The first concept in perspective drawing is that what we draw is just an illusion. I’ll show you step-by-step how to get started with the main perspectives to the point of creating larger scenes. Once you grasp the rules of the construction drawing you can then start experimenting with larger complexities with lots of confidence.
This article is the beginning of a mini-series that teaches you how to draw in 3D. I start by explaining what 3D space means and how to capture the illusion of depth. Then, I’ll illustrate the main 3 types of perspective drawing through simple and engaging drawing exercises.
2D space vs 3D space
Before we start doing the exercises, I have to simply define what 2D and 3D actually means. It’s important to have a good grasp of this concept because it’s the base for multiple types of art 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 as 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.
- The intersection between the 2 axes is called the Origin of the System.
- This means a flat plane (XY) made out of points and lines.
The 3-dimensional space (XYZ)
- Has 3 measurement units: X-length, Y-height, Z-depth.
- Means 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).
The illusion, the observer and the picture 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 artistically capture it in 2D space as a drawing on paper or on a computer screen. We just create the illusion 3D through the illusion of depth, because without depth everything will “feel” flat.
Drawing in 3-dimensional space is known under multiple names such as Perspective Drawing, Geometric Perspective or, Linear Perspective.
The word “perspective” comes from Latin and it means “to see through” so we can assume that “perspective drawing” can be interpreted as creating the illusion of depth by “seeing through geometric forms”.
However, there’s another concept known as Atmospheric Perspective (or Tonal Perspective) which means “color in space”. It refers to the illusion of depth created through the use of color and light.
I won’t be going into any details now, but the link between Linear and Atmospheric Perspective is that used together creates 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.
For example, an environmental concept artist does not need to calculate mathematical measurements in order to design a location but he/she does need a good understanding of perspective drawing in terms of exploring multiple angles of views and size & proportions.
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). In our drawings this is what we actually do, we create that picture plane (the 2D illusion) as a representation of what we see in real 3D.
Types of perspectives and their grids
There are 3 major types of perspective defined by the number of primary Vanishing Points (construction points explained below). These are the types of perspective that I’ll be approaching specifically in this article nut I’ll also go in greater detail later on.
Regardless of how many vanishing points we use to capture a perspective view, all perspectives capture a certain amount of “depth”. And by experimenting with the positioning and the distance between the vanishing points, we actually experiment with the depth of the scene.
- 1 vanishing point or frontal perspective, used to illustrate the 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 next 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. It just helps to train the brain to think in 3D. 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 can then 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) means 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 here an overview, I call it 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 need
If you are a complete beginner in 3D drawing then free-drawing is not your best choice. I generally recommend the following:
- 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 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 tools. I block-out the scene in pencil using a ruler and then I finish it up in free drawing in ink.
5-steps required for any type of perspective
If you are a beginner, my next 5 key points are extremely important, because it gives the overall structure of 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. Because one form it simply builds on top of each other.
- 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 equired the need for using extra Visual Rays.
Next, I’ve created 3 progressive exercises, from simple to a slight complexity in terms of the use of vanishing points. For these exercises, we are using only cubes as the main geometric forms, from the simple reason of staying focused on the perspective view approach. Later on, in other articles, we’ll increase the complexity of using multiple types of forms.
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 but just be creative and also 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.
- 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.
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?
- 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
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).
- 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.
Drawing represents the illusion of real-life because it gives a feeling of our physical world of perceptions in terms of form, space, color, light, and even motion. Every object or living being is visually defined by its shape, volume, and 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. Is used to communicate design ideas but also has the objective to improve visual and spatial skills.
Here are the essential rules to always remember:
- There’s the term known as the 0 vanishing points perspective, it means Flat Drawing (no depth at all, like defining the laws of physics).
- In perspective drawing you always draw what you see from a specific viewpoint, from the Camera point of view.
- Horizontal Vanishing points are always located on the Horizon Line.
- Horizontal Line is always at the eye level of the observer. But 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.
There are 3 key phenomena that explain the perspective drawing
- The phenomenon of Convergence – lines, and edges of objects which in reality are parallel, from the observer point of view are always converging (come together or intersect) as they are moving away from the observer
- The phenomenon of Diminution – objects of equal size appears smaller as the distance increases from the observer.
- The phenomenon of Foreshortening – the surface planes closer and parallel to the observer always appear wider and longer than those away (which appear increasingly shorter).
Related Drawing Articles
- Get started with sketching in 8 exercises. Warm-ups for eye-hand coordination.
- 3-drawing exercises for animators. The power of a stickman.
- Mastering the fundamentals. 6 basic needs of an artist.
- Book – Perspective Drawing Handbook by Joseph D’Amelio
- Book – How to draw curvilinear perspective: 4 – 5 – 6 vanishing points by Massimo Nicola Marrazzo
- Autodesk Sketchbook Pro Product – Perspective Drawing Tools