Linear perspective in painting. Main secrets

Leonardo da Vinci. The Last Supper.

The vast majority of paintings and frescoes over the past 500 years have been created according to the rules of linear perspective. It helps turn 2D space into a 3D image.

This is the main technique that artists use to create the illusion of depth. But the masters did not always follow all the rules of perspective construction.

Let’s take a look at a few masterpieces and see how artists built space using linear perspective at different times. And why they sometimes broke some of its rules.

Leonardo da Vinci. The Last Supper

Leonardo da Vinci. The Last Supper.
Leonardo da Vinci. The Last Supper. 1495-1498. Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazia, Milan. Wikimedia Commons.

During the Renaissance, the principles of direct linear perspective were developed. Before that, artists built space intuitively, by eye. But in the 15th century they learned to build it mathematically exactly.

Leonardo da Vinci at the end of the 15th century already knew perfectly well how to build space on a picture. In his fresco “The Last Supper” we see this.

Perspective lines are easy to draw along the line of the ceiling and curtains. They connect at one vanishing point. The horizon line, or the eye line, passes through this point.

Leonardo da Vinci. The Last Supper (with perspective lines)

When the picture shows the real horizon, the eye line just passes at the junction of heaven and earth. Moreover, it is most often in the area of ​​the heroes’ faces. All this we observe in the Leonardo’s fresco.

The vanishing point is in the area of ​​the face of Christ. And the horizon line runs over his eyes, as well as over the eyes of some of the apostles.

This is an ideal construction of space, built according to the rules of direct linear perspective.

Moreover, this space is centered. The eye line and the vertical line passing through the vanishing point divide the space into 4 equal parts! This structure reflects the worldview of that era with a strong desire for harmony and balance.

Subsequently, such a construction will occur less and less often. For artists, this will seem like a too easy decision. They will also shift the vertical line with the vanishing point. And the horizon will be lowered or raised.

Even if we take a copy of the work of Raphael Morgen, created at the turn of the 18th-19th centuries, we will see that he could not … withstand such centricity and shifted the horizon line higher!

Raphael Morgen. The Last Supper (with perspective lines)
Raphael Morgen. The Last Supper. 1800. Private collection.

But at that time, the construction of space like Leonardo’s was an incredible breakthrough in painting. When everything is verified exactly and perfectly.

So let’s see how space was depicted before Leonardo. And why his Last Supper seemed so special.

Antique Fresco

Antique fresco from the Villa Fannia Sinistora in Boscoreale. 40-50s BC.
Antique fresco from the Villa Fannia Sinistora in Boscoreale. 40-50s BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Wikimedia Commons.

Ancient artists depicted space intuitively, using the so-called observational perspective. This is why we have visible errors. If we draw perspective lines along facades and surfaces, we find as many as three vanishing points and three eye lines.

Ideally, all lines should converge at one point, which is on the same eye line. But since the space was built intuitively, without knowing the mathematical basis, it was just like that.

Antique fresco from the Villa Fannia Sinistora in Boscoreale.

But we can’t say that it hurts the eye. All vanishing points are on the same vertical line. The image is symmetrical and the elements are nearly the same on either side of the vertical. This is what makes the fresco balanced and aesthetically beautiful.

In fact, such an image of space is closer to natural perception. After all, it is difficult to imagine that a person can look at the city landscape from one point, standing still. This is the only way we can see what the mathematical linear perspective offers us.

After all, you can look at the same landscape now while standing, now sitting, now from the balcony of the house. And then the horizon line is lower and higher … This is what we observe in the antique fresco.

But between the antique fresco and Leonardo’s “Last Supper” there is a large layer of art. Iconography.

The space on the icons was depicted differently. I propose to take a look at Rublev’s “Holy Trinity”.

Andrey Rublev. The Holy Trinity

Andrey Rublev. The Holy Trinity. 1425.
Andrey Rublev. The Holy Trinity. 1425. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Wikimedia Commons.

Looking at the icon of Rublev “Holy Trinity”, we immediately notice one feature. The objects in its foreground are clearly depicted NOT according to the rules of direct linear perspective.

If you draw perspective lines at the left footrest, they will connect far beyond the icon. This is the so-called reverse linear perspective. When the farthest part of the object is wider than the closest one.

Andrey Rublev. The Holy Trinity. With perspective lines

But the perspective lines of the footrest on the right will never intersect: they are parallel to each other. This is an axonometric linear perspective, when objects, especially not very elongated in depth, are depicted with sides parallel to each other.

Why did Rublev portray objects like this?

Academician B.V. Rauschenbach in the 80s of the XX century studied the features of human vision and drew attention to one feature. When we stand very close to an object, we perceive it in a slight reverse perspective, or we do not notice any perspective changes.

This means that either the side closest to us seems slightly smaller, or its sides are seen to be the same. This also applies to the observational perspective.

By the way, this is why children often draw in reverse perspective. And they also perceive cartoons with such a space easier! You see: objects from cartoons are depicted in this way.

Fragments from cartoons

This feature of vision was intuitively guessed long before the discovery of Rauschenbach.

So, the master of the XIX century built the space according to all the rules of a linear straight perspective. But pay attention to the rock in the foreground. He is depicted in an easy reverse perspective!

Karl Friedrich Heinrich Werner. Erechtheion, portico of the Caryatids. 1877.
Karl Friedrich Heinrich Werner. Erechtheion, portico of the Caryatids. 1877. Private collection.

The artist uses both direct and reverse perspectives in one work. And in general, Rublev does the same!

If the foreground of the icon is depicted within the framework of an observational perspective, then in the background of the icon the building is depicted according to the rules of … direct perspective!

Therefore, there are two eye lines. We look at the columns and the entrance to the portico from one level (eye line 1). But on the ceiling of the portico – from the other (eye line 2). But this is still a straight forward perspective.

Saint Trinity with eye lines

Now let’s fast forward to the 17th century. By this time, linear perspective was very well understood: more than 100 years have passed since Leonardo. Let’s see how the artists of the era applied it.

Jan Vermeer. Music Lesson

Jan Vermeer. Music Lesson. 1662-1665.
Jan Vermeer. Music Lesson. 1662-1665. Royal Collection at St James’s Palace, London. Wikimedia Commons.

It is clear that the artists of the 17th century were already masterly using linear perspective.

See, the right side of Jan Vermeer’s painting (to the right of the vertical axis) is smaller than the left?

In Leonardo’s “Last Supper” the vertical line is exactly in the middle, while in Vermeer’s work it is already shifting to the right. Therefore, Leonardo’s perspective can be called central, and Vermeer’s perspective – sideways.

Due to this difference, in Vermeer’s work, we see two walls of the room, in Leonardo’s one – three.

Music Lesson with perspective lines

In fact, since the 17th century, rooms have often been depicted in this way, with the help of side linear perspective. Therefore, rooms or halls look more realistic. Leonardo’s centrality is much less common.

But this is not the only difference between the perspectives of Leonardo and Vermeer.

In The Last Supper, we look directly at the table. And there are no other pieces of furniture in the room. And if there was a chair on the side, tilted towards us by an angle? Indeed, in this case, the perspective lines would go somewhere beyond the fresco …The Last Supper with vanishing point

Yes, in any room, everything is usually more complicated than in Leonardo’s one. Therefore, there is also exist a angular perspective.

Leonardo’s space is purely frontal. Its feature is just one vanishing point located within the picture. All perspective lines meet in it.

But in Vermeer’s room we see a standing chair. And if you draw a promising line along the seat, then they will connect somewhere outside the canvas!

Music Lesson by Vermeer with eye lines

Now pay attention to the floor at Vermeer’s work!

If you draw lines along the sides of the squares, then the lines converge … also outside the picture. These lines will have their vanishing points. But! Each of the lines will be on the same horizon/eye line.

Thus, Vermeer connects a frontal perspective with an angular one. And the chair is also shown using angular perspective. And its perspective lines converge at the vanishing point on a single eye line. How mathematically beautiful it is!

Music Lesson by Vermeer with vanishing points

In general, using the eye line and vanishing points it is very easy to draw any floor in a cage. This is the so-called perspective grid. It always turns out very realistic and impressive.

Nikolay Ge. Peter I interrogates Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich in Peterhof.
Nikolay Ge. Peter I interrogates Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich in Peterhof. 1871. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Wikimedia Commons.

From such a floor it is always easy to understand that the picture was painted before the time of Leonardo. Because without knowing how to build a perspective grid, the floor always seems to slide off somewhere. All in all, it seems to be not very realistic.

Robert Campin. Madonna and Child by the fireplace
Robert Campin. Madonna and Child by the fireplace. 1435. Hermitage, St. Petersburg. *.

Now let’s move on to the next, XVIII century.

Jean-Antoine Watteau. The Shop Sign of Gersaint

Jean-Antoine Watteau. Shop Sign of Gersaint. 1720.
Jean-Antoine Watteau. Shop Sign of Gersaint. 1720. Charlottenburg, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

In the 18th century, linear perspective was perfectly mastered. This is clearly illustrated by the example of Watteau’s work.

Perfectly built space. It’s a pleasure to work with such. All perspective lines are connected at one vanishing point.

Jean-Antoine Watteau. Shop Sign of Gersaint (with perspective line)

But there is one very interesting detail in the picture …

Pay attention to the box in the left corner. A gallery worker puts a painting in it for the buyer.

If you draw perspective lines along its two sides, they will connect on … a different eye line!

Indeed, one side of it is at a sharp angle, and the other is almost perpendicular to the eye line. If you saw this, then you will not be able to ignore this oddity.

Jean-Antoine Watteau. Shop Sign of Gersaint (with vanishing points)

So why did the artist go for such an obvious violation of the laws of linear perspective?

Since the days of Leonardo, it has been known that linear perspective can significantly distort the image of objects in the foreground (where perspective lines go to the vanishing point at a particularly acute angle).

It is easy to see this in this 16th century drawing.

Hans Vredemann de Vries. Drawing from the book "Perspective"
Hans Vredemann de Vries. Drawing from the book “Perspective”, 1604.

The bases of the columns on the right are square (with equal sides). But due to the strong slope of the lines of the perspective grid, the illusion is created that they are rectangular! For the same reason, the columns that are round in diameter on the left appear to be ellipsoidal.

In theory, the round tops of the columns on the left should also distort and turn into ellipsoids.

But the artist depicted them as round, using an observational perspective. Watteau went to break the rules. If he did everything right, the drawer would be too narrow at the back.

Shop Sign of Gersaint

Thus, the artists returned to the observational perspective and focused on how the subject would look more organic. And deliberately went to some violations of the rules.

Now let’s move to the 19th century. And this time let’s see how the Russian artist Ilya Repin combined linear and observational perspectives.

Ilya Repin. We didn’t wait

Ilya Repin. We didn’t wait
Ilya Repin. We didn’t wait. 1885. Tretyakov Gallery. Wikimedia Commons.

At first glance, the artist built the space according to the classical scheme. Only the vertical is shifted to the left. And if you remember, artists after Leonardo’s era tried to avoid being over-centered. In this case, it is easier to “place” the heroes along the right wall.

We didn't wait by Repin (with perspective lines)
Pay attention to where the head of the main character, who returned from the man’s exile, ends up. And also the head of his mother, who rose from the chair in surprise at the sight of her son.

Both heads are in the corners formed by the perspective lines and the eye line.

The artist thereby emphasizes the kinship of the heroes. This is obviously a good compositional solution. Repin, with the help of a special arrangement of figures, enhances the drama of what is happening.

Also, see how cleverly Ilya Repin solved the problem of perspective distortion in the lower part of the picture. On the right, he places rounded items. Thus, there is no need to invent anything with angles, as Watteau had to do with his box.

And one more interesting step is made by Repin. If we draw perspective lines along the floorboards, we get something weird!

They will not connect at a single vanishing point!

We didn't wait by Ilya Repin

The artist deliberately opted for an observational perspective. Therefore, the space seems more interesting, not so schematic.

And now we are moving into the XX century. I think that you already guessed that the masters of this century did not particularly stand on ceremony with space. We will be convinced of this using the example of Matisse’s work.

Henri Matisse. Red workshop

Henri Matisse. Red workshop. 1911.
Henri Matisse. Red workshop. 1911. Museum of Modern Art in New York.

At first glance, it is clear that Henri Matisse depicted space in a special way. He clearly departed from the canons formed in the Renaissance. Yes, both Watteau and Repin also made some inaccuracies. But Matisse was clearly pursuing some other goals.

It is immediately striking that Matisse shows some of the objects in a direct perspective (table), and some in reverse (a chair and a chest of drawers).

But the features don’t end there. Let’s draw perspective lines for the table, chair and painting on the left wall.

Henri Matisse. Red workshop (with perspective line)

And then we immediately discover THREE eye lines. One of them goes beyond the picture. There are also THREE verticals!

Why does Matisse complicate things so much?

Please note that the chair initially looks strange. As if we are looking at the upper crossbar of its back from the left. And for the rest – on the right. Now look at the items on the table.

The dish lies as if we are looking at it from above. The pencils are slightly tilted back. But we see the vase and the glass from the side.

We can note the same oddities in the image of the paintings. Those that are hanging look exactly at us. As well as the grandfather clock. But the paintings against the wall are depicted a little from the side, as if we are looking at them from the right corner of the room.

It seems that Matisse did not want us to survey the room from one place, from one angle. He seems to be leading us around the room!

So we went to the table, bent over the dish and examined it. We walked around the chair. Then they went to the far wall and looked at the paintings that hang. Then they dropped their gaze to the left, at the work standing on the floor and so on and so on.

It turns out that Matisse did not violate the linear perspective! He simply depicted space from different angles, from different heights.

Agree, this is mesmerizing. As if the room comes to life, envelops us. And the red color here only enhances this effect. Color helps the space to lure us inside …

It always happens that way. First, the rules are created by some masters. Then others start to break them. At first timidly, and then more and more daringly. But this is not, of course, an end in itself. This helps to convey the attitude of the era. For Leonardo, this is the pursuit of balance and harmony. And for Matisse – movement and a bright world.

Authors: Oxana Kopenkina, Sergey Cherepakhin


If my style of presenting information is close to you and you are interested in studying art, I can send you a free series of lessons to your email. For this, please fill in a simple form at this link.

Go to home page

Links to reproductions:

Robert Campin. Madonna and Child by the fireplace:

2 thoughts on “Linear perspective in painting. Main secrets”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: