Linear perspective is a crucial but sometimes intimidating topic for artists, especially beginners. But don’t let nailing the fundamentals keep you from creating better drawings and paintings. Below, artist Patrick Connors shares his expert advice, offers easy tips and demonstrates a quick drawing exercise on the basic principles of linear perspective. Enjoy!
Putting Things in Perspective — Linear Perspective
Linear perspective — or simply “perspective,” as it’s often called — has long benefited artists in the depiction of all manner of subjects, including still lifes, figures, interiors and landscapes. Leon Battista Alberti called it “a delightful and most noble art.” But perspective also has a history of frustrating artists.
In this lesson, I hope to increase the number of artists who benefit from linear perspective and decrease those frustrated by it. We’ll begin with an overview of some basic perspective principles, and we’ll end with a drawing exercise to practice what we’ve learned.
Intuition and Confidence
When one looks at a painting, it’s not always readily apparent that the artist has used perspective. For example, Gwen John’s A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris (above) may not seem at first glance to be an example of perspective.
The interior’s quietude and intimate atmosphere challenge its perspective foundation. However, perspective is not only present but contributes significantly to the stillness and mood of the painting. If we look at the tabletop, the arms of the chair or the open window, we find that John used the perspective principle of parallel lines that seem to vanish to the same point.
John probably did not make a perspective drawing prior to executing her painting, but like many artists, she had an intuitive understanding of linear perspective. Her intuition may have been founded on formal training — she attended the Slade School of Fine Art — or by informal training, perhaps in discussion with colleagues.
That informed intuition not only helped shape the expression of her own individual poetry but also gave her the confidence to carry out that expression. This is the value of becoming comfortable with perspective. Understanding it will aid your endeavors with whatever you wish to render.
Some artists may feel, quite correctly, that making a perspective drawing is a lot of work before one begins a painting. I agree, and I wouldn’t advise you to construct a perspective diagram each time you wish to paint, draw or sculpt.
An understanding of perspective enables you to work intuitively — plausibly placing the component of a composition in space, even without a projection diagram. That being said, in many cases artists have employed careful perspective diagrams.
For example, by looking at Leonardo da Vinci’s perspective study for The Adoration of the Magi (above), we can see certain perspective principles in practice. Comparing it to another Leonardo drawing of the same subject (below), we learn how perspective can help not only in giving a sketch a unifying depth but also in the arrangement of the composition.
Perspective’s benefits are not limited to painters and drawers they apply to sculptors as well. Consider Lorenzo Ghiberti’s celebrated doors for the Baptistery in Florence (below).
In these relief sculptures, Ghiberti made use of the new art of perspective to arrange his figures in architectural settings and landscapes.
Sight and Light
Perspective functions on one foundational principle: understanding how people see. Simply stated, beams of light emit from a single light source, strike an object and reflect back to the viewer’s eye (see figure 1). Several common perspective terms, such as eye-level line, vanishing point and cone of vision are drawn from this visual experience.
Perspective developed from the study of optics, the science of light. In fact, the Latin term for “optics” is ars perspectiva, from which the English term linear perspective derives.
Linear perspective gives artists a means to study, analyze and depict light by introducing an imaginary picture plane to the principle of vision (see figure 2.)
You may be asking yourself, if perspective is about the study and depiction of light, how does it give depth or space to a picture? Human beings perceive light as several different qualities: color, value, temperature and space. In regard to the latter quality, not only do we perceive light as space but our depth perception is uniquely human — no other mammal has the visual acuity for perceiving space that we do.
In the same way that we perceive light as space, we also understand perspective renderings as pictures of space. For this reason, it’s helpful to think of a perspective drawing as a depiction of the space displaced by the model rather than a depiction of the model itself.
For example, look at figure 3A, a drawing of a skull in two-point perspective. It can be helpful to think of this as not simply a depiction of a skull but as a depiction of the area the skull occupies in space.
By the way, drawing a skull or any model in perspective makes an excellent preparatory study for a painting or sculpture, such as the portrait seen in figure 3B.
Exercise: Window Drawing
To better familiarize ourselves with the way perspective functions, let’s make a drawing. For this exercise you’ll work not on paper but directly on a window as you look outside.
Find a window with a view of something that shows depth, such as receding rooftops. Select a marker that will draw on glass but can be cleaned off afterward. Stand at the window, and draw a red dot on the glass, directly across from your eye.
Still drawing directly on the glass, trace the contours of what you see out the window. Position yourself like the woman in figure 5. Stand in one spot, keeping the same distance from the window and keeping your eye at the same level as your initial red dot.
The resulting drawing will be rough, but it should show the view from the window in perspective, with a sense of space receding into the distance (see figure 6).
Note that if you adjust your position, for instance by bending your knees, the drawing will no longer appear aligned with your subject (see figure 7, below), so it’s important to stand still as you work.
About the Artist
Patrick Connors is a painter who lives and works primarily in Philadelphia. A graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the University of Pennsylvania, his artwork has been exhibited internationally and is featured in private and public collections.
Among the institutions where he has lectured or taught are the Yale University Art Gallery, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the New York Academy of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art.
This lesson on linear perspective by Patrick Connors first appeared in Artists Magazine. Subscribe here.