The Vanishing Vanishing Point

“Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…”

I’ve never seen the movie Jaws, but I’ve heard people quote that line many times. Maybe I’m taking it out of context since I’m not familiar with the film, but it’s always seemed to indicate being fooled by something. Just when you think things are all right, that’s when you suddenly find out it’s all wrong again. Or, in my case, just when I think I really do understand perspective in drawing, that’s when I realize I don’t know anything at all.

Theoretically, I do understand perspective. If we’re looking off into the distance, parallel lines will converge at a vanishing point. That’s simple, one-point perspective. In two-point perspective, we’re looking at two sets of parallel lines, each converging in a different direction to a different vanishing point.

This illustration from Art Projects for Kids shows a “city scene” in one-point perspective.

This illustration also makes the purpose of perspective clear: to accurately depict the height, width, depth, and position of solid objects in relation to each other when viewed from a particular point. That’s a rather long-winded definition, and maybe that’s part of the problem. There doesn’t seem to be an easy way to define or explain perspective without a lot of complicated verbiage.

Here, from Art Class Ideas, is an illustration of a city scene using two-point perspective.

Although not so colorful, it, too, clearly illustrates the principles of perspective. Again, even though we’re using two vanishing points, it’s still all about the correct height, width, depth, and position of solid objects in relation to each other. Our viewpoint here is at a corner, so our parallel lines are going off in two different directions.

All right. So far, so good. I understand all of this. I understand, too, that the horizon line — that first line we’re always instructed to place on our paper when we do perspective exercises — represents our eye level. I know, as well, that when using two-point perspective, our vanishing points aren’t always on the page. What I don’t know, though, is how to apply these rules of perspective when I’m tasked with doing a drawing on my own. I can follow along to re-create images given in an art book, but ask me to draw a scene of my own, and I’m lost. Totally, hopelessly lost.

That’s where I found myself earlier this morning as I was finishing up that “not so favorite” chapter in Barrington Barber’s “10 Week Course for Aspiring Artists“, the book I’ve been using for my summer art projects. The last assignment in the chapter was to draw an interior scene in perspective. I looked at the illustration he included, read through each of his “steps” from beginning to completed drawing, and threw up my hands in despair. Nothing made sense. Obviously he had a vanishing point — somewhere — but it was anything but obvious to me.

In one stage of his drawing, I can see where his lines are converging, but so help me, I can’t even begin to guess why they converge there and how he knew that’s where the vanishing point was supposed to be. To confuse me even more, in the third stage of his drawing he has lines running from left to right, crossing over all those parallel lines headed toward their vanishing point, and I have no idea where these additional lines are going. Here, take a look for yourself.


I’m guessing — and this is really only a wild guess — that this is an example of two-point perspective with one vanishing point on the page and another way out somewhere in the east forty. Yeah, fine. But how do we know where it is? How do we use a vanishing point that isn’t even on the page? Theoretically I might understand the concept, but I can’t apply it.

I wasn’t giving up, though. Another point Barber makes in this chapter is that it’s quite acceptable to simplify scenes, especially as we’re learning. Take out any ornate furniture, he suggested. Don’t worry about complicated things. Just keep it simple.

Well, that’s what I did. I chose a corner with nothing more there than a door and a shelf that’s on the floor because I recently bought it and my husband hasn’t hung it on the wall yet. What could be more simple than this scene?

So, sketchbook in hand, drawing pencil at the ready, I sat down, to begin. But… begin where? I note that Barber’s drawing shows no horizon line, so I guess that’s out as a starting point. Well, how about finding my vanishing points. Huh? Really? What vanishing points? I’m simply looking at the corner of our living room, and while I know I could extend parallel lines out that would eventually meet somewhere, they aren’t going to meet up anywhere in this neighborhood, so what use are they?

This is two-point perspective… am I right on that? Since I’m looking at a corner, it would seem so, even though it is concave rather than convex. It’s still the same principle, right? So, where and how do I begin drawing this? I’m guessing that I would have to consider the angles formed by the walls as they extend outward from the corner, but if I’m using angles, what’s the point in having a vanishing point or two? And I still have no idea where any vanishing points would be, so what difference does it make? This surely shouldn’t be so difficult. After all, perspective is supposed to be easy, right?

Well, it’s not. So now, I’m going to go grab a protractor, measure the angles here and see if that helps me get marks on the page. Wish me luck, will you? And will somebody please explain to me how to use vanishing points that are truly nowhere to be seen? As I’ve said many times before, I understand the concept of perspective, but I have no idea how to actually apply it in drawing. Any help will be appreciated!


  1. One-point perspective = Easy to Intermediate Level

    Two-point perspective = Intermediate to Advanced Level

    Three-point perspective = Advanced to Master Level (especially when compound curves are involved)

    Yep, you got it right… the lines going off to the right in the black and white illustration of two-point perspective will converge somewhere in the east-forty.

    There are two possible solutions to the east-forty problem… a) use a drawing board big enough to establish the right vanishing point, which gets impractical real quick, or b) use math.

    When using any vanishing point that runs off the paper or the drawing board, establishing the horizon line gives you the 0° (zero) angle. Establishing the top line and bottom line for the right vanishing point will give you angles that are measurable from the 0° with a protractor or adjustable triangle. From there you can make other measurements of the subject being drawn, use simple addition or subtraction of angle degrees to figure out the correct vanishing line, dial it into your protractor or adjustable triangle, and draw in the line.

    Everything I just described in the above paragraph is difficult when using just a T-square; it’s much easier when using a drafting parallel bar, and almost child’s play when using a drafting machine.

    Please note that I didn’t say that plotting vanishing lines like this is easy, because it has to be done to EVERY vanishing line when the vanishing point is off the board. It can be done, but it’s tedious and can be mentally challenging keeping track of everything until the lines are committed to paper.

    As hidden-vanishing-point perspective drawings get more and more complex, it gets more and more difficult to plot them out. Introducing compound curves to the equation makes it even worse.

    Here’s my example –

    This is an animation still that I created for a multi-image presentation back in 1984. The pen is basically one-point perspective (out of the frame, of course), but the blue surface is a compound curve that we had to realistically imply with proper shading, and the curled green cord was three-point perspective with multiple compound curves. All of that had to be committed to a line drawing first, then separated into distinct elements that I made into solid shapes on many layers of pin-registered Rubylith film, which were then converted into pin-registered positive and negative sheet film, and then photo-composited in-camera with the pin-registered FOROX rostrum camera. The image looks simple to create, but was actually very complex.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow! Highly-complex image, for sure. It must be awesome to have the ability to create something like that. 🙂 I deal with perspective the best I can by (a) just trying, and (b) reminding myself that I probably won’t need to create too many highly-accurate precision drawings. I really only want the ability to occasionally add a barn, maybe a bridge, now and then a row of fenceposts to my landscape paintings and have them appear proportionately correct. What I don’t want is to do any sort of art that would require me to stand at my easel (or a drafting table) marking exact lines, getting every angle precise, and coming away feeling that my drawing is “mechanical”. I think I actually need that little bit of “wonkiness” that comes from imprecision, as long as it’s not so wonky that it’s obviously wrong.

      From time to time maybe — just for fun in my sketchbooks — I’ll do an interior scene. I’ve done a few in the past without fretting too much about proper perspective. Mostly I just try to draw a “straight-on” view that doesn’t require perspective. 🙂 For practice, though, I will do a few buildings now and then, and I do want to get better, but I don’t want to go to the extremes of “exactness”. So is there a place in art for someone like me? Yeah, there is. This is why I love Cezanne’s art, and there’s a post coming up (Sunday, I think) that talks about his approach to perspective.

      I appreciate all of your help with this, and at times, I do sit down with rulers and protractors and work on being “more precise” — as with the checkerboard here:

      But that’s not something I enjoy too much. This is why I so often say that I’m not a “real” artist. I’m just an artist who wants to relax, take it easy, and enjoy what I can create. So, as with perspective studies, I often find myself stuck between just doing things in a casual way and ending up with wonky building and trying for precision and not enjoying it. I’m opting for casual. Doing all my quick projects this summer has really helped me develop that “casual, keep it fun” attitude.

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      1. I forget… have you tried proportional dividers?

        Using proportional dividers to quickly establish proportions for a drawing or sketch is real easy, and gauging the perspective doesn’t take much effort beyond that. It’s been a very long time since I laid down a realistically accurate perspective drawing – most of the time I either roughly measure everything using my pencil at arms length, or use proportional dividers if I want it to look more accurate.

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      2. Uh, no… didn’t even know what “proportional dividers” were. OK… now that I’ve followed the link, I can say that I’ve seen these before but, no, I’ve never tried using them. Definitely something for me to check out! Thank you so much.

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  2. Judith, just for clarification, the horizon is not really at your eye level, but on the direction of the point you are looking (the focus of your eye) then horizontal to that. I.e. if you are looking up the horizon line is higher up, compared to if you are looking down. Thats why I say when people rely on their eyes to get the correct angle of something, the perspective changes as they look at it. It seems to be a universal misunderstood point about the horizon.

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    1. Thanks. This is a principle that I’ve read over and over — horizon line equals eye level — and that’s always been difficult to fully grasp. It helps to think about “looking up” and “looking down”.

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      1. Now, in practice, is a good idea to set the horizon at the eye level, i.e. if you are 6 feet tall and looking straight and not up or down, it would be roughly 6 feet off the ground from which you stand or sit. But its not a rule. If you are good at seeing you peripheral vision, you can maybe get the angles right keeping your eyes fixated. I know, believe me, this subject drives me batty!

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      2. It’s really frustrating for me because I’m so clumsy and uncoordinated when it comes to using any measuring device — like a ruler or compass. I don’t want to create art that is “too precise” — that’s not my style. But neither do I want to create art that’s “too wonky-looking”. I’m trying to find a comfortable approach that works for me without a lot of hair-pulling LOL.

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      3. I think you are headed in the right direction. Just getting it close to correct is probably good enough. Thats what I do. If I try and get every line straight and angle correct, is going towards being ‘tight’ which I do not want. However, nothing wrong with being a very tight and realistic artist…..but not for me. I admire people that can do it, though. Its kind of a left brain vs right brain thing 😊.

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      4. I agree completely! I like to keep my art loose and casual — that’s the style of my whole life. Perfection is definitely over-rated. While I might look in awe at a hyper-realistic drawing or painting, I know it’s nothing I would ever want to do. I’m much more into impressions, illusions, and a bit of imagination when it comes to art.

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