Exploring Linear Perspective: The Origin, History and Types

Linear perspective is a mathematical principle of making an art seem close to its reality. Learn about its history, geometry, and more.

Linear Perspective

From the last few articles, I was really conscious of explaining the term Linear Perspective due to its complex nature. I could have directed a credible source to learn about it, but they would teach you only the online words. And based on your hunger to comprehend it, I managed to write this article in lucid language with in-depth knowledge. You might raise a question here as an intelligent reader would do. Why is it crucial to learn about a term invented in earlier centuries? So, the answer is simple, to get fantastic results in your art and architecture and witness the world with an extraordinary eye and technique. Often, we get confused when it comes to solving perspective problems, so to make a way out, we are learning about linear perspective and its usage. So, let us jump right into the reading (and learning of course).

History and Background of Linear Perspective in Art and Architecture.

In the Outline of a history of Mathematical Thought by Max Bense, he distinctly stressed and called the reciprocal effect of mathematics and art the most crucial subject in history. See it from the side that the development of linear perspective was a mathematical discipline but is a means of creativity through which epic artworks were created. In addition, there is a parallel development of the perspective with colours forming aerial perspective, which we saw in Renaissance artworks. Furthermore, before we learn about the linear perspective, you must have a few polished facts on Renaissance as we began to acknowledge its existence only during this era. So, Renaissance painters thoroughly researched the anatomy of the human body to make their figures look real. Or conclude in just a single line by saying anatomy and linear perspective formed the basis of renaissance artworks.

Knowing this, let us learn about it from the historical point of view.

From the earlier records of art, we know that science came much after the art subject. It can be visible from tracing the beginnings of the developments of perspective from the past. It started with the solution of representing the world as a three-dimensional medium. The paleolithic drawings and paintings of Altamira and Southern France can witness the first usage of perspective to do so. They included pictures with linear and coloured representations of animals in profile with foreshortening of the figures to provide them with some depth.

The early art of Babylonians or Egypt and Persians does not provide relevant proof of using perspective in the medium of their paintings. However, in the sixth-century art of the Greeks, you can considerably witness the concept and see its influence on the artistic world. You must note that Greeks did know about using perspective through their relations with Middle East countries and India, who were much good with their dimensions.

In the treatise The Meaning of Perspective (Tuebhingen 1953), Bernhard deduced that it was the Greeks who discovered the perspective to show the conceptual reality of any subject. Furthermore, Bernhard demonstrates that the first phase of perspective development came from a vase dating to the middle of the fifth century, where images of bodies were compressed and positioned to illustrate perspective. Although it was still developing, there were terms such as body perspective and partial perspective, correctly describing them.

You see word scenography, a greek derived which essentially means stage setting for perspective, indicates the origin of spatial perspective. So, we have one more argument here depending on the above-stated fact, which is neither the vase nor the mural paintings but the stage paintings were the first representation of realistic settings. Now don’t be confused with the stage setting terminology, as it simply indicates columns, roofs, doors, or windows of a house. Damian explained it by saying,

“Scenography is a part of optics and is concerned with how buildings must be reproduced in paintings.”

Furthermore, in 460 BC, a philosopher, Anaxagoras, established the first scientific theory of perspective when it started to develop with scenography. In the context of discussing light theory, Democritus, Euclid, Heliodorus, and Hero, who laid the groundwork for Ptolemy, all studied perspective. Fair enough!

You at least know the beginning of the process now. But we still have an entire journey till the Renaissance period to understand the perspective. So keep going in the section.

You might have heard the name of Vitruvius, a prominent architect of Augustus. The book he wrote, De Architectura, had a lasting effect on the artistic output of the Romans and succeeding generations. Vitruvius highlighted that the ancients already knew a definite scope of what we call today a horizontal plan, vertical plan and perspective projection of an object. Moreover, he stated that any design must include an ichnography (picture on the ground), a horizontal plan, an orthography (upright picture of the front), a vertical plane, and a scenography (contour of the front side and disappearing sides).

Vitruvius was undoubtedly smart, so I would suggest you all at least go through his book, which is a free resource of Internet archives.

Moving forward, you might have captured the idea by now that the development of perspective was not a continuous evolution as it passed through the transitional period from Antiquity to the Renaissance. One point here to prove the above fact is that between the Romanesque and Byzantine paintings, there is a wide gap in using perspective. In the Byzantine period, perspective was not a tropical feature of art, and it wasn’t until the eleventh century that an optics book discussed the problems of perspective, which was then translated to Latin and enlarged by German pole Vitellio. A pupil of Giotto, Lorenzetti, made the first vanishing point of the horizontal single plane. In his painting, Annunciation, you can see the vanishing point through the tiled floor of the composition.

Annunciation by Lorenzetti showing vanishing point for its Linear Perspective
Annunciation by Lorenzetti | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Next, Brunelleschi, an architect and builder of the dome of Florence Cathedral, became the true founder of Linear perspective. He knew the terms vanishing point, horizon and probably the distance between the object and picture plane. Masaccio, a leading painter, then put this theory into practice for the first time in his paintings. Following them; a versatile architect, Leon Battista, wrote a book De Pictera in Latin in 1511 about the perspective. He made the origin of the grid to determine the size ratios and spatial depth in the drawings.

Now, till now, the perspective was like a mathematical concept for an architect or a mathematical composition in paintings. It was only Paolo Uccello, who was the most eminent artist of the fifteenth century, who rendered the Linear perspective correctly. He was the first to draw plants from nature and leaves in perspective range. As art history proceeds, the paintings The Dead Christ by Andrea Mantegna and Da Vinci’s Last Supper made us realize how crucial perspective was.

Linear perspective artwork The Dead Christ and Three Mourners by Andrea Mantegna
The Dead Christ and Three Mourners by Andrea Mantegna | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Finally, you know much more history about the Linear perspective than any art student nearby. Moving forward, it is now time to see those outstanding paintings of the heavy implication of Linear perspective to at least have an image of how it makes a difference.

What is Linear Perspective?

Linear Perspective is a mathematical technique first developed and practiced by artists during the Renaissance period to help depict a scene on a flat surface, making it look like reality. It consists of a vanishing point where all the parallel lines (orthogonal) meet at the Vanishing point located on the composition’s horizon line.

Examples of Linear Perspective in Art From History.

1. The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci.

The Last Supper painting represents a biblical passage where one of the apostles of Christ betrays him. Previously, I analysed the artwork, which you can read here.

Linear Perspective examples Last Supper by da Vinci
Last Supper by Da Vinci | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

For this section, let me tell you how linear perspective is related to it. There is a central figure of Christ in the middle of his twelve disciples, as an equal number has gathered. And of course, there is a contrast, which exists between Christ and his disciples through expansive movements and emotional expressions. Now, where do you see the perspective?

Consider the figure of Jesus a triangle, the holy trinity, what we call. Through the centration of the triangle, every other figure was constructed by perspective construction, showing the room of composition with projected length lines and edges of ceilings, tables and floors like a one point linear perspective.

Trinity of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci
The Holy Trinity, The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Don’t get entangled thinking about the heavy terms, as I will let you know everything from scratch later in the article. The images are a kind of reference for a rough practice that you at least gather some thoughts around.

2. The Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da Vinci.

The unfinished painting by da Vinci has much importance in history due to its perfect constructive perspective. Here, one must notice that there are too many figures and so it might be difficult to trace the exact point of vanishing points. Leonardo made the foreground first hand and then the figures and animals. In comparison to the Last Supper, the perspective point does not lie at the centre, rather lies somewhere else. But, here too, the eye is first drawn towards the horseman and his rearing mount, providing a dramatic accent.

Examples of Linear perspective in art of The Adoration of Magi by Da Vinci
The Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da Vinci | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

3. San Marco From the Arcades of the Procuracies Nuove by Canaletto.

You must know that the perspective was firstly for architecture as we studied from the history section. In painting, however, there have been few artists who have beautifully depicted the concept at first. Canaletto expressed linear perspective in painting too well through the buildings and cities he drew. It may be due to the reason that his father was a scenic painter, and he might have developed those exclusive lessons of perspective from him. Further, baroque art teaches the comprehensive knowledge of perspective, and so does the camera Obscura, which is the other reason Canaleto developed in his artistic works.

Linear Perspective of Piazza San Marco by Canaletto
Piazza San Marco by Canaletto | Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In this artwork, the significant part of architecture is represented by a frontal perspective from a frog-eye view because of the low horizon to get a monumental look at structures. Hence, when you see the painting, it seems you are standing somewhere below and sees those buildings long above your head. It is due to the use of perspective.

Furthermore, there is a shift of the centre of gravity to the right. At first, the observer’s eye is attracted towards the two figures in the right foreground as they are located towards the centre of perspective.

Similar to them, there are other paintings like Sketch for a Ceiling Fresco by Gottfried Bernhard Goetz, The School of Athens by Raphael, and The panel painting Still Life in Puzzle Perspective by Ludwig Adam Kelterborn, which are great examples of linear perspective in art.

It is finally the time when I make you aware of all the words you read and felt confused. Even if you are absolutely naive, don’t worry; I will sort everything out for you.

Understanding the Geometrical Basics.

1. Linear Perspective.

Rather than defining linear perspective in strenuously doubtful words, I would explain it by giving an example. A pen lies in front of you at some distance, and you have to draw it in the same form that anybody who looks at your picture might see with the same proportion and distance the pen currently lies. Tell me, how would you draw it? Maybe you can take a larger canvas to do so, but what if you have to include a building or a figure? You can’t build a canvas of the same height. So to solve this problem, perspective enters your court.

Shortly or Briefly, linear perspective or any kind of perspective is the way of forming an object in the same look as it appears in actual life, placed at the same spot.

Linear Perspective geometric elements
Geometric elements of Linear Perspective | Source: Willenbrink, Mark, 1962

2. The Picture Plane.

All the planes where you can draw a picture, whether a paper, canvas, project, film or screen, is the picture plane.

3. Ground Plane.

In simple terms, the ground plane is the horizontal surface below the horizon. It may be a plane, hilly or sloped. The only thing you need to remember here is that in the case of a hilly or sloped ground plane, the vanishing point may not be present on the horizon.

4. Horizon.

Horizon is the line which indicates the sky meeting land or water. Think of your dog’s eye. For him, the objects you see similar in height to your eye are larger. So, you can say the horizon is any line, which has vanishing points and tells you the eye level of the scene.

5. Orthogonal Lines.

Orthogonal lines are all parallel lines that lead towards the vanishing point. If a cube is in perspective, then all the orthogonal lines will form right angles extending from its corners, as orthogonal means right angle.

6. Vantage Point.

It is the place or point from which the scene is viewed. Do not get confused between vanishing and vantage point. Also, the placement of this point affects both horizon and the vanishing point.

7. Vanishing Point.

It is a point where all the parallel lines appear to merge together. For example, when you stand still to see a long road ahead, you will feel that it finally ended at a farther point, though it hasn’t in actuality. This point where you witness that it got diminished is the vanishing point. You must remember that a scene can have as many vanishing points.

The definitions you read will be helpful while understanding different kinds of perspectives. I have already told you about the perspective, so it’s time when we switch to learning its different types.

Types of Linear Perspective in Art.

1. One Point Perspective.

One-point linear perspective is the perspective with just one vanishing point, and typically it will appear in the centre of the scene. The figure would make you understand how one point perspective scene looks.

One-point linear perspective
One point perspective scene | Source: Willenbrink, Mark, 1962

To draw a box based on one point linear perspective, follow these steps:

  • Sketch a horizon and vanishing point on the top of the taper. Now draw a square in the lower foreground of the paper.
  • From each corner of the square, draw orthogonal lines receding towards the vanishing point.
  • Now sketch a back square, and erase all the unwanted lines.
One-Point Linear perspective sketches
Steps to draw one point perspective box

2. Two Point Perspective.

A two point perspective is typically a linear perspective with two vanishing points. Whichever scenes use this kind of perspective typically have vanishing points placed at opposite sides at a far distance.

Two Point Perspective
Two point perspective scene | Source: Willenbrink, Mark, 1962

To draw a box using a two point perspective art technique, follow these steps:

  • Sketch the horizon with two vanishing points- extreme right and left. Now draw a straight line vertically below the horizon in the foreground.
  • From both ends, draw orthogonal lines with each vanishing point.
  • Add two vertical lines, one to the left of the corner and the other to the right front corner.
  • Sketch four more orthogonal lines passing through these new sidelines.
  • And finally, sketch a back corner and erase all unwanted lines.
How to make two point perspective
Steps to draw two point perspective box

3. Three Point Perspective.

Similar to the two point perspective, it does have the same vanishing points with an addition to a third one either below or above the horizon. With this kind of perspective, you can either look down or up at the subject.

Three point perspective
Three point perspective scene from different views | Source: Willenbrink, Mark, 1962

To draw a three point perspective box, follow these steps:

  • Sketch a horizon with three vanishing points.
  • Now sketch a line coming up from the lower vanishing point.
  • Add two more lines at the top coming from the same point on the vertical line. One will move towards the left vanishing point, and the other will go in the right direction.
  • Continue to add two more lines to form the top of the box from the left and right vanishing points.
  • Add two lines that connect the top corners to the lower vanishing points.
  • Place a point below the top lines of the box on the centre vertical line. Sketch it one from the left vanishing point and the other to the right one.
  • Add three lines each to go from a back corner to an opposing vanishing point and remove unnecessary lines.
How to draw three point persective
Steps to draw three point perspective box
Three point perspective sketches
Last set of steps to draw three point perspective box

Final Words.

After reading this article and practicing a few basic figures through the linear perspective, you can now easily make more figures and practice them efficiently. I hope you can easily recognise the paintings, which have used this concept with a single glance. If you have any questions regarding the concept, you can ask me in the comments below. And I will see you another time soon!


Perspective for the absolute beginner : A Clear & Easy Guide to Successful Perspective Drawing by Mark and Mary Willenbrink.

Frequently Asked Questions.

What is linear perspective?

Linear perspective is a method based on mathematical principles used to depict art on a flat canvas, represented in the same manner as in reality.

Which artist developed the linear perspective?

Though linear perspective refined in Renaissance and Baroque periods, the method dates back to an unspecified period through which it has continued to evolve everywhere it went. So there is no conclusive evidence to say the artist who first developed it. However, Ambrogio Lorenzetti was the first artist (noted) to exhibit linear perspective in his painting Annunciation, and Filippo Brunelleschi was the first to introduce its different terms. Lastly, Alberti explained it mathematically in his book De Pictera.

Where is linear perspective used?

Linear perspective is a technique that is used in art to create an illusion of space and depth as well as in architecture and interiors to bring extraordinary effects of vision and perspective in real life.

What does a painter need to do to create a linear perspective?

For an art to have linear perspective, the painter must need to understand the concept and its different geometrical elements. Further trying to replicate the reality is one of the important chapters that can help to master it with time. To practice and learn more, read this guide that lists the crucial information as well as easy steps on how to develop the different types of linear perspective.

What are the three types of linear perspectives?

The three types of linear perspectives are one point perspective, two point perspective and three point perspective; all having a distinct vanishing point to create a dissimilar illusion.

What are some examples of linear perspective?

The easiest example of linear perspective is the travelling of two parallel lines ultimately meeting at the end. However, some examples of linear perspective in art are The Last Supper by da Vinci, The Adoration of The Magi by da Vinci, and The School of Athens by Raphael.


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