The Elusive Ellipse: Drawing Ellipses in Perspective

Any artist can tell you how tricky it is to draw ellipses in perspective. The top of the flower pot, the lid on a jar, the base of the barn silo — whether you prefer drawing a still life or a landscape, you’re bound to encounter this challenge.

What is an ellipse?

Simply put, an ellipse is a foreshortened circle. In geometry, it’s a closed curve, like a circle, but with a long axis and a short axis — an oval.

In terms of perspective drawing, an ellipse is what we see when we view a circle from its edge, rather than from directly overhead.

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Why is drawing an ellipse so challenging?

When drawing an ellipse in perspective, artists commonly make two mistakes:

  1. One is to draw a football shape where the outside edges taper almost to points.
  2. The other is to draw two parallel lines connected with curves at each end.

This happens because most of us try to “eyeball it” in the hopes it’ll be good enough — and it usually isn't. Luckily, there’s an easier and more correct way of getting it just right.

How to draw an ellipse in perspective

To avoid these problems, it helps to think “outside the ellipse.” If you can draw a square in perspective , it’s easy to turn it into an ellipse following these steps.

Step 1:

Most ellipses we encounter are at the top and bottom of cylinders, like glasses, flower pots, barrels and buckets. If you think of the cylinder as being within a box, drawing the top and bottom ellipses becomes much easier.

Draw a box in one- or two-point perspective that's big enough to contain your cylinder. The top and bottom planes of the box will be the location of your ellipses.

Step 2:

We’ll start with the bottom square plane. Using a straightedge, draw diagonal lines connecting each corner to create an X.

Step 3:

Draw a line from the vanishing point through the center of the X all the way to the outside edge of the square.

Then draw another line through the X. This line should be parallel to the front and back edges of the square. In one-point perspective, this line will be horizontal; in two-point perspective, it will recede toward your second vanishing point.

Note: you can't just "eyeball" this step, or you will not have found the true center of the square in perspective.

Step 4:

Now you have a cross shape that perfectly divides your square into four smaller squares in perspective. You can now erase the diagonal lines from your initial X.

Carefully draw your ellipse in the four segments, connecting each point where the cross meets the edges of the square.

This takes some practice, but be patient. It will definitely look better than if you freehand it.

Step 5:

Repeat Steps 2 through 4 on the top plane of your box.

Step 6:

Erase your perspective lines and the vertical lines in your box, being careful not to erase your ellipses!

Step 7:

Using a straightedge, draw vertical lines between the right- and left-most edges of your ellipses. Be careful here — you don't want to simply connect the points where the cross meets the edges of the ellipse, as these aren’t necessarily the outermost edges.

Step 8:

Now you can erase the crosses on both ellipses and the rear curved edge on the bottom ellipse.

Congratulations! You’ve just drawn two perfect ellipses in perspective to make a cylinder, which you can use in still life drawings, landscapes, architectural drawings — you name it.

These steps even work if the ellipse or cylinder is on its edge or on a wall (clocks, mirrors, windows and more)! What will you draw next that includes ellipses?

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Editor's Note: This post was originally published in May 2013 and was updated in January 2018.
January 24, 2018
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The Elusive Ellipse: Drawing Ellipses in Perspective