In this article you’ll learn about the types of perspective drawing, plus a simple step-by-step process to help you easily draw in perspective. Once you grasp the rules for the construction drawing, you’ll feel more confident to experiment with larger complexities on your own.
This article is the first part of a mini-series that aims to teach you how to draw in perspective. We’ll start by discussing the basics of perspective drawing and how to capture the illusion of depth. Towards the end of this article, I’ll illustrate the 3 main types of perspective drawing through simple and engaging drawing exercises. Let’s get drawing!
2D space vs 3D space
Before we start doing the exercises, I have to define what 2D and 3D actually means. It’s important to have a good grasp of the 2D/3D concept because it is the base for multiple types of arts, such as drawing, sketching, 3D modeling, or sculpting.
We perceive real life as a 3-dimensional space where every object can be defined in 3 dimensions: length, height, and depth. These dimensions (X-length, Y-height, Z-depth) are really just numbers or coordinates in space that we use in order to describe objects as volumes.
Every object, from small to large, represents a structure defined by a volume that occupies a certain space.
The job of an artist is to create the illusion of the 3-dimensional space which can be on a piece of paper, canvas, or on a computer screen. In other words, an artist works only in 2-dimensions while creating a sense of the 3D space.
The 2-dimensional space (XY)
- Has 2 measurement units (axes): X-length axis, Y-height axis.
- Represents a flat plane (XY) made out of points and lines.
- The intersection between the 2 axes is called the Origin of the System.
The 3-dimensional space (XYZ)
- Has 3 measurement units: X-length, Y-height, Z-depth.
- Represents a 3D surface made out of 3 x 2D planes (XY – YZ – ZX).
- The intersection between the 3 axes is called the Origin of the System.
- Any 2 planes are arranged perpendicular to each other.
Here’s an example of common use for the 3 construction planes. As an artist, you’ll encounter the necessity to learn human anatomy and you’ll definitely hear about the anatomical planes. These 3-planes are used to describe the position of the human body structure.
When we design a character or even just a prop (object), we design with a 360 view in our mind. We create at least 3 different views (front view, side view, and top view) of the same subject in order to define the right volumes and proportions.
- XY Sagittal plane is the vertical plane, it divides the body into left & right sections.
- YZ Coronal plane is the frontal plane, it divides the body into front (anterior) & back (posterior) sections.
- XZ Transverse plane is the horizontal plane, divides the body into upper (superior) & lower (inferior) sections.
Even though these 3-planes are theoretical, they are describing the anatomical motion as well, like the axis along which an action is being performed. For example, by moving through the transverse plane (XZ plane), movement travels from head to toe (vertical).
What is perspective drawing?
Perspective Drawing is a technique used to represent three-dimensional images on a two-dimensional plane. The key concept of perspective drawing is that what we draw is just an illusion.
What we experience in real life as a 3D space we can artistically captured in 2D space as a drawing on paper or on a computer screen. Basically we create the illusion of 3D through the illusion of depth, because without depth everything will always look flat.
The word “perspective” comes from Latin and it means “to see through”. In this context, “perspective drawing” can be interpreted as creating the illusion of depth by “seeing through geometric forms”.
Drawing in 3-dimensional space is known under multiple names such as Perspective Drawing, Geometric Perspective or, Linear Perspective.
It’s worth mentioning that there is another concept related to perspective drawing, namely Atmospheric Perspective (or Tonal Perspective) which means “color in space”. Atmospheric Perspective refers to the illusion of depth created through the use of color and light.
I won’t be going into any details regarding Atmospheric Perspective, just know that Linear and Atmospheric Perspective combined will create a stronger illusion of depth.
Linear Perspective creates the illusion of depth through forms, size and proportions and, Atmospheric Perspective reinforces it through the uses of color and light.
The representation of perspective drawing can be done with high mathematical precision as in architectural drawing or technical drawing. However, our artistic approach does not require this kind of precision and we won’t focus on this technical approach.
For example, an environmental concept artist does not need to calculate mathematical measurements in order to design a location. He/she does will only need a good understanding of perspective drawing in terms of exploring multiple angles of view, size and proportions.
The illusion, the observer and the picture plane
The visual representation of the perspective drawing means, from a geometrical standpoint, a mathematical “linear projection”. The Object that is being viewed by an Observer is being projected on a flat vertical plane known as “Picture Plane”.
So the picture plane (the 2D representation of the real 3D space) is actually located between the observer (eye-point) and the subject (object or full scene). This is exactly what we do In our drawings ,.. we create that picture plane (the 2D illusion) as a representation of what we see with our eyes in the real world (3D).
Types of perspective drawing and their grids
There are 3 major types of perspective drawing defined by the number of primary Vanishing Points (construction points). These are the types of perspective that I’ll be approaching specifically in this article but I’ll also go in greater detail later on, in other dedicated articles.
Regardless of how many vanishing points we use to capture a perspective view, all perspectives capture a certain amount of “depth”. By experimenting with the positioning and the distance between the vanishing points, we actually experiment with the depth of the scene.
The 3 main types of perspective drawing can be summarized as follows:
- 1 vanishing point or frontal perspective, used to illustrate forms that are facing the viewer.
- 2 vanishing points or angular perspective, used to illustrate forms under a certain angle such as looking side-to-side or up-to-down.
- 3 vanishing points or oblique perspective, used to illustrate extreme views such as extreme high-view or extreme low-view.
The following images illustrate general grids, infinite or finite grids in space. It’s common for a beginner to draw on top over a general grid instead of building it up along with the construction drawing. This drawing techniques helps to train the brain to think in terms of 3D space.
By the way, I created these grids using the drawing software Autodesk Sketchbook Pro, which has specific Perspective Drawing Tools.
Once you master the basics, you’ll be able to address complex types of combined perspectives or various three-dimensional effects. These are exciting perspective techniques that add dynamism to a drawing. For example:
- Multi-point perspective, more than two primary vanishing points on the horizon line, used for drawing curvy roads or twisted stairs.
- 4 vanishing points or cylindrical perspective, creates the panorama effect.
- 5 vanishing points or hemispherical perspective, fish-eye effect.
- 6 vanishing points or spherical perspective, globe-reflection effect.
Curvilinear Perspectives with 4, 5, or 6 vanishing points are actually perspective views with a much wider angle of view, between 180-360 degrees, while linear perspective with 1,2 and 3 vanishing points means an angle of view between 45-60 degrees. For example, the spherical projection (with 6 VP) refers to a projection on a globe (not on a flat image plane), and that gives a full view of 360 degrees including the ceiling and the floor.
The appearance of perspective drawing
A good understanding of perspective is basically the fundamental skill of any visual artist. It’s part of the art-ecosystem where everything is connected. For more details on fundamentals of digital art check-out an overview that I call The Basic Needs of an Artist.
One of the most detailed books I’ve encountered on perspective drawing is called Perspective Drawing Handbook by Joseph D’Amelio (published in 2004). This book presents with great attention the sense of space and depth, demonstrating the theory behind the vanishing points and eye level. It explains extremely well the concepts as artistic appearance versus reality.
In perspective drawing, architectural drawing and technical drawing, we deal with parallels, diagonals, squares, pyramids, cubes, spheres etc. Actually the use of diagonals is a very powerful tool in artistic 3D drawing because it determine the center of a plane in any angle of view.
However in artistic perspective, we don’t literally deal with high mathematical precision or exact measurements. We do aim to “capture a good feeling” of the space.
Nevertheless, the basic terminology is equally important to understand any type of 3D drawing.
- Observer or Camera is the viewer (you) who observes how space looks like.
- Horizontal-line or Horizon is the chief line in perspective and is placed along with the vanishing points. It establishes the angle of view if we look up (above the horizon) or down (below the horizon).
- Ground or Base Plane is the base of all objects, it shows the contact surface between objects and ground.
- Picture Plane is the 2D representation of the 3D world, it’s basically our final artwork.
- Vanishing Points are the construction points of the scenes, always placed on the Horizon Line, and are used for the construction of the entire scene. Vanishing points can also be placed outside of the Picture Plane.
- Visual Rays are known as “line of sight through picture plane” are all the lines that converge from the vanishing points and block out the entire scene.
Drawing materials that you’ll need
If you are a complete beginner in perspective drawing then probably free-drawing is not your best choice. I generally recommend the following tools to help you get started with perspective drawing:
- Pencil, eraser, ruler – for blocking the perspective grid (the one I showed above).
- A4-A3 paper or a large sketchbook – for plenty of space during the explorations.
- Ink pen or a liner – for drawing over the perspective grid by adding the final details.
However, some of my exercises (using the look-through technique) can easily be done on a computer or a tablet using any drawing software, since the process is about line-drawing (with lines only) done over a photo-reference.
I’m generally more of a digital person myself and I’m quite ok using my iPad and my Apple pen, but I do use it in a similar way as if with real pen and paper. I block-out the scene in pencil using a ruler and then I finish it up in free drawing using an ink pen.
5-steps required to draw perspective
If you are a beginner, my next 5 key points will be extremely important for you because they’ll give you the overall structure for creating any type of perspective drawing. By following these short guidelines your drawing process will become extremely easy.
When you do perspective drawing the order of the steps does count for visualizing the forms in 3D space, since one form will build on top of the previous one. These are the steps to follow for drawing in perspective:
- Step 1 – Establish the Horizon Line and the Vanishing Points.
- Step 2 – Block the edge or face which is closed to the Camera.
- Step 3 – Block the largest volumes and identify all their faces (even the hidden ones).
- Step 4 – Connect the smaller shapes to the large one.
- Step 5 – Add the details which will require the need for using extra Visual Rays.
Now that you know the 5 steps for drawing in perspective, let’s focus on a few practical exercises. I’ve created 3 progressive exercises, from simple to a slight complexity increase in terms of the use of vanishing points.
For these exercises, we are using only cubes as the main geometric forms for the simple reason that we want to stay focused on the perspective view approach. Later on, in other articles, we’ll increase the complexity by using different types of forms, but for now we’ll keep thing simple to build-up your confidence.
The secret of perspective drawing is to be able to draw all the basic forms in any position or angle throughout the 3D space.
My approach follows the 5-steps that I mentioned above and the theme is “abstract cubes in space”, meaning a lot of creative flexibility that helps you play with simple and yet powerful forms.
Feel free to follow me step-by-step, there’s no need for exact measurements. Instead of measuring, try to be creative and make sure to add your extra cubes in space.
Exercise 1. One vanishing point. Frontal perspective.
One-point perspective happens when the camera is pointing straight ahead at the plane in front of it. Read here a more in-depth article on one-point perspective drawing.
These are the characteristics that best describe 1-point perspective drawings:
- Uses one vanishing point placed on the horizon line.
- The camera is perpendicular to the subject, with no rotation.
- Horizontal edges remain horizontal.
- Vertical edges remain vertical.
Follow these steps to recreate the drawing exercise for the one-point perspective (you can also follow the notes from the images above):
- STEP 1 – Establish the Horizon Line and the Vanishing Point.
- STEP 2 – Block the faces which are facing straight the Camera, meaning are the closest (use only vertical and horizontal lines).
- STEP 3 – Block the main volume or the depth of all the cubes (only vertical and horizontal lines).
- STEP 4 – Block all faces, including those which are not visible to the Camera (dashed lines).
- STEP 5 – Give it a simple context: texture elements (vertical and horizontal lines, more close to the camera the more spaced they are).
Exercise 2. Two vanishing points. Angular perspective.
So far we assumed that the Camera is looking straight, however what happens if the camera is slightly rotated towards left or right? Or even, looking down or up?
These are the characteristics that best describe 2-point perspective drawings:
- Uses two vanishing points placed on the horizon line, don’t necessarily need to be within the picture plane.
- The camera is rotated vertically or horizontally, from left to right, or up to down.
- Horizontal edges converge to the vanishing points.
- Vertical edgers remain verticals.
Follow these steps to recreate the drawing exercise for the two-point perspective (you can also follow the notes from the images above):
- STEP 1 – Establish the Horizon Line and the two Vanishing Points (closer the VPs are, the more dynamic the scene will be).
- STEP 2 – Block the edges which are closest and facing straight the Camera (all these edges are vertical).
- STEP 3.1 – Block the vanishing rays from the Left-VP to all the vertical edges (establish the height of the closest edge).
- STEP 3.2 – Block the vanishing rays from the Right-VP to all the vertical edges.
- STEP 4.1 – Block the main volume / depth of all the cubes (vertical lines, all parallel with the initial edges).
- STEP 4.2 – Block all the faces which are visible to the Camera.
- STEP 4.3 – Block all the faces which are not visible to the Camera (all the new edges converges to the vanishing points).
- STEP 5.1 – Give it a simple context, a shading in two tones (the darkest area are where there’s a whole inside the cube).
- STEP 5.2 – Add basic patterns and textures (same rule, all the vertical lines remain vertical and all the horizontal ones converge to VP).
Exercise 3. Three vanishing points. Oblique perspective.
Imagine yourself looking high up or high down. There are two basic types of 3-point perspective based on the position of the horizon line. Worm’s Eye View – imagine yourself looking high up in the sky (the horizon line is situated very low) or Bird’s Eye View – imagine being Superman flying over a city and looking down (the horizon is situated high up).
These are the characteristics that best describe 3-point perspective drawings:
- Uses 3 vanishing points where 2 of them are on the horizon line and the 3-rd is either high above the horizon line or way below it.
- The camera is rotated on both vertical and horizontal.
- Horizontal edges converge to the horizontal vanishing points.
Follow these steps to recreate the drawing exercise for the three-point perspective (you can also follow the notes from the images above):
- STEP 1 – Establish the Horizon Line and the 3 Vanishing Points; the Vertical VP is above the HL since this is a “high-up view” scene.
- STEP 2.1 – Block a grid of rays on the left side, left lines converge to the Left VP, while all vertical lines will converge to the Vertical VP.
- STEP 2.2 – Block the left-side planes which are closer to the left side of Camera.
- STEP 2.3 – Block the right-side planes, which are closer to the right side of the Camera.
- STEP 3 – Add new planes by tracing more vanishing rays, every line that builds the volume is traced over a vanishing ray.
- STEP 4 – Give it a simple shading and clean the unnecessary construction lines (from the back views).
- STEP 5 – Add basic patterns and textures (same rule, all the vertical lines converge to the VVP and all the horizontal lines converge to the HVP).
Drawing represents the illusion of real-life on paper and it’s used to give a feeling of our physical world in terms of perceptions related to form, space, color, light, and even motion. Every object or living being is visually defined by the shape, volume, or proportion.
The act of 3D drawing is a key point for the artistic process that we call “design”. To be able to draw a simple chair or a complex building is a prerequisite for anyone wishing to design an environment, from a realistic architectural style to a cartoonish one.
Fundamentals of drawing are essential for all those interested in becoming visual artists such as concept artists, storyboard artists, illustrators, graphic designers, game designers.
Here are the essential rules to always remember:
- There’s the term known as the 0 vanishing points perspective, This terms refers to something called Flat Drawing – no depth at all, like defying the laws of physics.
- In perspective drawing you always draw what you see from a specific viewpoint, namely from the Camera’s point of view.
- Horizontal Vanishing points are always located on the Horizon Line.
- The Horizontal Line is always located at the eye level of the observer. Keep in mind that the observer can look above (looking up) or below it (looking down).
- Behind any design or complexity, there are always basic shapes: cubes, spheres, cylinders, cones. It’s all a structural play of proportions and arrangements.