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Common Problems when Drawing Ellipses

What is an ellipse? It’s how artists represent a circle in perspective, and it is a specific arcing form that rests on a plane. There is a specific mathematical explanation, but its is not necessary for our purposes.

Drawing ellipses can present an array of issues that can be easily overcome, however it takes some study and effort to do so.

This post presents many of the major problems associated with drawing accurate ellipses and ellipse forms, as well as offers some suggestions on how to deal with those issues.

The minor axis is the crucial element to set the orientation of your ellipse. The major axis of the ellipse exists based on the minor axis.

Key ellipse features:

  • The ellipse is always perfectly symmetrical across both axes.
  • Minor axis of ellipse is aligned with major axis of form.
  • Major axis of ellipse is perpendicular to minor axis of ellipse.
  • The two caps of a cylinder almost always vary:
    • In 2-pt and 3-pt perspective, the distant ellipse of a cylinder must be smaller and of a larger degree (more “open”).
    • In 1 pt perspective with the cap facing viewer, the distant ellipse will get smaller but maintain the same degree.
    • In 1 pt perspective with the cylinder’s side facing viewer, an ellipse that is farther from eye level or station point than another ellipse will be of a larger degree (more “open”)
  • Concentric ellipses on the same plane have the same degree and share a minor axis, but the inner ellipse must be farther away. This is due to the effect of perspective and the fact that the centers of the ellipses are different from the centers of the circles they represent.

Common mistakes:

  • Drawing the major and minor axis as horizontal and vertical, rather than tilted with the form (minor ellipse axis must align with the forms’ major axis)
  • Drawing the minor axis correctly, but not keeping the major ellipse axis perpendicular to it (this results in tilted or lumpy ellipses)
  • Orienting the axes correctly, but switching them so the major axis (the longer axis) of the ellipse is aligned with the major axis of the form. This results in an oblong shape rather than a circle in perspective.
  • Drawing two ellipses of a form at the same degree, when one should be more open (such as the back of a cylinder in 2-pt perspective).
  • Not making the ellipse symmetrical over both axes

TIP: You can test whether your ellipse is properly aligned by taking a piece of paper and holding the corner of it up the center of your ellipse (on your screen or paper, where the minor and major axis meet). If you have constructed it correctly, the paper should bisect your entire form along the one edge of the paper, and bisect your ellipse on the other edge.

KEY TAKEAWAYS: The ellipse turns with the form, its axes are perpendicular, and multiple ellipses on a form will vary in size and shape based on perspective.

Did you find this helpful? Do you have any of your own tips you’d like to share? I’d love to hear about it if you decide to try something new. If you use it differently, I’d love to hear that, too!

– Laura

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