Art Glossary: Perspective

Painting of The Last Supper by da Vinci showing one-point perspective
The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, 1495-1498. Wikimedia Commons


Perspective in art is the technique used to represent three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface (a piece of paper or canvas ) in a way that looks natural and realistic. Perspective is used to create an illusion of space and depth on a flat surface (or the picture plane).

Perspective most commonly refers to linear perspective, the optical illusion using converging lines and vanishing points, which makes objects appear smaller the further they are from the viewer.

Aerial or atmospheric perspective is another type of perspective that causes things in the distance to appear a  lighter value and have a cooler hue than things in the foreground. Foreshortening is yet another type of perspective that makes something appear as though it is receding strongly into the distance by compressing or shortening the length of the object. 


The rules of perspective applied in Western art as we known them today developed during the Renaissance in Florence, Italy in the early 1400s.  Prior to this time paintings were not expected to be realistic or naturalistic representations of life. Instead paintings were stylized and symbolic. For instance, the size of a figure in a painting might indicate their importance and status relative to other figures, rather than their proximity to the viewer, and individual colors carried significance and meaning beyond their actual hue (see Ultramarine: The Most Expensive Pigment Ever).

Watch  Linear Perspective: Brunelleschi's Experiment to see how Renaissance artist Filippo Brunelleschi discovered linear perspective. 

Linear Perspective

Linear perspective uses a geometric system consisting of a horizon line at eye level, vanishing points, and lines that converge toward the vanishing points called orthogonal lines, to recreate the illusion of space and distance on a two-dimensional surface.

There are three basic types of perspective: one-point, two-point, and three-point. The one/two/three refers to the number of vanishing points used to create the perspective illusion. Two-point perspective is the most commonly used.

One-point perspective, consisting of a single vanishing point, is used most often when one side of the subject, such as a building, is parallel to the picture plane (imagine looking through a window), that is, when the front of the building is facing you. For a good explanation of one-point perspective, watch this video from Khan Academy.

Two-point perspective, consisting of one vanishing point on either side, is used when, using a building as an example again, the corner of a building is facing you.

Three-point perspective, consisting of three vanishing points, is used when your subject is viewed from above or below and therefore the effects of perspective occur in three directions.

Aerial or Atmospheric Perspective

A good example of aerial or atmospheric perspective is a mountain range in which the mountains in the distance appear lighter in value and a bit cooler, or bluer, in hue. Because of the increased layers of atmosphere between the viewer and objects in the distance, objects that are further away also appear to have softer edges and fewer details.



Most experienced artists can draw and paint perspective intuitively. They do not need to draw the horizon lines, vanishing points, and orthogonal lines. 

To learn how to better draw and paint perspective from observation I recommend following Betty Edward's lesson in her classic book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. By tracing what you see in the real world onto a clear viewfinder about 8"x10" held parallel to your eyes (the picture plane), and then transferring that drawing onto a white sheet of paper, you can accurately draw what you see, thereby creating the illusion of three-dimensional space.   

Updated by Lisa Marder 5/10/16