What Is a Vanishing Point in Art?

The Key to Drawing in Perspective

Row of Cypress trees and farmhouse at sunrise
Gary Yeowell / Getty Images

A vanishing point, or point of convergence, is a key element in many works of art. In a linear perspective drawing, the vanishing point is the spot on the horizon line to which the receding parallel lines diminish. It is what allows us to create drawings, paintings, and photographs that have a three-dimensional look.

The easiest way to illustrate this in real life is to stand in the middle of a straight road.

When you do this, you'll notice how the sides of the road and the lines painted on it meet in one spot on the horizon. The center line will go straight for it and the lines on the side will angle in until all of them intersect. That point of intersection is the vanishing point.

Using a Vanishing Point in Art

Take a look at the objects in the room around you. Those items that are further away from you appear smaller and closer together than objects that are nearby. As objects get even farther away, they become very tiny and eventually they converge into a single point. 

This is a sort of optical illusion that we attempt to emulate when drawing a picture. Without it, everything would look flat and the scene would have no depth. Also, the viewer would not be able to relate the scale and distance of objects. 

The simplest way to see this is in a one-point perspective drawing. In it, all of the horizontal and vertical lines of the primary plane run straight with the paper.

The lines that move away from us—the sides of boxes, the road we are on, or the railway lines in front of us—converge towards the center of the picture. These are called orthogonal lines, a term derived from mathematics.

The center point is the vanishing point. When drawing, you will use it as the target for all of your orthogonals and this is what gives the drawing perspective.

More Than One Vanishing Point

In two-point perspective, our subject is angled so that each of the two sides—left and right—have their own vanishing point. In real life, the angle between these combines with our low point of view to make the vanishing points appear very far apart.

If you're drawing from life and try to construct your vanishing points, you'll find that they are often off of the paper. They can even be as much as an entire meter across your wall or table. When working from a photograph, that distance can change depending on the lens used by the photographer.

How to Handle Multiple Vanishing Points

In three-point perspective, each of the vanishing points can be even more extreme. This leads to a problem about where to place your vanishing points for reference.

Artists have a few tricks to help them solve this issue. Many who have a great deal of experience simply imagine where their vanishing points are. This, however, comes with years of practice and a great understanding of correct perspective.

Most people will find it useful to place vanishing points on the edges of the paper. This must be done on a plane that is equal to where the vanishing point would normally be. Again, it takes a bit of visualization to find this spot.

When you are brand new to constructing perspective, it will be most helpful to use an extra sheet of paper. Place this on the table next to your drawing paper and tape both pieces down if needed to ensure they don't move. Use the spare paper to mark your vanishing point and use it as a reference for all of your orthogonal lines.

As you become experienced with this, analyze your drawings to find the location of the vanishing points on the drawing paper. Soon, you will be able to forego the second sheet altogether.