Class Activities on Perspective Drawing and Projective Geometry
Leonardo Da Vinci and Brook Taylor
researched the question of how to find the viewing distance of a painting,
and Taylor's 1715 work was published in
Linear Perspective: Or, a New Method of Representing Justly All
Manner of Objects as They Appear to the Eye in All Situations London:
Calculating the Viewing Distance for
Interior of Antwerp Cathedral, by Peter Neeffs the Elder, 1651
In the figure below, we see
the trick applied to finding the viewpoint for the
Interior of Antwerp Cathedral painting.
We first determine the vanishing point V directly in front of us,
which is easy to see, as
it is the intersection of lines which are supposed to be parallel
in the real-world. Some of the lines have been drawn in below
in order to highlight V.
Notice that lines that follow along the edges (coming from us towards
V) of the square tiles of
the floor also intersect at V.
Since the floor tiles are squares, they serve the same purpose as the square
top of the cube in the previous discussion.
Hence, our second point V' is calculated by following along a diagonal
(indicated on the picture) that follows along the vertices of the
If we had chosen the diagonals of other square tiles, we still would have
converged to V', or to a point V'' on the other side of V that is
also d units away from V.
In either case,
the viewing distance d
is the indicated length,
and the correct viewpoint is directly in front of the main
vanishing point V.
Although it is not possible to tell by viewing this small reproduction of
Interior of Antwerp Cathedral,
the effect of viewing the actual painting
in the Indianapolis Museum of Art gives a surprising sensation of
depth, of being "in" the cathedral.
The viewing distance is only about 24 inches, so most viewers never view
the painting from the best spot for the sensation of depth!
Come One - Come All - to a Better Cube
Measure the viewing distance d with your fingers.
Turn hour hand 90 degrees so that the distance is now in front of V.
Move until your left eye is exactly d units directly in front of V,
close the other eye,
and let your left eye roll down to the box.
The rectangular distortion should go away
and it should look much more like a cube!
Using Mathematics to Create Precise Perspective Drawings and Computer
Mathematicians and artists found the
precise mathematical rules for perspective drawing.
Understanding just a little bit about these rules can help us
understand art and computer animation.
A viewer's eye is located at the point E=(0,0,-d)
in the (x,y,z) coordinate
system located in 3-space (ie x=0, y=0, z=-d).
Notice that just one eye is used.
Out in the real world is an object,
represented by a vase here. As light rays from points on the object
(such as the point P(x,y,z) on the vase) travel in straight lines to the
viewer's eye, they pierce the picture plane (the x-y plane where z=0),
and we imagine them
leaving behind appropriately colored dots, such
as the point P'(x',y',0).
The collection of all projection points P'
comprise the perspective image (the
perspective drawing) of the object.
Given a point (x,y,z) of a
real-life object with z > 0,
the projections of these real-life 3D vase coordinates onto the
2D sheet (the perspective drawing coordinates)
are given by the mathematical formulas.
x' = (d x) / (z+d)
y' = (d y) / (z+d)
where d is the distance from the viewer's eye at (0,0,-d)
to the picture plane (z=0).
Hence, given a real-life 3-D object,
the artist will draw x' and y' on their 2-D sheet.
Suppose the viewer is 3 units from the picture
plane. If P(2,4,5) is a point on an object we wish to paint, find
the picture plane coordinates (x', y') of the perspective image of
As a second example, we might want to make a perspective drawing
of a real-life Christmas tree.
We first put a dot at the image (x',y') of
a point (x,y,z) where the coordinates of
x' and y' are given by the perspective theorem as above.
Then we continue to trace all possible such lines, accumulating
all possible points P' associated with our original object.
Once we have done this,
we will end up with a perspective drawing of our Christmas tree.
We have d=3, x=2, y=4, z=5. Thus
x'=(d x) / (z+d) = (3*2)/(5+3)=6/8=3/4 and
y'=(d y) / (z+d) =(3*4)/(5+3)=12/8=3/2.
Perspective Drawings on a Computer
We are going to make the computer create a perspective drawing of a house
by using the above equations.
Download and open this
Excel file using the program with the green X.
You will see a chart that is partly filled in with
real-life x, y and z
coordinates of a house (in columns A, B and C, respectively).
We will use the viewing distance of 15 (as in column D)
to calculate x' and y', and create a perspective drawing of it in Excel.
So, we want to mathematically project
the three dimensional house onto the
mathematically precise perspective image in the plane (where we can draw it).
So, we want to transform x, y and z to new coordinates
x'=(d x)/(z+d) and y'=(d y) /(z+d).
We will make Excel do these formulas for us!.
To transform x to x', click on E2 in the Excel sheet
(row 2, column E).
The Excel formula for x' that you should type in is:
so type this formula (on the above line)
into E2 and hit return. You should now see -1.875.
Click on E2 again.
At the bottom right corner of E2 scroll until you get a square
with arrows which looks like .
Then click, hold down, and
fill down the Excel column by scrolling down and releasing in E18. The number
you will see there is -2.7631579.
What Excel formula should we use in F2
corresponding to y'=(d y)/(z+d)?
Enter your forumula into F2 and hit return. You should now see -2.8125.
At the bottom corner of F2 click until you get a square with
arrows. Then fill down the Excel column and release in F18. The number
you will see there is .39473684.
To draw our house, click on the grey E box, so that that column
is highlighted. Then hold down the shift key while you click on the
grey F box, so that both the E and F columns are now highlighted.
Under Insert, release on Chart. Then click on XY (Scatter)
and then on Finish. Now we have our mathematical drawing, but it doesn't
look very impressive. Some of the points of the house are behind our
viewpoint, and are only there if we want to change our view (like by making
the house rotate).
To see the final picture, all we would have
to do is connect the dots and shade in the figure,
as in the image below
Digital animations such as
use many more rows of Excel. The full-body version of
this Yoda uses 53,756 vertices!
Models created by Kecskemeti B. Zoltan and visualized by T. Chartier. Images courtesy of Lucasfilm LTD as on
the Force of Math in Star Wars
from Marc Frantz's Mathematics and Art.