AN INTRODUCTION TO

PERSPECTIVE

Many artists skip learning perspective well, because they think it’s only for drawing buildings or landscapes. But in reality, every single thing you’ll draw needs to benefit from the right perspective.

Even complex forms, like human anatomy, need to be planned out using shapes that all match the same perspective. Trying to draw without learning perspective is like trying to play the piano without knowing where the notes are. You can do it, but don’t be shocked when people run away!

EVERYTHING STARTS WITH SIMPLE SHAPES

You need to learn the letters of an alphabet before you can start creating words. Once you learn words you can create a story.

The good news is that drawing only has three basic “letters”: Sphere, Cube, and Cylinder. From there you can make others “words” like: Egg, Frustum, and Cone. And with only six shapes you can create any “story”.

Sphere

Egg

Cube

Frustum

Cylinder

Cone

Look how much story we can tell just using a combination of these six shapes drawn in perspective!

Normal Rockwell, Facts of Life

Primitive shapes can also be used as a “cage” to ensure that more complex drawings maintain the correct perspective.

LeARN PERSPECTIVE BASICS

You can spend 40 hours on YouTube watching random tutorials about perspective. Or you can spend $20 and learn the fundamentals from Matt Kohr. (Worth it.)

Bird’s eye view
Worm’s eye view

WHERE TO PUT THE HORIZON LINE

It’s important to remember that the position of the horizon line does not depend on elevation, but the forward or backward tilt of the camera (or put simply: whether you are looking up or looking down). The first thing you need to do is imagine yourself in the scene and determine where you are looking on the vertical plane. Then follow three simple rules:

1. If you are looking straight ahead, the horizon line will always be in the vertical center of the composition. That means that no matter how “high” you are in the scene (for both a street level scene and a scene looking out an airplane window), the horizon line will be in the center if you are looking straight ahead.

2. If you are looking up (“worm’s eye view”), then the horizon line goes down the page.

3. If you are looking down (“bird’s eye view”), then the horizon line goes up the page.

In the example below, drag the image image up and down to shift from looking “straight ahead” to “looking up” and “looking down”. Both the street rat (on the left) and the airplane passenger (on the right) are able to have a “bird’s eye” and “worm’s eye” view of their individual environment, even though their elevation from the ground is miles apart!

PRACTICE THIS: Take a pencil and hold it out horizontally in front of your face at eye level. That’s the horizon line when you are looking straight ahead. Now alternate saying out loud: “Worm’s eye view” and “Bird’s eye view” as you shift the pencil in the oposite direction of your gaze. The more you repeat this exercise, the more you’ll automatically remember where to put the horizon line in your scene.

USE PERSPECTIVE GRIDS

Drawing over a grid will get your brain in the right frame of mind to draw shapes in the correct perspective. You’re not making building blueprints, so there’s no need to be “computer accurate”, but the grid will force your brain to think about spacial relationships as you sketch. Learning how to draw your own grids from scratch is a crucial exercise. But when you need a more robust grid (or you need many variations quickly), starting with a pre-made template can help.

Use my free Interactive Perspective Grid web app to quickly explore angles. Then print out or take a screenshot to place under your sketch.

APPLY THE D.I.E.T.

Set aside four sessions throughout the week to work on Perspective using one of the methods below. You don’t have to do them in order, just make sure you do one of each. If you’ve done everything on this page, you’ve already spent time on E (Education)!

Learn more about the D.I.E.T. method

D

DUPLICATION

Find some imagery and try your best to copy it accurately. Use the four tools for accurate observation: Plumb Lines, Angles, Distances, and Negative Shapes.

I

INVENTION

Pick a subject matter and try to invent your own version of it. Don’t worry if it doesn’t come out as incredible as you hoped! This stage is about stretching your mind’s ablity to apply what you know. You’ll get better with time!

E

EDUCATION

Learn from another teacher! Visit the Education page for a list of free and paid resources.

T

TRACING

Find some imagery, put some music on, and trace away! But be mindful while you’re tracing. Focus on line weight, line quality, structure and simplified form.

SOME CONTENT IDEAS

PARENTS: It's always best to make sure "Safe Search" or similar is enabled on any browsers that your kids have access to. Here's how.

EASY

Search Google for “block toys“. DUPLICATING and TRACING block toys is a fantastic way to start understanding how primitive shapes look at various angles and rotations.

For INVENTION, try building a castle with as many primitive shapes as you can!

INTERMEDIATE

Search Google for “lego characters“. These are fun because they combine basic primitives for the body, but have more complex forms for the head and props. Start DUPLICATING or TRACING simple ones. Most are great, some you can’t unsee.

For INVENTION, try creating a Lego minifig of yourself, your kids, or your friends!

ADVANCED

Search Google for “robot“.  DUPLICATING and TRACING robots is a great exercise to get your brain thinking about humanoid shapes. Robot designers have come up with endless ways to stylize and simplify the human form.

For INVENTION, try combining pieces from several robots to create your own!

 

READY TO LEVEL UP?

Check out these great tutorials from seasoned professionals.

Understanding Perspective (Free)

Put your math hat on, James goes down the rabbit hole and it’s awesome.

Interior Layout Design with Charles Lin ($10)

  • 2 hour 45 min Video Lecture & Demo
  • JPG Demo & Notes

Sketching for Environment: Environmental Foundation ($10)

  • 1 hour 30 min Video Lecture & Demo
  • JPG Demo & Notes

Understanding Lens Types ($10)

  • 1 hour 10 min Video Lecture & Demo
  • JPG Demo & Notes

You’ve got some
work to do!

This is the single most important stage of your drawing career! It’s a lot of work, and at the beginning it’s overwhelming and you just want to move on to the fun stuff. But don’t give up! Push through and master it. Once you get through the initial brain freeze, creating forms from thin air can be super fun. Most importantly, it’s confidence building, because consistenly creating believable forms won’t be accidental but intentional. Your future self will thank you!