Linear & Atmospheric Perspective
Updated: 13 Oct 2021
In this guide I will explain (& demonstrate) the basics for drawing in perspective.
Perspective is the way to draw three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface by giving the right impression of their height, width, depth, and position in relation to each other.
Linear perspective is one of drawing's fundamentals, and it is crucial for drawing from imagination.
Atmospheric perspective refers to the effect of the atmosphere on far away objects, and therefore it is used in landscape painting.
Table of contents:
Each drawing that uses linear perspective will have a horizon line that may be visible or invisible in the final drawing.
In each linear perspective drawing (or painting), there will be at least one vanishing point (VP).
A vanishing point is a dot on the horizon line (in most cases, more on that later).
Lines, which are parallel in reality, will meet at a vanishing point when drawn in perspective. To the human eye, although they are parallel, they seem to meet at a great distance.
The most common types of perspective are with one vanishing point, two vanishing points, and three vanishing points.
Where to Draw the Horizon Line?
When drawing or painting, the horizon-line's placement has a significant effect on the outcome.
You can use your "artistic license" to build different compositions with different horizon line placement.
More on that you can find in my guide on composition drawing for beginners.
- When the horizon line is at the center of a painting, it will translate as eye level when looking forward.
- A low horizon line will look as if the viewer is looking above the horizon line, looking up.
- High horizon line translates as looking at an angle below the horizon line, looking down.
Examples of horizon line placements in my paintings:
In other words, we can see the bottom of objects that are above the horizon line, and vice versa, the top part of objects that are below the horizon line.
When an obstacle blocks the horizon (like a wall, buildings, mountains, trees, etc.), hold your drawing tool (pencil, pen, paintbrush, etc.) at eye level, to find the horizon line.
Perspective Drawing Characteristics
There are two important rules to pay attention to when drawing in perspective.
1. Objects Look Smaller with Distance
The farther an object is from the observer, the smaller it will look!
In other words:
Objects in front of the observer look smaller with distance, but they keep the ratio between height and width, meaning there will be no distortion.
The farther away an object is, it takes less of our field of view, and therefore looks smaller.
In the illustration above, the farther tree looks smaller, although the trees are identical.
All objects are subject to foreshortening!
When objects are along our line of sight, they look shorter.
In other words:
Objects that are in the direction of our vision (meaning continuous), for example on the ground, like a lake, will look shorter in height than in width as they are farther away, therefore they will be distorted. The reason is the change in the angle of sight of the viewer.
In the illustration above, we can see two flat circles (they can represent a lake or a biscuit).
When they are flat on the ground, their width will get smaller with distance like in the first rule, but their depth is getting much smaller (depth, in this case, is represented as height, since the drawing paper is flat).
The closer an object is to the horizon (or the vanishing point), the more it will be foreshortened.
For a better understanding of foreshortening, visit my guide for drawing from imagination.
One-point perspective is used for drawing objects that are in front of the observer and in reality their width lines are parallel to the horizon, and their height lines are perpendicular to the horizon.
Lines representing height will be parallel to each other, and lines representing width will be parallel to each other.
Lines that in reality are parallel and represent DEPTH will NOT be parallel when drawing; they will meet at the same vanishing point on the horizon.
How to Start?
Start by drawing a horizon line (with a ruler), and one vanishing point.
The horizon line helps as a guideline to draw other parallel width lines.
Next, draw a rectangle.
In one-point perspective, width lines are parallel to the horizon, and height lines are perpendicular to the horizon.
Now draw depth lines from the rectangle's vertices.
Depth lines will meet at the vanishing point:
Finish drawing a box in perspective:
Draw boxes above, on, and below the horizon line. Draw more boxes, close to, and far from the vanishing point, to see different effects.
Try a more complex object. A chair is a good candidate. Here is an example for a chair in one-point perspective, and another in two-point perspective (which I will cover later):
Good to know:
Objects above the horizon-line, will be objects we need to look up to see, like planes, birds etc.
Objects below the horizon-line, will be objects we see from above. For example, looking down from an airplane or a tall building. Or, just looking at objects on the floor, down at an angle.
Objects on the horizon, are when we are in front of the horizon line, but they can be higher on the horizon line, center to it or lower, depending on the angle we look at them:
Interior Design in One-Point Perspective
Draw a horizon line with one vanishing point.
Then, draw a back wall (a rectangle).
Lastly, draw lines from the vanishing point, for the walls.
For a guide on materials, visit my drawing supply review.
Next, draw some pictures and windows on the wall. Depth lines will go to the vanishing point.
Pay attention to foreshortening. The closer objects are to the horizon line (or to a vanishing point), the more they are foreshortened.
To find the center of ANY rectangle, draw two diagonals from the vertices.
Instead of guessing how small the back part (of a rectangle) is, compared to the front part, this method will do it accurately.
Use it to find the center point for your windows.
Draw softly, so it is easy to erase guidelines and parts that are hidden by overlapping.
Otherwise, too many guidelines will look messy and confusing.
For box-shaped objects, start with the front rectangle.
Then, draw depth lines toward the vanishing point, and determine the amount of foreshortening, depending on the length you want for the box.
Finally, find the center point for doors and drawers.
The same center point will help with handles position.
Once you practice drawing some rooms from imagination (and observation), in perspective, you can render them in many styles.
Sometimes line-drawing (with a pen or pencil) is very nice. I usually prefer realistic drawing.
If you are new to realism, read my guide on realistic drawing basics.
Create different rooms from imagination (like a kitchen, living room, bedroom, etc.) and fill them with furniture like a television set, pictures, bed, sound-system, refrigerator and so on.
Look at some reference images for a room, and try to recreate it in one-point perspective.
Something to consider:
While it is fast to draw a picture on the wall using a rectangle, in reality a picture has volume.
You can use lines (for cupboards, windows, pictures, tables, etc.), but once you understand linear perspective, it is time to pay attention to volume and details.
The same goes for tables, or any other object.
I use the division method regularly, when I draw from imagination.
Exterior Road Using the Divide Method
For a straight road (later I will demonstrate how to draw a curved road), draw some lines from the vanishing point.
Remember that in one-point perspective, width lines are parallel to the horizon, and height lines are perpendicular to the horizon.
Now you can draw a sidewalk.
One way to draw utility poles, is the divide method (finding the center).
Draw the near pole, and draw lines from its top and bottom to the vanishing point.
Next, select the distance of a far away pole.
Lastly, for a pole between them, find the middle by drawing two diagonals (divide method).
You can keep dividing to add more poles.
Now you can draw some roads with utility poles, fences, etc.
How to Draw a Winding Road
Sometimes, a road that twists and turns, a river that curls, or any path that bends and curves, is interesting.
Start by drawing a straight road, and draw a width line in the place you want it to curve.
Draw a new vanishing point for the direction you want it to curve.
Then, draw another width line for a new curve.
Keep adding vanishing points in the direction you desire, and new width lines for places the road curves.
Lastly, draw a curvy line between the curve points.
How to Add Figures in One-Point Perspective
Knowledge in linear perspective gives us (almost) unlimited power.
It is helpful for architecture, interior design, as a basis for drawing from imagination, and much more.
Another benefit of perspective-drawing, is the ability to add objects to our scene, in an accurate way regarding size and location.
To add characters (or any type of object), look for something in your scene that can help. For example a door.
You can estimate the character size compared to a door. It should be shorter.
In one point perspective, you can move objects from left to right (and vice versa), without a change to their size.
Once you find the character's height, use the vanishing point to find its height in ANY depth.
Now you can move it front or back using lines from the vanishing point, with accurate change to its height.
To place the figure in a new location, first move its bottom part to the bottom of a known figure size.
Then check for its height for that location, and move the top part of the known figure to the new location.
Now you can add characters and objects to your drawings, in perspective.
The Duplication Technique
Finding the center point is super helpful, if you want to divide a plane.
You can divide a plane into two equal parts, divide them again to four equal parts, then eight, and so on.
If you want three equal parts (for example, three drawers), or five, you can use the duplication method.
Start by finding the center of a plane (rectangle).
Next, draw lines from the sides (in the direction you want to duplicate), AND from the center point.
Then, draw a line from one of the far corners, through the center of the opposite side.
The end of this line will be the length of the duplicated plane.
Finally, draw the height line from that point.
You can continue to duplicate the rectangle as many times as you want, and to any direction.
The next example is in perspective.
Draw a box, and find the center point for the plane you want to duplicate.
In this case (depth), the center line goes to the vanishing point.
Draw a line from one corner to the center of the opposite side, to duplicate that plane.
Continue to duplicate as many times as needed.
Use this technique to draw tiles or checkerboard in perspective.
In one-point perspective, lines that represent height are parallel. They are perpendicular to the horizon.
Lines that represent width are parallel to the horizon.
Only lines that represent depth meet at the vanishing points.
In two-point perspective, only lines that represent height are parallel. They are perpendicular to the horizon.
Lines representing width and depth, meet at vanishing points.
In two-point perspective, there are two vanishing points.
How to Draw a Room in Two-Point Perspective
To draw a room, first practice drawing full boxes. A room is the back part of a box.
Use the same methods (like divide, or duplication), as you did for one-point perspective.
Where to Place Vanishing Points?
While drawing in perspective helps to create scenes in a realistic way, it can sometimes produce odd or unnatural-looking results.
Depending on an object's size, different positioning of vanishing points on the horizon line, will produce different perspectives.
If the outcome looks too pointy, move the vanishing points farther away.
Good to know:
When there are several objects at different angles, they may use different vanishing points.
Use Three-point perspective when looking at an object from above or below. For example, a bird's-eye view or a caterpillar view.
In three-point perspective, ALL lines that are parallel in reality, will meet at a vanishing point.
Atmospheric perspective, in landscape painting, is the effect of the atmosphere on the appearance of objects.
As objects are farther away from the observer, the atmosphere will have a stronger effect on them, because there will be more atmosphere particles that scatter light.
Atmospheric perspective is the method for creating depth when painting landscapes.
Climate and weather conditions, including air pollution, location and intensity of the sun, humidity, fog, dust, wind and other atmospheric particles play a major role in the influence of the atmosphere.
The influence of atmospheric perspective:
- Brightness values: When the sky is clear, the farther an object is, the lighter it is.
- Saturation: The farther an object is, the less saturated it will be. Meaning, its color will be less rich and intense.
- Contrast: The more distant an object is from the observer, the contrast between its light and dark values will decrease; therefore, its texture will start to disappear. In other words, it will have fewer details.
- Edges: The edges of distant objects may be less sharp depending on weather conditions.
- Hue: The color of the sky has a great effect on distant objects. On a clear day when the sky is blue, the hue of distant objects will shift toward blue. At sunset or dawn, the same thing happens with warm hues, such as yellow or red, depending on the color of the sky.
- As mentioned above, close objects will be sharper, saturated and have a strong contrast.
- The brightest and darkest areas will be the areas closest to the observer.
Example for an oil painting with the use of atmospheric perspective:
For more tutorials on perspective, visit the perspective category in my guide for best YouTube drawing instructors.
For painting in a realistic style, visit The 8 Key Factors for Painting Realism.
I highly recommend reading my article on drawing the illusion of depth; it has 15 proven methods to add depth, with many examples.