Understanding Linear Perspective

November 20, 2018 5 min read

In celebration of our upcoming release of Michael Holter's 7 Steps to Watercolor Landscapes, we've worked with Michael on a series of articles on perspective. This is the third in the series. Read the first and second articles to help you get ready for his video, which is available now here! 

Perspective is an essential tool to help you create the illusion of realistic depth and distance in your representational paintings.

“Not all artists are comfortable using perspective and often they choose to ignore the exactness of it,” says Michael Holter. “If you’re a folk artist, for example, you may not need or want to follow accurate perspective in your work.”

However, says Michael, if you paint representationally, it’s worth learning how perspective can help you create more realistic depth in your work.


In our last segment, Michael helped us walk through aerial perspective. This week, we’re tackling linear perspective.

“Linear perspective,” says Michael, "as the name implies, uses lines to help give your paintings the appearance of depth.”

It is the type of perspective that most artists think of when the term is brought up. If you’re trying to capture realism, linear perspective is a useful tool to help you:

  1. place objects correctly within your picture to show depth and distance.
  2. establish appropriate sizes for objects and people in your painting to show depth and distance.
  3. find the correct angles for the edges of objects (especially man-made objects like buildings and roads) to help show depth and distance.

Before we jump in with linear perspective, there are a few concepts you’ll want to understand.


The horizon line is where the earth seems to meet the sky. I say “seems” because, in real life, the earth doesn’t actually meet the sky. They run parallel to each other as they circle the globe. However, in both photos and in life, they appear to meet. Their meeting point is the horizon line.

“The horizon line is easy to spot in places where you have unobstructed views,” says Michael.  “Like beaches and deserts.”

However, if you’re standing in a forest, you may find it harder to find the horizon line. This is where the term eye level is more relevant.


Your eye level is an imaginary horizontal line that extends out from your eyes through your subject. Your eye level is the same height as the horizon line and serves the same purpose in establishing perspective. In fact, artists often use the terms horizon line and eye level interchangeably.


“The horizon line or eye level matters for many reasons,” says Michael. “But its most important use is in establishing vanishing points.”

Vanishing points are where the imaginary lines from edges of objects seem to disappear. If you’re looking down a long country road, there is a point very, very far away, on the horizon, where the edges of the road seem to join. That point is your vanishing point.

Michael explains that three types of linear perspective - one-point, two-point, and three-point (or multi-point) - are distinguished by the number of vanishing points used in a composition. The vanishing points for one-point and two-point perspective always occur on the horizon line. Three-point perspective uses an additional vanishing point above the horizon line.


One-point perspective uses a single vanishing point.

One-point perspective is useful for paintings featuring a flat plane featuring something like a long road or a room interior. One-point perspective helps you place objects on the road, or in the room, so that objects appear appropriately further from or closer to the viewer.

To establish one-point perspective, first establish your horizon line. Your vanishing point will always occur on the horizon line.

The road and buildings around you will direct you to your vanishing point. Follow the slants of their roofs up or down. Your vanishing point is where those lines converge.



Now that you have your vanishing point, you can add buildings, trees, and telephone poles anywhere in your image and you’ll know about how tall you should draw them and what angles to use for roofs.

Michael points out that these rules are for flat planes. “Variations occur when objects are lower, higher, or sitting at angles that are not consistent with each other,”’ says Michael. “For instance, rolling hills can complicate the perspective discussion.”


But generally, if anything seems off in your drawing, check your vanishing points to make sure it’s following the rules.




Use two-point perspective when you're facing an edge of a building. This may happen when you are looking at a barn in a field or viewing the roofs of a city from farther back.

In two-point perspective, you establish two vanishing points, a left vanishing point (LVP) and a right vanishing point (RVP).

“All of your verticals will still be perpendicular to the ground,” says Michael. “But your horizontal lines will be angled and running toward either your left or right vanishing point.”

Walls on the right of the edge you’re facing seem slant down to the right vanishing point (RVP). Walls on the left will slant down to the left vanishing point (LVP).


As with one-point perspective, use the cues coming from the roofs of your buildings to find your RVP and LVP. Run a line along the right side of each roof toward the horizon line. Where all the lines meet the horizon, that is your right vanishing point. Now do the same for the roof lines headed toward your left vanishing point.

The left and right vanishing points may occur off the edge of your paper, so it’s worth drawing thumbnails to establish the location.

Now that you know your left and right vanishing points, you can draw in a vertical line (the edge of a building) and use it to begin building your structure.  


Three-point perspective creates a fisheye effect and helps the objects in your painting feel especially tall or large. It’s useful for painting tall buildings or objects.

In one-point perspective, one set of lines runs toward a single vanishing point. All verticals are perpendicular to the ground. In two-point perspective, two sets of horizontal lines run toward two different vanishing points. All verticals are perpendicular to the ground. In three-point perspective, you use your left and right vanishing points, as in two-point, but you add a third vanishing point in the sky. All vertical lines slant toward that third vanishing point.



To find your third perspective point, follow all the vertical lines and where they meet in the sky is your third vanishing point. LIke the RVP and LVP, this third vanishing point will probably occur off the edge of your painting.

“Once you establish your third vanishing point, you can add additional buildings and windows, and you’ll be able to place them with the appropriate size and height relative to everything else in your painting,” says Michael.


Perspective is all about showing relationships between objects within a painting. One building might look a certain way because it’s really close to the viewer. Another building looks different because it is really far from the viewer.

“If the viewer’s relationship changes - if she walks halfway toward the horizon or sits down on the ground - the look of each building will also change,” says Michael.

Good thing for that, as the painter, you understand perspective and will be able to adjust accordingly.

Don't miss Michael Holter's 7 Steps to Watercolor Landscapes. Learn more here. 

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