A Perspective on Perspective

Thumbnail perspective on perspective-play

“Dude, your perspective is all wrong.” These are not the words I wanted to hear as I prepared to sign my mural that I had worked on for three weeks straight in the summer of 1995. However,  it was the critique that I most desperately needed to take my artwork to another level.

The brutally honest assessment of my work came from my friend Joe, who was an architect student at the University of Chicago. His study of architecture and art led him to some very sound truths on perspective.

Of course I studied perspective. I remember doing all the perspective excercises in high school and in college. I remember certain aspects of perspective would get confusing, and instead of diving in and exploring perspective closer,  I would just go my own way based off of insticts.

When working on my murals or other pieces for that matter, I would tend to gloss over the rules of perspective and jump straight to creating my scene, getting my objects to line up with my vanishing points in the ‘general area.’ This method worked well for me until I was busted by my friend Joe.

Here are two perspective truths that have stuck with me as I progressed as an artist.

Horizon Line: There is only one horizon line.

The first thing Joe pointed out to me was a reference to my horizon line. The horizon line in my painting was not consistent. (In my defense, this mural wrapped around three walls and came down 4 feet from the ceiling, making it difficult to establish one horizon line throughout the scene.) But none the less, this image had an inconsistent horizon line, throwing the whole image off.

Below is an example of a consistent horizon line.

pano of mural

Wherever your eye level is, that is the horizon line! So in an image that you are creating, wherever the horizon is placed that is where you intend for your viewer’s eye level in the scene, to be.

Vanishing points: You can have multiple vanishing points on a horizon line.

Imagine for a minute that the world is on a grid. And if you were to build a 90° box on this grid then all of the lines would go to a vanishing point. Now, another box is also built on a grid but they don’t have to exactly be lined up with your first box.  Other boxes can have their lines descend to a vanishing point as well and it doesn’t have to be the same exact vanishing point as your first box. Or imagine that I dropped some building blocks on this grid, each block would have its own vanishing point if they randomly fell. In the examples below, I explain visually how this works.


From these two truths, I have dug deeper into the world of linear perspective.

Some other aspects of perspective that I will dive into later, which also help achieve the illusion of dimension:

Space: Things that are closer in a scene will tend to be towards the bottom of your image area.

Size: Things that are meant to be closer to you as the viewer, is portrayed larger than the rest of the objects.

Surface lines: Lines that form an image follow the shape of that object towards the vanishing point.

Overlapping: Objects which are closer to the viewer are overlapping the objects behind it.

Shading/atmospheric perspective: Objects that are closer to the viewer, the shading is darker. Objects that are further in the distance have atmospheric perspective which mute the shading, due to particles of moisture or possibly pollution hanging in the air.

Density/detail: Things that are closer to the viewer in the image have more acute detail, and seem more dense.

Foreshortening: Due to the angle of an object that the viewer is observing, the object can have the illusion that seems shorter than it really is.

I will go over these other laws at another time in more detail. I wanted to share with others my discovery of linear perspective and how it is an important aspect of making your work seem believable, if that is what you are trying to achieve as an artist.

Often times I look back on a mural that I’ve done and I think to myself, “wow that was great learning experience!” Unfortunately, the building that I did this mural in has been closed up for sometime. I would love to get back inside of that building take a picture and use it as an example.

Until then, I will view this mural and my discussion with Joe as a turning point in my future work. I hope that this article will help bring some light to your own discoveries into the wonderful world of linear perspective!


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