the buildings are set higher up the lane  and provided that the frontages of the buildings are parallel  they will share a VP .. In this case most  of the buildings on the left have a VP off the picture to the right.  The lane curves and the end building on the left has a different VP.

Modern buildings and streets tend to observe accurate  lines whilst old buildings and streets (which are much more scenic) tend to give us more perspective problems.

In the second part of this topic I will look at Gold Hill where we are looking down a familiar street scene and there are a whole range of Vanishing Points as the street curves and descends

Art Points



A Look at the basics