AskDefine | Define foreshortening

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A technique for creating the appearance that the object of a drawing is extending into space by shortening the lines with which that object is drawn.


  1. present participle of foreshorten

Extensive Definition

Perspective (from Latin perspicere, to see through) in the graphic arts, such as drawing, is an approximate representation, on a flat surface (such as paper), of an image as it is perceived by the eye. The two most characteristic features of perspective are that objects are drawn:
  • Smaller as their distance from the observer increases
  • Foreshortened: the size of an object's dimensions along the line of sight are relatively shorter than dimensions across the line of sight (see later).

Basic concept

Perspective works by representing the light that passes from a scene through an imaginary rectangle (the painting or photograph), to the viewer's eye. It is similar to a viewer looking through a window and painting what is seen directly onto the windowpane. If viewed from the same spot as the windowpane was painted, the painted image would be identical to what was seen through the unpainted window. Each painted object in the scene is a flat, scaled down version of the object on the other side of the window. Because each portion of the painted object lies on the straight line from the viewer's eye to the equivalent portion of the real object it represents, the viewer cannot perceive (sans depth perception) any difference between the painted scene on the windowpane and the view of the real scene.

Related concepts

Some concepts that are commonly associated with perspective include:
All perspective drawings assume a viewer is a certain distance away from the drawing. Objects are scaled relative to that viewer. Additionally, an object is often not scaled evenly: a circle often appears as an ellipse and a square can appear as a trapezoid. This distortion is referred to as foreshortening.
Perspective drawings typically have an—often implied—horizon line. This line, directly opposite the viewer's eye, represents objects infinitely far away. They have shrunk, in the distance, to the infinitesimal thickness of a line. It is analogous to (and named after) the Earth's horizon.
Any perspective representation of a scene that includes parallel lines has one or more vanishing points in a perspective drawing. A one-point perspective drawing means that the drawing has a single vanishing point, usually (though not necessarily) directly opposite the viewer's eye and usually (though not necessarily) on the horizon line. All lines parallel with the viewer's line of sight recede to the horizon towards this vanishing point. This is the standard "receding railroad tracks" phenomenon. A two-point drawing would have lines parallel to two different angles. Any number of vanishing points are possible in a drawing, one for each set of parallel lines that are at an angle relative to the plane of the drawing. A master in this thing was Johannes Vermeer
Perspectives consisting of many parallel lines are observed most often when drawing architecture (architecture frequently uses lines parallel to the x, y, and z axes). Because it is rare to have a scene consisting solely of lines parallel to the three Cartesian axes (x, y, and z), it is rare to see perspectives in practice with only one, two, or three vanishing points; even a simple house frequently has a peaked roof which results in a minimum of six sets of parallel lines, in turn corresponding to up to six vanishing points.
In contrast, natural scenes often do not have any sets of parallel lines. Such a perspective would thus have no vanishing points.


Early history

Before perspective, paintings and drawings typically sized objects and characters according to their spiritual or thematic importance, not with distance. Especially in Medieval art, art was meant to be read as a group of symbols, rather than seen as a coherent picture. The only method to show distance was by overlapping characters. Overlapping alone made poor drawings of architecture; medieval paintings of cities are a hodgepodge of lines in every direction. With the exception of dice, heraldry typically ignores perspective in the treatment of charges, though sometimes in later centuries charges are specified as in perspective.
Perspective perhaps first entered mainstream artistic use around the 5th century B.C. in ancient Greece in the subject of skenographia: using a flat panel on a stage to give the illusion of depth. The philosophers Anaxagoras and Democritus worked out geometric theories of perspective for use with skenographia. Alcibiades had paintings in his house designed based on skenographia, thus this art was not confined merely to the stage. Euclid's Optics introduced a mathematical theory of perspective; however, there is some debate over the extent to which Euclid's perspective coincides with a modern mathematical definition of perspective.
Some of the paintings found in the ruins of Pompeii show a remarkable realism and perspective for their time.
A clearly modern optical basis of perspective was given in 1021, when Alhazen, an Iraqi physicist and mathematician, in his Book of Optics, explained that light projects conically into the eye. This was, theoretically, enough to translate objects convincingly onto a painting, but Alhalzen was concerned only with optics, not with painting. Conical translations are mathematically difficult, so a drawing constructed using them would be incredibly time consuming.
The artist Giotto di Bondone attempted drawings in perspective using an algebraic method to determine the placement of distant lines. The problem with using a linear ratio in this manner is that the apparent distance between a series of evenly spaced lines actually falls off with a sine dependence. To determine the ratio for each succeeding line, a recursive ratio must be used. This was not discovered until the 20th Century, in part by Erwin Panofsky.
One of Giotto's first uses of his algebraic method of perspective was Jesus Before the Caïf. Although the picture does not conform to the modern, geometrical method of perspective, it does give a decent illusion of depth, and was a large step forward in Western art.

Mathematical basis

One hundred years later, in about 1415, Filippo Brunelleschi demonstrated the geometrical method of perspective, used today by artists, by painting the outlines of various Florentine buildings onto a mirror. When the building's outline was continued, he noticed that all of the lines converged on the horizon line. According to Vasari, he then set up a demonstration of his painting of the Baptistry in the incomplete doorway of the Duomo. He had the viewer look through a small hole on the back of the painting, facing the Baptistry. He would then set up a mirror, facing the viewer, which reflected his painting. To the viewer, the painting of the Baptistry and the Baptistry itself were nearly indistinguishable.
Soon after, nearly every artist in Florence used geometrical perspective in their paintings, notably Donatello, who started sculpting elaborate checkerboard floors into the simple manger portrayed in the birth of Christ. Although hardly historically accurate, these checkerboard floors obeyed the primary laws of geometrical perspective: all lines converged to a vanishing point, and the rate at which the horizontal lines receded into the distance was graphically determined. This became an integral part of Quattrocento art. Not only was perspective a way of showing depth, it was also a new method of composing a painting. Paintings began to show a single, unified scene, rather than a combination of several.
As shown by the quick proliferation of accurate perspective paintings in Florence, Brunelleschi likely understood (with help from his friend the mathematician Toscanelli), but did not publish, the mathematics behind perspective. Decades later, his friend Leon Battista Alberti wrote Della Pittura, a treatise on proper methods of showing distance in painting. Alberti's primary breakthrough was not to show the mathematics in terms of conical projections, as it actually appears to the eye. Instead, he formulated the theory based on planar projections, or how the rays of light, passing from the viewer's eye to the landscape, would strike the picture plane (the painting). He was then able to calculate the apparent height of a distant object using two similar triangles. The mathematics behind similar triangles is relatively simple, having been long ago formulated by Euclid. In viewing a wall, for instance, the first triangle has a vertex at the user's eye, and vertices at the top and bottom of the wall. The bottom of this triangle is the distance from the viewer to the wall. The second, similar triangle, has a point at the viewer's eye, and has a length equal to the viewer's eye from the painting. The height of the second triangle can then be determined through a simple ratio, as proven by Euclid.
Piero della Francesca elaborated on Della Pittura in his De Prospectiva Pingendi in 1474. Alberti had limited himself to figures on the ground plane and giving an overall basis for perspective. Della Francesca fleshed it out, explicitly covering solids in any area of the picture plane. Della Francesca also started the now common practice of using illustrated figures to explain the mathematical concepts, making his treatise easier to understand than Alberti's. Della Francesca was also the first to accurately draw the Platonic solids as they would appear in perspective.
Perspective remained, for a while, the domain of Florence. Jan van Eyck, among others, was unable to create a consistent structure for the converging lines in paintings, as in London's The Arnolfini Portrait, because he was unaware of the theoretical breakthrough just then occurring in Italy.

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci distrusted Brunelleschi's formulation of perspective because it failed to take into account the appearance of objects held very close to the eye. He built his understanding of perspective not only upon the rigid formulations of rays of light, but what he directly observed. His understanding of perspective thus took in not only the light, but the air it traveled through. He believed that the way an object's color seemed to change with distance, and the way an object's borders become indistinct with distance, are primary parts of perspective.
Leonardo believed that understanding perspective was crucial to painting and drawing, as illustrated in the following statement; "Practice must always be built upon strong theory, of which perspective is the signpost and the gateway, and without perspective nothing can be done well in the matter of painting". The technique of painting objects in the distance with soft, cool colors is called aerial perspective.

Computer graphics

3-D computer games and ray-tracers often use a modified version of perspective. Like the painter, the computer program is generally not concerned with every ray of light that is in a scene. Instead, the program simulates rays of light traveling backwards from the monitor (one for every pixel), and checks to see what it hits. In this way, the program does not have to compute the trajectories of millions of rays of light that pass from a light source, hit an object, and miss the viewer.
CAD software, and some computer games (especially games using 3-D polygons) use linear algebra, and in particular matrix multiplication, to create a sense of perspective. The scene is a set of points, and these points are projected to a plane (computer screen) in front of the view point (the viewer's eye). The problem of perspective is simply finding the corresponding coordinates on the plane corresponding to the points in the scene. By the theories of linear algebra, a matrix multiplication directly computes the desired coordinates, thus bypassing any descriptive geometry theorems used in perspective drawing.


Of the many types of perspective drawings, the most common categorizations of artificial perspective are one-, two- and three-point. The names of these categories refer to the number of vanishing points in the perspective drawing.

One-point perspective

One vanishing point is typically used for roads, railroad tracks, or buildings viewed so that the front is directly facing the viewer. Any objects that are made up of lines either directly parallel with the viewer's line of sight or directly perpendicular (the railroad slats) can be represented with one-point perspective.
One-point perspective exists when the painting plate (also known as the picture plane) is parallel to two axes of a rectilinear (or Cartesian) scene — a scene which is composed entirely of linear elements that intersect only at right angles. If one axis is parallel with the picture plane, then all elements are either parallel to the painting plate (either horizontally or vertically) or perpendicular to it. All elements that are parallel to the painting plate are drawn as parallel lines. All elements that are perpendicular to the painting plate converge at a single point (a vanishing point) on the horizon.


Two-point perspective

Two-point perspective can be used to draw the same objects as one-point perspective, rotated: looking at the corner of a house, or looking at two forked roads shrink into the distance, for example. One point represents one set of parallel lines, the other point represents the other. Looking at a house from the corner, one wall would recede towards one vanishing point, the other wall would recede towards the opposite vanishing point.
Two-point perspective exists when the painting plate is parallel to a Cartesian scene in one axis (usually the z-axis) but not to the other two axes. If the scene being viewed consists solely of a cylinder sitting on a horizontal plane, no difference exists in the image of the cylinder between a one-point and two-point perspective.

Three-point perspective

Three-point perspective is usually used for buildings seen from above (or below). In addition to the two vanishing points from before, one for each wall, there is now one for how those walls recede into the ground. This third vanishing point will be below the ground. Looking up at a tall building is another common example of the third vanishing point. This time the third vanishing point is high in space.
Three-point perspective exists when the perspective is a view of a Cartesian scene where the picture plane is not parallel to any of the scene's three axes. Each of the three vanishing points corresponds with one of the three axes of the scene. Image constructed using multiple vanishing points.
One-point, two-point, and three-point perspectives appear to embody different forms of calculated perspective. The methods required to generate these perspectives by hand are different. Mathematically, however, all three are identical: The difference is simply in the relative orientation of the rectilinear scene to the viewer.

Zero-point perspective

Due to the fact that vanishing points exist only when parallel lines are present in the scene, a perspective without any vanishing points ("zero-point" perspective) occurs if the viewer is observing a nonlinear scene. The most common example of a nonlinear scene is a natural scene (e.g., a mountain range) which frequently does not contain any parallel lines. A perspective without vanishing points can still create a sense of "depth," as is clearly apparent in a photograph of a mountain range (more distant mountains have smaller scale features).

Other varieties of linear perspective

One-point, two-point, and three-point perspective are dependent on the structure of the scene being viewed. These only exist for strict Cartesian (rectilinear) scenes. By inserting into a Cartesian scene a set of parallel lines that are not parallel to any of the three axes of the scene, a new distinct vanishing point is created. Therefore, it is possible to have an infinite-point perspective if the scene being viewed is not a Cartesian scene but instead consists of infinite pairs of parallel lines, where each pair is not parallel to any other pair.

Methods of construction

Several methods of constructing perspectives exist, including:
  • Freehand sketching (common in art)
  • Graphically constructing (once common in architecture)
  • Using a perspective grid
  • Computing a perspective transform (common in 3D computer applications)
  • Mimicry using tools such as a proportional divider (sometimes called a variscaler)


One of the most common, and earliest, uses of geometrical perspective is a checkerboard floor. It is a simple but striking application of one-point perspective. Many of the properties of perspective drawing are used while drawing a checkerboard. The checkerboard floor is, essentially, just a combination of a series of squares. Once a single square is drawn, it can be widened or subdivided into a checkerboard. Where necessary, lines and points will be referred to by their colors in the diagram.
To draw a square in perspective, the artist starts by drawing a horizon line (black) and determining where the vanishing point (green) should be. The higher up the horizon line, the lower the viewer will appear to be looking, and vice versa. The more off-center the vanishing point, the more tilted the square will be. Because the square is made up of right angles, the vanishing point should be directly in the middle of the horizon line. A rotated square is drawn using two-point perspective, with each set of parallel lines leading to a different vanishing point.
The foremost edge of the (orange) square is drawn near the bottom of the painting. Because the viewer's picture plane is parallel to the bottom of the square, this line is horizontal. Lines connecting each side of the foremost edge to the vanishing point are drawn (in grey). These lines give the basic, one point "railroad tracks" perspective. The closer it is the horizon line, the farther away it is from the viewer, and the smaller it will appear. The farther away from the viewer it is, the closer it is to being perpendicular to the picture plane.
A new point (the eye) is now chosen, on the horizon line, either to the left or right of the vanishing point. The distance from this point to the vanishing point represents the distance of the viewer from the drawing. If this point is very far from the vanishing point, the square will appear squashed, and far away. If it is close, it will appear stretched out, as if it is very close to the viewer.
A line connecting this point to the opposite corner of the square is drawn. Where this (blue) line hits the side of the square, a horizontal line is drawn, representing the farthest edge of the square. The line just drawn represents the ray of light travelling from the viewer's eye to the farthest edge of the square. This step is key to understanding perspective drawing. The light that passes through the picture plane obviously can not be traced. Instead, lines that represent those rays of light are drawn on the picture plane. In the case of the square, the side of the square also represents the picture plane (at an angle), so there is a small shortcut: when the line hits the side of the square, it has also hit the appropriate spot in the picture plane. The (blue) line is drawn to the opposite edge of the foremost edge because of another shortcut: since all sides are the same length, the foremost edge can stand in for the side edge.
Original formulations used, instead of the side of the square, a vertical line to one side, representing the picture plane. Each line drawn through this plane was identical to the line of sight from the viewer's eye to the drawing, only rotated around the y-axis ninety degrees. It is, conceptually, an easier way of thinking of perspective. It can be easily shown that both methods are mathematically identical, and result in the same placement of the farthest side (see Panofsky).


Foreshortening refers to the visual effect or optical illusion that an object or distance is shorter than it actually is because it is angled toward the viewer.
In art, the term "foreshortening" is often used synonymously with perspective, even though foreshortening can occur in other types of non-perspective drawing representations (such as oblique parallel projection).
Although foreshortening is an important element in art where visual perspective is being depicted, foreshortening occurs in other types of two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional scenes. Some other types where foreshortening can occur include oblique parallel projection drawings.
Figure F1 shows two different projections of a stack of two cubes, illustrating oblique parallel projection foreshortening ("A") and perspective foreshortening ("B").

Other topics

The following topics are not critical to understanding perspective, but provide some additional information related to perspectives.


Plato was one of the first to discuss the problems of perspective. "Thus (through perspective) every sort of confusion is revealed within us; and this is that weakness of the human mind on which the art of conjuring and of deceiving by light and shadow and other ingenious devices imposes, having an effect upon us like magic... And the arts of measuring and numbering and weighing come to the rescue of the human understanding-there is the beauty of them --and the apparent greater or less, or more or heavier, no longer have the mastery over us, but give way before calculation and measure and weight?"
The essence of perspective is to show things as they appear, not as they are. Because of this, a number of problems can arise. As comics theorist Scott McCloud put it, "Western perspective works fine most of the time, but all you need to do to see its limitations is to stand on a set of train tracks. The lines appear to converge on the horizon like they're supposed to, but if you look down you see the tracks curve around your feet and meet up again on the other side!"
Perspective images are calculated assuming a particular vanishing point. In order for the resulting image to appear identical to the original scene, a viewer of the perspective must view the image from the exact vantage point used in the calculations relative to the image. This cancels out what would appear to be distortions in the image when viewed from a different point. These apparent distortions are more pronounced away from the center of the image as the angle between a projected ray (from the scene to the eye) becomes more acute relative to the picture plane. In practice, unless the viewer chooses an extreme angle, like looking at it from the bottom corner of the window, the perspective normally looks more or less correct. This is referred to as "Zeeman's Paradox." It has been suggested that a drawing in perspective still seems to be in perspective at other spots because we still perceive it as a drawing, because it lacks depth of field cues.
For a typical perspective, however, the field of view is narrow enough (often only 60 degrees) that the distortions are similarly minimal enough that the image can be viewed from a point other than the actual calculated vantage point without appearing significantly distorted. When a larger angle of view is required, the standard method of projecting rays onto a flat picture plane becomes impractical. As a theoretical maximum, the field of view of a flat picture plane must be less than 180 degrees (as the field of view increases towards 180 degrees, the required breadth of the picture plane approaches infinity).
In order to create a projected ray image with a large field of view, one can project the image onto a curved surface. In order to have a large field of view horizontally in the image, a surface that is a vertical cylinder (i.e., the axis of the cylinder is parallel to the z-axis) will suffice (similarly, if the desired large field of view is only in the vertical direction of the image, a horizontal cylinder will suffice). A cylindrical picture surface will allow for a projected ray image up to a full 360 degrees in either the horizontal or vertical dimension of the perspective image (depending on the orientation of the cylinder). In the same way, by using a spherical picture surface, the field of view can be a full 360 degrees in any direction (note that for a spherical surface, all projected rays from the scene to the eye intersect the surface at a right angle).
Just as a standard perspective image must be viewed from the calculated vantage point for the image to appear identical to the true scene, a projected image onto a cylinder or sphere must likewise be viewed from the calculated vantage point for it to be precisely identical to the original scene. If an image projected onto a cylindrical surface is "unrolled" into a flat image, different types of distortions occur: For example, many of the scenes straight lines will be drawn as curves. An image projected onto a spherical surface can be flattened in various ways, including:
  • an image equivalent to an unrolled cylinder
  • a portion of the sphere can be flattened into an image equivalent to a standard perspective
  • an image similar to a fisheye photograph

See also



  • The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat
  • Architectural Representation and the Perspective Hinge
  • The Origin of Perspective, Translated by John Goodman
  • Brunelleschi in Perspective
  • Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art
  • The Lives of the Artists ">}}
foreshortening in Persian: ژرفانمایی (گرافیک)
foreshortening in Arabic: منظور
foreshortening in Bulgarian: Перспектива
foreshortening in German: Perspektive
foreshortening in Spanish: Perspectiva
foreshortening in French: Perspective (représentation)
foreshortening in Korean: 원근법
foreshortening in Italian: Proiezioni centrali o prospettiva
foreshortening in Hebrew: פרספקטיבה
foreshortening in Lithuanian: Perspektyva
foreshortening in Macedonian: Перспектива
foreshortening in Dutch: Lijnperspectief
foreshortening in Japanese: 遠近法
foreshortening in Norwegian: Perspektiv (kunst)
foreshortening in Polish: Perspektywa
foreshortening in Portuguese: Perspectiva (gráfica)
foreshortening in Russian: Перспектива
foreshortening in Finnish: Perspektiivi
foreshortening in Swedish: Perspektiv
foreshortening in Tamil: இயலுறு தோற்றப் படம்
foreshortening in Thai: การเขียนแบบทัศนียภาพ
foreshortening in Turkish: Perspektif
foreshortening in Ukrainian: Аксонометрія
foreshortening in Chinese: 透视
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