The Dreaded Ellipse

The basic principle behind the art of drawing is simple and straightforward. We make lines which become shapes which become forms.

Making a mark is easy enough. We put pencil to paper and move from one point to another. Even I can do this.

The next step, though, involves turning those lines into basic shapes. We have circles, we have rectangles, we have triangles. We have lots of shapes from which to choose. Here’s a helpful list of basic shapes we should know:

  • Rectangle
  • Circle
  • Diamond
  • Trapezoid
  • Parallelogram
  • Triangle

Our friend, the square, of course, is in the category of rectangle, and hidden away in the circle category is one of the most troublesome shapes in the art world: the dreaded ellipse.

An ellipse, as you already know, is a circle seen in perspective. An ellipse, as you may also already know, can be difficult to draw. But why? An ellipse, also known as an oval, is nothing more than a foreshortened circle, a curved figure with a long and a short axis.


As artists, we encounter ellipses everywhere. The top of a mug, the bottom of a bottle, the structure of a lighthouse. Ellipses can also be used in drawing trees and branches.

Simply put, they’re everywhere!

I didn’t think they would be so difficult to draw — until I tried. Oh, dear! I saw at once why many artists refer to these creatures as the dreaded ellipse. 

I worked on drawing ellipses soon after I started learning to draw several years ago. The results weren’t very good. My ellipses were a mess. I took heart in knowing, though, that I wasn’t alone, as one of the first issues of Artist magazine I received had an entire section devoted to the dreaded ellipse and how to draw them more accurately. One helpful tip I learned was to draw half the ellipse and then fold the paper to complete the other half. Clever? Yes. Practical? Not really.

Beginning artists typically make two big mistakes in creating ellipses.

Ellipse Football
The Football Ellipse and The Sardine Can Ellipse

Being a huge Kansas City Chiefs fan, I tended more toward the football style, myself. Oh, sure, yeah, I like sardines, but in my family, football is a way of life in the fall. I guess it was only natural that those pigskin shapes showed up in my sketchbook.

An article in another recent issue of Artist magazine again focused on ellipses and how to draw them. I went — literally — back to my drawing board and practiced, practiced, practiced.

Sketchbook Ovals
I filled pages in my sketchbook with ovals in hopes of getting ellipses right.
Ovals in Shapes
Next I tried putting ellipses into various objects.

These pages were all done free-hand, and most are a bit wobbly and crooked, but the practice exercises were good for me. I’m more comfortable now with ellipses. I understand the shape better, I think.

We can, of course, get very technical about drawing the dreaded ellipse. We can use the rules of one-point or two-point perspective. Well, maybe you can use those rules. For me, the technical aspects of ellipses and perspective get far too complicated to follow. Just take a quick look at this tutorial and you’ll see what I mean.

Drawing Ellipses — Scott Robertson and Neville Page

Tutorial Drawing

All of this begs the question of accuracy. Drawing ellipses correctly doesn’t matter unless we agree that inaccuracy is noticeable. And, it is. From what I’ve read, in fact, ellipses are one of the first things our eyes — and our brain — use to evaluate a drawing. If the ellipses are off, our mind won’t accept the picture as realistic. We might say that it just feels wrong, or that something’s not quite right. Even if we can’t define the problem with the drawing, we can sense it. Yep. Our brains are that sensitive to the dreaded ellipse. 

Knowing I needed lots of help with my ellipses, I went off in search of instruction. I found a lot of online articles, some more helpful than others.

Drawing Ellipses — Mike Sibley Fine Art

The Elusive Ellipse — Craftsy

How to Draw Ellipses in Perspective – Design Sketchbook

Drawing Circles in Perspective – How to Draw

How to Draw an Ellipse –Artist Network

How to Draw an Ellipse — The Virtual Instructor

I am sure there are many more sites to explore in search of the perfect ellipse and how to capture it. Again, I take heart in knowing that I’m obviously not alone in my struggle to draw accurate ellipses.

So, it’s back to the drawing board once again for me. Practice, practice, practice. Eventually it will pay off.



  1. I’m pretty sure ellipses are my nemesis. In college we spent an entire week drawing them and from that I have a good basic method, but that doesn’t make them any easier.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. HI there Judith. I’ve drawn many ellipse in my time, and like any skill in drawing it just takes practice. Extending the arm, with fingers extended and by not resting your wrist on the paper, you’ll find that sketching the ellipse will become easier. And thanks for following my blog.

    Liked by 1 person

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