Using Linear Perspective to Create Depth in Your Paintings

linear perspectiveLinear perspective is a rendering technique used by fine artists to create the illusion of depth on a flat surface. It is the most basic form of perspective in which parallel lines appear to converge in the distance at a vanishing point on the horizon line. (See illustration right.) The technique is based on how the human eye perceives the world around us. Meaning objects which are closer to the viewer appear larger, while more distant objects appear to be getting smaller as they move away. Linear perspective comes into play when orthogonal (parallel) lines that recede into the distance appear to get closer together as they converge at a vanishing point on the composition’s horizon line.

bonnie and clyde car paintingForgotten Roads of Bygone Days
Landscape by Teresa Bernard
24″ x 18″
Oils on gallery wrap stretched canvas

>> More info

linear perspectiveThere are three basic elements that must be present in a work of art in order to make linear perspective possible. These are a horizon line, a vanishing point, and convergence lines. If any one of these elements is missing, the illusion of depth is weak.

Horizon line — The horizon line defines the farthest distance of the background and is the place where a central vanishing point is established. It is the level plane where the earth’s surface (or sea) and the sky appear to meet. The line at the top of mountains or buildings is not the horizon line; these objects “rest” on the horizon line.

The horizon line will ALWAYS be at eye level regardless of whether you are at ground level or standing on a mountain top. It changes as you change position. Sometimes hills, trees and buildings or other objects can hide it from view, but the horizon line will always be present.

Convergence lines — Also called orthogonal lines, convergence lines are when sets of parallel lines appear to get closer together as they recede into the distance and meet at a single vanishing point. All parallel lines will eventually converge at a vanishing point. Sometimes they can even represent the edges of objects and some objects can have more than one set of parallels lines. An example of this would be a box or cube. Depending on where it is viewed from, we can see one, two, or three sets of orthogonal lines.

Vanishing point — The point on the horizon line where all parallel lines appear to recede and converge at is called the vanishing point. It is helpful to note more than one vanishing point can be present. This is called two-point and three-point perspective. When there are two sets of parallel lines that appear to converge, there will be two vanishing points. If there are three sets of parallel lines, then there will be three vanishing points. See The Rules of Perspective for more information.


  1. Create a rendering by drawing a straight highway or railroad tracks using a horizon line, vanishing point, and convergence lines.
  2. Use linear perspective to create depth in an illustration using a row of trees, a fence line, and/or telephone poles running alongside a road.

Additional Reading

Creating Depth in Your Paintings via Atmospheric Perspective

The Rules of Perspective

Perspective Drawing—It’s As Easy As One-, Two-, Three-Point!

Perspective is a technique used in drawing or painting to give an image on a flat surface a sense of depth. An artist uses this nifty tool to make his/her imagery look more realistic and accurate as we see it in real life. Perspective creates the illusion of depth and distance on an otherwise flat surface.

There are three basic types of perspective: one-point, two-point, and three-point. The one-, two-, and three-point refers to the number of vanishing points that are present when creating the illusion of depth and space. In addition to these, there is also zero-point perspective.

national park wall painting“Monument Valley”
Landscape by Teresa Bernard
16″ x 12″
Oils on stretched canvas

>> More info

One-Point Perspective
One-Point Perspective

One-point perspective is the simplest method of drawing perspective. It uses only a single vanishing point on the horizon line. A vanishing point is were two or more parallel lines converge into each other at “infinity.” A good example of this type perspective is a long hallway, railroad track or road where the viewer is positioned face-on looking down the center. As you can see in the illustration, the two tracks are parallel to each other and you know they will remain the same distance apart, however, the further away they get the closer they appear to be until they eventually disappear at the horizon.

Rule: Use one-point perspective to create the illusion of distance in a drawing or painting.

example of two point perspective
Two-Point Perspective

Two-point perspective comes in to play when a drawing contains two vanishing points positioned arbitrarily along the horizon line. This perspective positions the object where the viewer can look at the object from an angle and see two sides at one time. That is, looking at one corner, with two sets of parallel lines moving away.

An example of two-point perspective can be illustrated with the use of a box,  cube, or other objects with the same geometric shape, such as a house or building. When looking at the object from the corner, one side recedes toward one vanishing point and the other side recedes toward the opposite vanishing point. As can be seen in the illustration, each set of parallel lines has its own vanishing point. Two-point perspective is what gives a geometric object the illusion of 3-D.

Rule: Use two-point perspective to make a geometrical object appear to be three dimensional.

example of three point perspective
Three-Point Perspective

Three-point perspective is a little trickier than the other two because this type deals with three vanishing points. It includes two vanishing points somewhere on the horizon line and there is also a vanishing point either above or below the horizon that all vertical lines lead to. This type perspective is great for rendering objects, such as buildings and cityscapes, that are seen at an aerial or ground view. When the third vanishing point is above the horizon, then an image is created from an ant’s perspective, that is, looking up toward the image from below. When it is below the horizon, a bird’s eye point of view is created where it feels as if you are looking down on the object from above.

Rule: Use three-point perspective when you want to render building scenes, such as cityscapes, complex close-up objects and highly detailed interior scenes.

Zero-point perspective is the technique used to give the illusion of depth when there are no parallel lines in the image and therefore no vanishing points. Vanishing points can only exist with the presence of parallel lines. However, a perspective without vanishing points can still create a sense of depth, that’s where zero-point comes take effect. The most common example of depth without parallel lines or vanishing points is a natural setting, such as a mountain range or a landscape of hills and valleys.

In zero-point perspective, a sense of depth can be created in the following  ways:

  • Objects are larger the closer they are and decrease in size proportionally the further away they are.
  • The closer objects are, the more detailed they are. Objects loose detail the further away they are.
  • Color fades becoming more muted blending into background colors.
  • Objects placed higher on a plane create more of the feeling of depth or distance.
  • Overlapping shapes tend to create a feeling of depth.

Rule: Use zero-point perspective when there are no parallel line in an image to create the sense of depth.

Principles of Good Design: Space

Space in art refers to the distance or area between, around, above, below, or within shapes and forms found within a composition. In this discussion we will be taking a closer look at several different ways space is used in art. These are:

  • Positive space
  • Negative space
  • Two-dimensional space
  • Three-dimensional space

western sunset oil painting“Cowboy Sunset”
Landscape by Teresa Bernard
24″ x 18″
Oils on gallery wrap stretched canvas

>> More info

Positive and Negative Space

There are two types of space in art: positive and negative. Both positive and negative space are important factors to be considered in every good composition. They occur in both two-dimension and three-dimension art and are complementary to one another. One impacts on and affects the reading of the other.

positive-spacePositive space is the “occupied” areas in a work of art that is filled with something such as lines, colors and shapes. It is the primary subject matter of a painting; the animals, plants, building, mountain, vase, people, etc., that forms your area-of-interest. It dominates the eye and is the focal point in a composition.

In the example here, positive space (the area in black) is represented as the forms themselves… i.e. the vase, the individual letters, or the words “positive space”. It is the opposite of negative space.

negative-space Negative space is the unoccupied areas that surround the subject matter. It is more passive in nature and is defined by the edges of the positive space it surrounds. It is what gives definition to our composition.

In the example, it is the “empty space” (the area in black) or unoccupied areas that lies between objects, shapes and forms within a composition, and is also the space in the background that is not at first noticeable. It goes in all directions and goes on forever. It flows in, around and between shapes and objects.

Do you see the shapes in negative space? These shapes have substance or mass and is not simply the absence of something. This is important to remember. Negative space has weight and mass, and plays an important role in defining your subject.

Negative space is most evident when the space around a subject matter, and not the form itself, forms an interesting or artistically relevant shape. In this case the use of negative space is very much a key element of the artistic composition. In the example above, the negative space forms a shape of two men face to face.

Negative space is important in a composition because it gives balance to positive space by giving the eye a place to rest. This is a basic element that is often overlooked as a principle of a good design.

Two and Three-dimensional Space

two-dimensionalRubins_vaseTwo-dimensional space is found on a flat surface such as a canvas. It has no depth, only length and width. In our example, the image appears flat because all the objects and forms lie on the same plane. There is no feeling of depth. However, the same space can be used to make a two-dimensional artwork appear three-dimensional by giving a feeling of depth. Three-dimensional space has width, height and depth.

When we look at a flat surface and have the sensation of looking at spaces and objects that appear to have depth, then we are receiving and believing a group of visual signals working to create the illusion of three-dimensional shapes and spaces within the painting.

These three-dimensional signals are so common in nature that we are almost unaware of them. Yet in the hands of a skilled artist these 3D cues can be used to create the illusion of three-dimension on a flat canvas surface. This occurs when a sensation of space which seems to have height, width and depth are visually created as it has been done with the vase in the example shown on the right.

The tools needed for creating the illusion of three-dimensional space are:

  • Overlapping objects
  • Changing size and placement of related objects
  • Linear perspective
  • Relative hue and value
  • Atmospheric perspective

Overlapping objects within your composition is the simplest tool you can use for creating three-dimensional space in your painting or drawing. The effect is achieved by allowing the contour of one form to be interrupted by the contour of another form, so that it looks like one form is physically sitting in front of the other.

Another simple tool for creating the illusion of 3D space is by changing size and placement of related objects. When two shapes are the same size and are placed on the same plane, the image tends to appear rather flat and not have much depth to it. However by simply varying the size and placement of the shapes a greater sensation of depth is created.

As a rule of thumb, larger objects tend to appear closer to the viewer and smaller ones tend to recede into the background. Also objects placed lower on the canvas appear closer in distance than those which are placed higher up.

linear-perspectiveLinear perspective (a.k.a. converging lines) is a graphical system used by artists to create the illusion of depth and volume on a flat surface. As objects move away from the viewer they appear to grow smaller and converge toward a vanishing point at the horizon line. The effective use of linear perspective creates this illusion of diminishing size by treating the edges as converging parallel lines. The vanishing point may be in any direction the viewer looks, including up, and may be visible (on the canvas) or imaginary (somewhere off the canvas).

Using hue and value to create 3D space on a flat canvas surface are very important cues that tell us whether an object is near by or far away. In general, warm colors or hues tend appear closer, whereas cool hues tend to recede away from the viewer. On the same token, close objects tend to exhibit brighter, richer hues, and/or more contrasting in values, including extremes of dark and light. However, distant objects tend to be either similar or neutral in value, and exhibit grayer hues. Colors that are close in value are perceived as being on or near the same plane, but colors that have strong contrast in value appear on separate planes.

bonnie and clyde car painting“Forgotten Roads of Bygone Days”
Landscape by Teresa Bernard
24″ x 18″
Oils on gallery wrap stretched canvas

>> More info

Atmospheric perspective combines several tools already described above. This important tool operates when objects that are far away lack contrast, detail, and texture. As objects get farther away, atmospheric perspective shows color gradually fading to a bluish gray and details blurring, imitating the way distant objects appear to the human eye.

As a rule of thumb when using this tool, remember that colors tend to pale and fade as they recede into the distance. Objects become less defined and lack detail.

Deep Space

When used effectively all of these tools to create the illusion of three-dimensional space will create a sense of what is referred to as deep space within your painting. In deep space there are three terms used to describe depth:

  • Foreground is the area of a painting that visually appears closest to the viewer. It is often located on a lower plane or bottom of the canvas.
  • Middle ground is space that makes up the distance between the foreground and background of a painting. There is no specific measurement for what the limits are. Typically it is located somewhere on the middle plane of the canvas.
  • Background is the area of a painting that visually appears to be far away in the distance at or near the horizon. It is usually located on a higher plane of the canvas.


Since a flat surface such as a canvas contains only two-dimensional space, an artist may wish to create the illusion of three-dimension. When an artist begins to cut, divide and rearrange the surface space of a flat surface, the illusion of depth may appear. Even the slightest manipulation of line, value or color will generate the illusion of three-dimensional space.

There are a number of ways to create the illusion of distance or depth on a flat surface. Here are some of those ways:

  1. Objects that are further away, will appear smaller than those close by. Those same objects will also grow less distinct the further away they are. Their colors will fade and blend into the background colors.
  2. Objects which are placed higher on a plane create the feeling of depth or distance. The viewer senses that he or she is standing away from the objects and that there is a large amount of space in the foreground.
  3. Overlapping shapes tend to create a feeling of depth.
  4. Arrangement of lights. When light is contrasted against dark, a sense of depth is felt.
  5. Converging lines. Parallel lines, as they move away into the distance, appear to come closer together to form a vanishing point which may or may not be seen. A good example of this is a road or a path.
  6. Colors. Warm and bright colors appear closer, whereas cool or dull colors tend to recede into the distance.

Click for more information about perspective in drawing.

Examples of the effective use of Space

Positive and Negative Space

2D-negative-space3D-negative-spaceThe flat back shadows and background in the painting on the left provides a good example of the effective use of positive and negative space in this two dimensional painting.

The painting on the right demonstrates positive and negative space in a three dimensional painting. Can you see the positive and negative here? The fish occupies the positive space and the water represents the negative space around the fish.

Overlapping Objects

overlapping-objects1 overlapping-objects2Overlapping objects is a helpful tool for creating an illusion of 3D. Depending on how it is applied can give a sense of deep or shallow space within a composition.

The Statue of Liberty in the painting on the left overlapping the river and the horizon helps to create a greater sense of depth than the painting that is on the right. On the left we get the sensation of deep space. On the right the space a shallow.

Changing Size and Placement

size-placement1 size-placement2Changing the size and placement of the objects in these two paintings helps give more depth to the painting. Changing the size of the indians makes them appear far away in the painting on the left. On the right, the ballerinas are on a higher plane than the ones in the front pushes them farther away into the background.

Linear Perspective

perspective1 perspective2 perspective3





Can you see how perspective has given the three paintings above a sense of depth?

Both of these paintings have very strong one-point perspective which helps create the illusion of three dimension.

Perspective gives you the sensation that the train is moving away from you and yet it pulls you down the hallway with it in the painting on the right.

Perspective can also make objects appear 3D. The artist of this building used two point perspective to create an object that appears to have volume. Without two point perspective this building would lack depth and appear flat.

Hue and Value

hue1 hue2Warm colors pull you up close. Cool colors recede off into the distance. The painting on the left is a good example of this tool in use.

On the right, light moves toward you and darkness moves off into the background.

Atmospheric Perspective

atmospheric-perspective1 atmospheric-perspective2As objects move off into the distance they become less detailed and more gray. For example notice the horizon and the mountain in these two paintings.

For more information about atmospheric perspective see article titled Creating Depth in Your Paintings via Atmospheric Perspective.

Deep Space

deep-space1 deep-space2When used effectively all the tools (overlapping, perspective, atmosphere, hue and value) can create the sensation of deep space.



  1. What is the definition of space when it is applied to art?
  2.  What are some ways space is used in art?

Your Next Art Lesson

If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out another one in this series.

Good Design Principle: An Introduction

Good Design Principle: Balance

Good Design Principle: Contrast

Good Design Principle: Emphasis

Good Design Principle: Movement

Good Design Principle: Proportion

Good Design Principle: Space

Good Design Principle: Visual Economy

Good Design Principle: Unity