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Art Masterclass - 95



Perspective made easy

Winston Oh

In order to convince the viewer that the landscape being viewed within the frame of the picture is receding further and further into the distance, we use perspective. This abstract term is further divided into two equally abstract categories: linear perspective and aerial perspective and they complement each other. Linear perspective is concerned with visual eye-lines that are most useful in paintings of townscapes involving buildings, roads and figures. Aerial perspective is more often applied in landscapes.

Linear perspective

Perspective lines, pencil sketch on cartridge paper, (15x23cm)

The vanishing point in the middle of the bridge corresponds with the sight line of the viewer looking straight ahead. That is why all the heads of the figures are at approximately the same level because the viewer is the same height as the average height of the figures

In the pencil sketch (above) I am looking down a straight road towards a bridge at the horizon. There is a long row of trees of the same height along one side of the road, and a railway track runs beside the road. On the other side is a row of telephone poles of the same height. I perceive the tops of the trees, the railway track, the telephone poles and indeed the road, are all visually tapering and converging to a point in the horizon – the vanishing point.

Because structures are all running parallel to the road they share a common vanishing point. If the line of telephone poles were running at an angle to the road, there would be a separate vanishing point – the further away, the greater the angle to the road. At a distance, the vanishing point may for practical purposes be at the horizon. Do take note of the clouds in the sky which obey the same perspective principle and are thinner as they near the horizon. If you wish to convey to the viewer that the object in your painting is at the distant horizon, you will achieve that in large measure if you follow the perspective lines as described above.

To complete the illusion, the railway sleepers should be spaced closer and closer together, and progressively narrower towards the distance, just as the telephone poles become shorter and closer. If there are lots of pedestrians on the road, they should become progressively smaller the further they are along the road, but remember that the head level of the nearest figure should remain the same as the furthest. The reason is that they are viewed from your eye level, which is roughly the same as theirs. The same perspective principles are applied to drawing buildings to give the impression that they are three-dimensional. Most artists rely on direct observation to measure and draw buildings; they only rely on perspective lines to check if their drawings are accurate.

Burford Church, Cotswolds, watercolour, (28x38cm)

In this scene the buildings are the right shapes and proportions, thanks to accurate perspective, as indicated by the superimposed perspective lines. Note that the heads of the figures near and far (except for the hunched old lady), are at the same level

Aerial perspective

Salvia, Wisley Gardens, Surrey, watercolour (30x45.5in)

The distant trees have been treated with a good dose of aerial perspective by rendering them blue-grey to push them into the far distance. The large right-hand tree has fuzzy edges. In the middle distance there are no details in the flower beds. More distinct flower shapes are confined to the area around the water-feature. The warmer brown colours are also only present in the foreground. Finally, the small scale of the figures implies that they are a long way from the water feature, the size of which can be estimated from the size of the flowers around it

This is concerned with the use of colour and tones to create an illusion of nearness and distance. Distant mountains and hills usually appear to be blue-grey or blue in colour and are often hazy in appearance. This is because we see through a layer of moisture and dust in the atmosphere, which is densest near the horizon. The water in the atmosphere exerts a prismatic effect on the light beams, refracting and scattering the colours and allowing mostly the blues to be visible from a distance. The dust in the atmosphere causes the haziness. By contrast, reds and browns are warm colours, which are more visible in the near distance. Thus aerial perspective is in play when the landscape artist deliberately paints distant objects such as mountains, forests, trees in blue-grey, and close-up objects and foregrounds in browns and brown-green or red. Green and yellow are mid-way, and can be unaltered in the middle distance. Furthermore, distant objects could be rendered hazy in outline as in Salvia, Wisley Gardens, Surrey, (above) whilst near objects should have more distinct outlines and silhouettes as they are more in focus. Distant objects have lighter tones and little tonal contrast, in addition to their hazy appearance, thanks to the dust in the air and to the limits of our visual acuity. Middle distance objects should have middle range tones, and near objects are rendered more prominent by stronger tonal contrast, and more distinct outline – see River Yealm Estuary Devon (below).

River Yealm Estuary, Devon, watercolour, (30.5x45.5cm)

All three elements of aerial perspective are in play here. Colour: note how much recession is created in the hills by the progression from soft green to successively bluer foliage in the distant blue hilltop. Tone: the soft tones in the hills contrast with the strong and warm tones of the foreground rocks, with the mid-tone greens in the middle distance. Definition: the hazy distant hills (partly due to morning mist), contrast with the sharp distinct edges of the trees, rocks and nearer boats

In conclusion, the illusion of depth and recession can be created by employing accurate linear perspective, supplemented with the appropriate use of colours (cool and warm colours), tones (light and dark) and definition (hazy or distinct).

Beside Scuola di San Rocco, Venice, watercolour, (38x28cm)

This is a situation in which perspective has to be correct. In such close quarters, the angles are much steeper than one customarily encounters, and errors tend to be more obvious. This composition was drawn by direct observation and the superimposed perspective lines show that they are mostly correct, but the line of the upper right windows is almost but not quite correct! The size of the figure and its position halfway into the alley, together with the considerably smaller scale of the church, in lighter tones, all contribute to the illusion of depth and recession


  • The application of perspective enables landscape artists to create the illusion of three-dimensional images on a two-dimensional painting surface.
  • Linear perspective refers to the application of visual sightlines that help us to draw buildings and other structures in three dimensions and to depict structures and figures that are at different distances from the viewer to appear to be receding further into the picture.
  • It is not necessary to draw perspective lines for every structure or composition. Accurate observation is usually sufficient to get the perspective right. It is only when a composition does not look quite right that you should check the perspective lines.
  • Do remember that linear perspective should also be applied to clouds in the sky. If there are many clouds they should become progressively thinner the lower they are in the sky, as they recede into the distance.
  • Aerial perspective is equally useful in creating this illusion, and is more often employed in landscape painting. The sense of distance and recession can be promoted by colour: cool colours for distant and warm colours for near; tones: light in the distance and strong contrast near; and definition: hazy distant and distinct near. Use your artistic licence liberally!

To read Winston Oh's tips for achieving brilliant light in watercolour please click here

This feature is taken from the August 2014 issue of The Artist

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