Perspective (from Latin perspicere, to see through) in the graphic arts, such as drawing, is an approximate representation, on a flat surface (such as paper), of an image as it is seen by the eye. The two most characteristic features of perspective are that objects are drawn:

  • Smaller as their distance from the observer increases
  • Foreshortened: the size of an object’s dimensions along the line of sight are relatively shorter than dimensions across the line of sight
Staircase in two-point perspective


Linear perspective works by representing the light that passes from a scene through an imaginary rectangle (the painting), to the viewer’s eye. It is similar to a viewer looking through a window and painting what is seen directly onto the windowpane. If viewed from the same spot as the windowpane was painted, the painted image would be identical to what was seen through the unpainted window. Each painted object in the scene is a flat, scaled down version of the object on the other side of the window. Because each portion of the painted object lies on the straight line from the viewer’s eye to the equivalent portion of the real object it represents, the viewer cannot perceive (sans depth perception) any difference between the painted scene on the windowpane and the view of the real scene. All perspective drawings assume the viewer is a certain distance away from the drawing. Objects are scaled relative to that viewer. Additionally, an object is often not scaled evenly: a circle often appears as an ellipse and a square can appear as a trapezoid. This distortion is referred to as foreshortening.

Perspective drawings typically have an -often implied- horizon line. This line, directly opposite the viewer’s eye, represents objects infinitely far away. They have shrunk, in the distance, to the infinitesimal thickness of a line. It is analogous to (and named after) the Earth’s horizon.

Any perspective representation of a scene that includes parallel lines has one or more vanishing points in a perspective drawing. A one-point perspective drawing means that the drawing has a single vanishing point, usually (though not necessarily) directly opposite the viewer’s eye and usually (though not necessarily) on the horizon line. All lines parallel with the viewer’s line of sight recede to the horizon towards this vanishing point. This is the standard “receding railroad tracks” phenomenon. A two-point drawing would have lines parallel to two different angles. Any number of vanishing points are possible in a drawing, one for each set of parallel lines that are at an angle relative to the plane of the drawing.

Perspectives consisting of many parallel lines are observed most often when drawing architecture (architecture frequently uses lines parallel to the x, y, and z axes). Because it is rare to have a scene consisting solely of lines parallel to the three Cartesian axes (x, y, and z), it is rare to see perspectives in practice with only one, two, or three vanishing points; even a simple house frequently has a peaked roof which results in a minimum of six sets of parallel lines, in turn corresponding to up to six vanishing points.

In contrast, natural scenes often do not have any sets of parallel lines. Such a perspective would thus have no vanishing points.

A cube in two-point perspective


Early history

The earliest art paintings and drawings typically sized objects and characters hieratically according to their spiritual or thematic importance, not their distance from the viewer, and did not use foreshortening. The most important figures are often shown as the highest in a composition, also from hieratic motives, leading to the “vertical perspective“, common in the art of Ancient Egypt, where a group of “nearer” figures are shown below the larger figure or figures. The only method to indicate the relative position of elements in the composition was by overlapping, of which much use is made in works like the Parthenon Marbles.

Systematic attempts to evolve a system of perspective are usually considered to have begun around the 5th century B.C. in the art of Ancient Greece, as part of a developing interest in illusionism allied to theatrical scenery and detailed within Aristotle’s Poetics as ‘skenographia’: Using flat panels on a stage to give the illusion of depth.[2] The philosophers Anaxagoras and Democritus worked out geometric theories of perspective for use with skenographia. Alcibiades had paintings in his house designed based on skenographia, thus this art was not confined merely to the stage. Euclid‘s Optics introduced a mathematical theory of perspective; however, there is some debate over the extent to which Euclid’s perspective coincides with a modern mathematical definition of perspective.

By the later periods of antiquity artists, especially those in less popular traditions, were well aware that distant objects could be shown smaller than those close at hand for increased illusionism, but whether this convention was actually used in a work depended on many factors. Some of the paintings found in the ruins of Pompeii show a remarkable realism and perspective for their time;[3] it has been claimed that comprehensive systems of perspective were evolved in antiquity, but most scholars do not accept this. Hardly any of the many works where such a system would have been used have survived. A passage in Philostratus suggests that classical artists and theorists thought in terms of “circles” at equal distance from the viewer, like a classical semi-circular theatre seen from the stage.[4] The roof beams in rooms in the Vatican Virgil, from about 400 AD, are shown converging, more or less, on a common vanishing point, but this is not systematically related to the rest of the composition.[5] In the Late Antique period use of perspective techniques declined. The art of the new cultures of the Migration Period had no tradition of attempting compositions of large numbers of figures and Early Medieval art was slow and inconsistent in relearning the convention from classical models, though the process can be seen underway in Carolingian art.

Reconstruction of the temple of Jerusalem

[Above: 15th century illustration from the Old French translation of William of Tyre‘s Histoire d’Outremer. There is clearly a general attempt to reduce the size of more distant elements, but unsystematically. Sections of the composition are at a similar scale, with relative distance shown by overlapping, foreshortening, and further objects being higher than nearer ones, though the workmen at left do show finer adjustment of size. But this is abandoned on the right where the most important figure is much larger than the mason. Rectangular buildings, and the blocks of stone are shown obliquely.]

Giotto attempted drawings in perspective using an algebraic method to determine the placement of distant lines. The problem with using a linear ratio in this manner is that the apparent distance between a series of evenly spaced lines actually falls off with a sine dependence. To determine the ratio for each succeeding line, a recursive ratio must be used.[6]

One of Giotto’s first uses of his algebraic method of perspective was Jesus Before Caiaphas. Although the picture does not conform to the modern, geometrical method of perspective, it does give a considerable illusion of depth, and was a large step forward in Western art.

With the exception of dice,[7] heraldry typically ignores perspective in the treatment of charges, though sometimes in later centuries charges are specified as in perspective.

Renaissance : Mathematical basis

Perspective study of a vase

[Above: Perspective study of a vase by Paolo Uccello , Galleria degli Uffizi, Gabinetto dei Disegni ]

Prior to the Renaissance, Alhazen (al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, d. ca. 1041 AD), in his Book of Optics (Kitab al-manazir; known in Latin as De aspectibus or Perspectiva, written in 1021), explained that light projects conically into the eye.[8] Alhazen’s geometrical, physical, physio-psychological optics resolved in this the ancient dispute between the mathematicians (Ptolemaic and Euclidean) and the physicists (Aristotelian) over the nature of vision and light. He also showed that vision is not merely a phenomenon of pure sensation (namely what results from the introduction of light rays into the eyes), but that it involves the faculties of judgment, imagination and memory.[9] Alhazen’s geometrical model of the cone of vision was theoretically sufficient to translate visible objects within a given setting into a painting, and this was also supported by his experimental affirmation of the visibility of spatial depth; hence of offering a proper ground for the idea of perspective.[10] Moreover, Alhazen presented a geometrical conception of place as spatial extension (a postulated void), and he refuted the Aristotelian account of topos as a surface of containment. Alhazen’s mathematical definition of place was more akin to Plato’s notion of Khôra or Chora as ‘space’, yet conceived on pure geometric grounds to facilitate the use of projections.[11] In all of this, Alhazen was concerned with optics, with vision, light and the nature of colour, as well as with experimentation and the use of optical instruments, and not with painting as such. Conical translations are mathematically difficult, so a drawing constructed using them would be incredibly time consuming. However, what Alhazen named a cone of vision (makhrut al-shu’a’) corresponded also with the idea of a pyramid of vision, hence, offering a model that can be more easily projected in orthogonal drawings of side views and top views that are needed in the geometric construction of perspective.

By the 14th century, Alhazen’s Book of Optics was available in Italian translation, entitled Deli Aspecti. The Renaissance artist Lorenzo Ghiberti relied heavily upon this work, quoting it “verbatim and at length” while framing his account of art and its aesthetic imperatives in the “Commentario terzo.” Alhazen’s work was thus “central to the development of Ghiberti’s thought about art and visual aesthetics” and “may well have been central to the development of artificial perspective in early Renaissance Italian painting.”[12]

In about 1413 a contemporary of Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, demonstrated the geometrical method of perspective, used today by artists, by painting the outlines of various Florentine buildings onto a mirror. When the building’s outline was continued, he noticed that all of the lines converged on the horizon line. According to Vasari, he then set up a demonstration of his painting of the Baptistery in the incomplete doorway of the Duomo. He had the viewer look through a small hole on the back of the painting, facing the Baptistery. He would then set up a mirror, facing the viewer, which reflected his painting. To the viewer, the painting of the Baptistery and the Baptistery itself were nearly indistinguishable.

Soon after, nearly every artist in Florence and in Italy used geometrical perspective in their paintings,[13] notably Masolino da Panicale and Donatello. Donatello started sculpting elaborate checkerboard floors into the simple manger portrayed in the birth of Christ. Although hardly historically accurate, these checkerboard floors obeyed the primary laws of geometrical perspective: the lines converged approximately to a vanishing point, and the rate at which the horizontal lines receded into the distance was graphically determined. This became an integral part of Quattrocento art. Melozzo da Forlì first used the technique of upward foreshortening (in Rome, Loreto, Forli and others), and was celebrated for that. Not only was perspective a way of showing depth, it was also a new method of composing a painting. Paintings began to show a single, unified scene, rather than a combination of several.

Melozzo – fresco at Loreto

[Above: Melozzo’s usage of upward foreshortening in his frescoes at Loreto]

As shown by the quick proliferation of accurate perspective paintings in Florence, Brunelleschi likely understood (with help from his friend the mathematician Toscanelli),[14] but did not publish, the mathematics behind perspective. Decades later, his friend Leon Battista Alberti wrote De pictura (1435/1436), a treatise on proper methods of showing distance in painting. Alberti’s primary breakthrough was not to show the mathematics in terms of conical projections, as it actually appears to the eye. Instead, he formulated the theory based on planar projections, or how the rays of light, passing from the viewer’s eye to the landscape, would strike the picture plane (the painting). He was then able to calculate the apparent height of a distant object using two similar triangles. The mathematics behind similar triangles is relatively simple, having been long ago formulated by Euclid. In viewing a wall, for instance, the first triangle has a vertex at the user’s eye, and vertices at the top and bottom of the wall. The bottom of this triangle is the distance from the viewer to the wall. The second, similar triangle, has a point at the viewer’s eye, and has a length equal to the viewer’s eye from the painting. The height of the second triangle can then be determined through a simple ratio, as proven by Euclid. Alberti was also trained in the science of optics through the school of Padua and under the influence of Biagio Pelacani da Parma who studied Alhazen’s Optics (see what was noted above in this regard with respect to Ghiberti).

Pietro Perugino – Christ handing the keys to St Peter

[Above: Pietro Perugino‘s usage of perspective in this fresco at the Sistine Chapel (1481-82) helped bring the Renaissance to Rome]

Piero della Francesca elaborated on Della Pittura in his De Prospectiva Pingendi in the 1470s. Alberti had limited himself to figures on the ground plane and giving an overall basis for perspective. Della Francesca fleshed it out, explicitly covering solids in any area of the picture plane. Della Francesca also started the now common practice of using illustrated figures to explain the mathematical concepts, making his treatise easier to understand than Alberti’s. Della Francesca was also the first to accurately draw the Platonic solids as they would appear in perspective.

Perspective remained, for a while, the domain of Florence. Jan van Eyck, among others, was unable to create a consistent structure for the converging lines in paintings, as in London’s The Arnolfini Portrait, because he was unaware of the theoretical breakthrough just then occurring in Italy. However he achieved very subtle effects by manipulations of scale in his interiors. Gradually, and partly through the movement of academies of the arts, the Italian techniques became part of the training of artists across Europe, and later other parts of the world.

Present : Computer graphics

3-D computer games and ray-tracers often use a modified version of perspective. Like the painter, the computer program is generally not concerned with every ray of light that is in a scene. Instead, the program simulates rays of light traveling backwards from the monitor (one for every pixel), and checks to see what it hits. In this way, the program does not have to compute the trajectories of millions of rays of light that pass from a light source, hit an object, and miss the viewer.

CAD software, and some computer games (especially games using 3-D polygons) use linear algebra, and in particular matrix multiplication, to create a sense of perspective. The scene is a set of points, and these points are projected to a plane (computer screen) in front of the view point (the viewer’s eye). The problem of perspective is simply finding the corresponding coordinates on the plane corresponding to the points in the scene. By the theories of linear algebra, a matrix multiplication directly computes the desired coordinates, thus bypassing any descriptive geometry theorems used in perspective drawing.

Types of perspective

Of the many types of perspective drawings, the most common categorizations of artificial perspective are one-, two- and three-point. The names of these categories refer to the number of vanishing points in the perspective drawing.

One-point perspective

one-point perspective

One vanishing point is typically used for roads, railway tracks, hallways, or buildings viewed so that the front is directly facing the viewer. Any objects that are made up of lines either directly parallel with the viewer’s line of sight or directly perpendicular (the railroad slats) can be represented with one-point perspective.

One-point perspective exists when the painting plate (also known as the picture plane) is parallel to two axes of a rectilinear (or Cartesian) scene — a scene which is composed entirely of linear elements that intersect only at right angles. If one axis is parallel with the picture plane, then all elements are either parallel to the painting plate (either horizontally or vertically) or perpendicular to it. All elements that are parallel to the painting plate are drawn as parallel lines. All elements that are perpendicular to the painting plate converge at a single point (a vanishing point) on the horizon.

one-point perspective example

Two-point perspective

Two-point perspective can be used to draw the same objects as one-point perspective, rotated: looking at the corner of a house, or looking at two forked roads shrink into the distance, for example. One point represents one set of parallel lines, the other point represents the other. Looking at a house from the corner, one wall would recede towards one vanishing point, the other wall would recede towards the opposite vanishing point.

Two-point perspective exists when the painting plate is parallel to a Cartesian scene in one axis (usually the z-axis) but not to the other two axes. If the scene being viewed consists solely of a cylinder sitting on a horizontal plane, no difference exists in the image of the cylinder between a one-point and two-point perspective.

Two-point perspective has one set of lines parallel to the picture plane and two sets oblique to it. Parallel lines oblique to the picture plane converge to a vanishing point,which means that this set-up will require two vanishing points.

two-point perspective

Above: Walls in 2-pt perspective.
Walls converge towards 2 vanishing points.
All vertical beams are parallel.

Three-point perspective

Three-point perspective is usually used for buildings seen from above (or below). In addition to the two vanishing points from before, one for each wall, there is now one for how those walls recede into the ground. This third vanishing point will be below the ground. Looking up at a tall building is another common example of the third vanishing point. This time the third vanishing point is high in space.

Three-point perspective exists when the perspective is a view of a Cartesian scene where the picture plane is not parallel to any of the scene’s three axes. Each of the three vanishing points corresponds with one of the three axes of the scene. Image constructed using multiple vanishing points.

One-point, two-point, and three-point perspectives appear to embody different forms of calculated perspective. The methods required to generate these perspectives by hand are different. Mathematically, however, all three are identical: The difference is simply in the relative orientation of the rectilinear scene to the viewer.

three-point perspective

Four-point perspective

Four-point perspective, also called infinite-point perspective, is the curvilinear variant of two-point perspective. As the result when made into an infinite point version (i.e. when the amount of vanishing points exceeds the minimum amount required), a four point perspective image becomes a panorama that can go to a 360 degree view and beyond – when going beyond the 360 degree view the artist might depict an “impossible” room as the artist might depict something new when it’s supposed to show part of what already exists within those 360 degrees. This elongated frame can be used both horizontally and vertically and when used vertically can be described as an image that depicts both a worm’s- and bird’s-eye view of a scene at the same time.

As all other foreshortened variants of perspective (respectively one- to six-point perspective), it starts off with a horizon line, followed by four equally spaced vanishing points to delineate four vertical lines created in a 90 degree relation to the horizon line.

The vanishing points made to create the curvilinear orthogonals are thus made ad hoc on the four vertical lines placed on the opposite side of the horizon line. The only dimension not foreshortened in this type of perspective being the rectilinear and parallel lines at a 90 degree angle to the horizon line – similar to the vertical lines used in two-point perspective.

Zero-point perspective

Because vanishing points exist only when parallel lines are present in the scene, a perspective without any vanishing points (“zero-point” perspective) occurs if the viewer is observing a nonlinear scene. The most common example of a nonlinear scene is a natural scene (e.g., a mountain range) which frequently does not contain any parallel lines. A perspective without vanishing points can still create a sense of “depth,” as is clearly apparent in a photograph of a mountain range (more distant mountains have smaller scale features).

Other varieties of linear perspective

One-point, two-point, and three-point perspective are dependent on the structure of the scene being viewed. These only exist for strict Cartesian (rectilinear) scenes. By inserting into a Cartesian scene a set of parallel lines that are not parallel to any of the three axes of the scene, a new distinct vanishing point is created. Therefore, it is possible to have an infinite-point perspective if the scene being viewed is not a Cartesian scene but instead consists of infinite pairs of parallel lines, where each pair is not parallel to any other pair.


Foreshortening refers to the visual effect or optical illusion that an object or distance appears shorter than it actually is because it is angled toward the viewer.

Although foreshortening is an important element in art where visual perspective is being depicted, foreshortening occurs in other types of two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional scenes. Some other types where foreshortening can occur include oblique parallel projection drawings.

Figure 1: Foreshortening

Figure F1 shows two different projections of a stack of two cubes, illustrating oblique parallel projection foreshortening (“A”) and perspective foreshortening (“B”).

This technique was often used in Renaissance painting.


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One response to “Perspective”

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