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How to Find the Vanishing Point in Perspective Drawing

Hey fellow art enthusiasts! As you’re probably aware, figuring out where the vanishing point goes is crucial for drawing perspective, and messing up this simple step can make the whole drawing seem odd. So in this post, I break down what exactly a vanishing point is, how to locate it when drawing perspective, and some tips to ensure you get it right every time.

What exactly is a vanishing point?

The vanishing point in the avenue of poplars by Van Gogh.

A vanishing point is where two or more parallel lines seem to disappear into the horizon. Just like the two sides of a long straight road on a flat terrain are equally distanced from one another, yet they seem to get closer and closer to each other until finally, they appear to merge and disappear in the distance. The point where the two ends of the road disappear is called the vanishing point.

In the context of drawing, it is crucial to know how to locate the vanishing point because we use it to determine the perspective of everything we draw, as I’ll demonstrate in the following sections. But regardless of how objects, people, or scenery are placed in a drawing, the vanishing point always converges on the horizon line, which is basically the same as the eye level.

Finding the vanishing point in the Le Moulin De La Galette by Van Gogh.

So, if you’re drawing something from life, the perspective of everything is directly determined by your eye level. Notice how all parallel lines above the horizon line in the painting converge downwards towards the eye level, whereas the line below converges upwards in the direction of the vanishing point.

Changing your eye level by standing up or sitting down will alter your eye level and, consequently, the perspective of everything you’re drawing. In the next sections, I’ll demonstrate examples of how you can locate the vanishing points in one-point and two-point perspective drawings.

Locating the vanishing point in one-point perspective

One vanishing point in the Rooftops by Van Gogh.

The first step to finding the vanishing point is to mark the eye level or the horizon level on paper. This will always be perfectly horizontal. Marking the horizon line is relatively straightforward if you’re drawing from a photo reference because the horizon line will be evident from its vanishing point, and from there, you can get an idea of where it should go on paper.

However, if you’re drawing from life, you’ll need to consider the scale of your drawing and how you want to frame the scene within the dimensions of the paper.

Marking the horizon line in the lower 1/3 mark would mean that most of your drawing will show what you see above your eye level, and marking it in the top 1/3 mark will mean much of your drawing will consist of everything up to that point. Doing some quick thumbnail sketches to figure out the basic composition can help you determine the framing of the scene if you’re a bit unsure.

If you find it hard to visualize the horizon line in real life, just notice where the parallel lines seem to become straight. For example, when the line of bricks on a wall lines up from where you’re watching without any distorted perspective or by observing the eye level of people at the same postural height as you are (e.g., if you’re standing on ground level, then the horizon line will be roughly the average eye level of people standing at the ground level).

Once the horizon line is marked, the vanishing point can be found by extrapolating any one line in its direction, and where the two lines intersect will be the vanishing point, which can be used to figure out the angles of the remaining lines parallel to the first line.

Locating the vanishing point in two-point perspective

Two vanishing points in the Oaxaca Cathedral by Jose Maria Velasco.

As with the one-point perspective, we start by marking the horizon line. The only difference in finding the vanishing points in two-point perspective is that there are two groups of parallel lines facing different directions.

Using the same strategy, we can extrapolate a single line from each group and see where it connects to the horizon line to determine the two vanishing points in the drawing and figure out the angles of the remaining lines by referencing those.

How many vanishing points can be used in a drawing?

All parallel lines have a single vanishing point, so theoretically, there can be as many vanishing points as the number of parallel line groups with a distinct angle in a drawing.

If you’re drawing, for example, a hilly suburban village with houses and buildings in different directions, there can be hundreds of vanishing points. However, you don’t have to draw each vanishing point in a drawing because that can be very time-consuming.

When drawing a complex scene, it is more efficient to focus on a handful of vanishing points that define the dominating angles and fill out the rest using a bit of intuition.

Some tips for finding the vanishing point

  • It’s okay if the vanishing point seems to exist outside the drawing, but don’t try to force the vanishing point within the drawing area because it would make your drawing look oddly shaped. If you’re drawing traditionally, you can mark the vanishing point by extrapolating the horizon line outside the drawing area. Over time, you do get a good hang of roughly where the vanishing point exists and can use that as a reference point to approximate the perspective without physically extrapolating the horizon line when that happens.
  • It is fine to ignore the vanishing point of perpendicular or vertical lines and draw them straight without any distortion because, in the vast majority of cases, the vertical height of objects, including buildings, is not great enough to distort their perspective unless you’re trying to draw a let’s say a skyscraper from a close range.
  • A great exercise for understanding how the vanishing point works is to draw perspective lines over photos and paintings.
  • If you’re new to perspective drawing, I suggest you read the classic Perspective Made Easy by Ernest R. Norling. I love how it explains the basic concepts of perspective in such a simple way. Highly recommend it for beginners.