How to Draw an Ellipse, Really

Drawing an ellipse, where A is the minor axis, and B is the major axis.

So you want to learn how to draw an ellipse? I am glad you are here! Learning to draw an ellipse has been a journey for me (spoiler alert: it is a lot harder than it seems to draw it really well). So I hope I can help make it much easier for you! Why is it hard to draw an ellipse? Drawing a good, realistic ellipse requires knowledge of certain subtleties in perspective.

What is an ellipse anyways? What are the degrees of an ellipse? What are the minor and major axes of the ellipse? Let’s answer these questions below! But before we dive in, if you want a one-sentence answer on how to draw an ellipse, here you go:

To draw an ellipse, identify the minor and major axis of the ellipse, measure out equal distances from the intersection of these lines, and visualize an ellipse outline through the measured markers. With that visual in mind, trace out an ellipse with special attention to the overall look and direction of your line.

Above is a description, but below I will provide visual examples as well.

What is an ellipse? Specifically, what is an ellispe when it comes to drawing?

Practice ellipses by Gvaat

An ellipse is an oval shape with the major and minor axis crossing it at the center. The major and minor axis are two straight lines that are always at a 90-degree angle to each other. They divide the ellipse into four equal parts.

The major and minor axes of an ellipse are always at the right angles to one another. The axis connects at the ellipse’s longest dimension, and the minor axis connects the ellipse at its shortest dimension.

The four parts are identical in shape! The elongation of an ellipse is measured by its eccentricity, a number ranging from 0 to 1. At 0 the ellipse is a circle. Depending on the angle (or perspective) a circle shape (like a bottom of a cylinder) will have an eccentricity value of somewhere between 0 and 1. The lower the eccentricity the more circular the ellipse, the higher, the more elongated the ellipse/oval becomes. Another way to measure eccentricity is the degree of the ellipse. The lower the degree the more elongated the ellipse, the higher (up to a 90-degree angle) the more an ellipse looks like a circle. More on this below.

Degrees of an ellipse. What are the degrees of an ellispe?

When you look at a circle at a certain angle (degree), it will show up as an ellipse. This angle (degree) changes as the circle approaches the horizon line (eye level line) in perspective. (Which is another way of saying, the shape of an ellipse changes as the angle of view changes).

At a 90 degree angle – meaning looking at something straight on, you will see a circle. As you turn away from the circle (or as you turn the circle away from you) the angle changes. The smaller the angle (or degree) the flatter the ellipse becomes. So the degree describes how thin or wide the ellipse is, same as eccentricity.

What are the minor and major axis of the ellipse?

So we know that the major and minor axes are very important. They’re very important because they are defining of the shape of the ellipse. And they are also defining the symmetry of the ellipse. The minor axis divides the ellipse at its shortest dimension, crossing its center. It also serves as the central line for the cylinder that can be drawn in perspective from the ellipse. It is the more important axis of the two as far as drawing is concerned.

The major axis divides the ellipse at its widest dimension, crossing the center. It helps us understand the shape of the ellipse when we are drawing circles in perspective.

When a circle is drawn in perspective, it becomes an ellipse depending on the angle of view.

For now, let’s draw the ellipse step by step without thinking about circles or perspective.

How to draw the ellipse. Step 1

Create a horizontal line and a vertical line that are perpendicular to each other. They should create four 90 degree angles around where they meet. These lines create the minor axis (vertical) and the major axis (horizontal) of the ellipse. *Note: the minor and major axis are not always vertical and horizontal, but they are in an ellipse that is created at the top or bottom of an upright cylinder (like a lid of a standing bottle).

How to draw the ellipse. Step 2

Then mark down equal spaces from the center for the major axis and the minor axis. The vertical space between the markers should be equal to the center, and the same for the horizontal space for the markers on the major axis.

How to draw the ellipse. Step 3

Finally, draw the ellipse touching each one of the four markdown spaces you indicated in the previous step.

How to draw the ellipse. Step 4

Erase all of the guidelines and see the ellipse!

Note that the left and right ends of the ellipse are rounded and not pointy. When you observe an ellipse formed by a circle at an angle, notice that there are no “corners” at the left and right ends. It is just a round shape foreshortened in perspective.

How to draw the ellipse – some drawing pointers

How to draw an ellipse – Don’t grip the pen too hard, relax your fingers and move with shoulder/elbow and not with the wrist. Envision the path then draw it. Move your arm from point A to point B as you have envisioned.

Here are some pointers when drawing the ellipse:

  • Remember to relax your fingers. Don’t grip your pencil with a lot of force instead.
  • Focus on moving your shoulder and elbow. Also, don’t move the pencil with your wrist. Instead, try to create an oval motion as you draw the ellipse moving mostly from the shoulder and the elbow.
  • Envision/visualize the ellipse in your head before you draw it. And finally, move your arm from point B from point A to point B, like you visualized.
  • Don’t worry about minor imperfections in the line. And if you’re creating lines, they’re not perfect. But do worry about the overall trajectory and the overall feel of the ellipse.
Sometimes it helps to visualize the negative space formed around the ellipse. See the dark shaded areas created by placing an ellipse into a rectangle.

Upright ellipses and cylinders look the same in 1 or 2 point perspective

Upright cylinders, and by extension the ellipses on those cylinders, end up looking the same in one and two-point perspective drawings. See one-point perspective on the left, and two-point perspective drawing on the right. For more on perspective, including how to draw one and two-point perspective, check out Gvaat’s extensive tutorial here.
Construction of a cylinder from a drawing of an ellipse at the base. Note that the minor axis (vertical line) of the ellipse becomes the centerline of the cylinder.

The major axis of the ellipse and the diameter of the circle in perspective are not the same

For a circle in perspective, the major axis of the ellipse and the diameter of the circle do not line up. The major axis of the ellipse will appear closer to the viewer than the center of the circle.
The center of the circle (see the indication from production in the plastic), and the major axis never meet.

So how did I know where the major axis is? I found the minor axis using perspective (it is the centerline of the cylinder here), then knowing that the major axis is at a 90-degree angle to the minor, I looked for the two points on the ellipse farthest from each other.

Once the image is taken away, our perception is not persuaded by the details of the image and the perspective present in it. The illusion of three dimensions disappears, and what we see is the perfect ellipse emerge, divided equally by the major axis. Proving that the major axis and the center of the circle in perspective do not touch.
Let’s now slowly decrease the degree of the ellipse and see if we get the same result.
Once the image is taken away, our perception is not persuaded by the details of the image and the perspective present in it. The illusion of three dimensions disappears, and what we see is the perfect ellipse emerge, divided equally by the major axis.
As the degree of the ellipse decreases, the major axis appears closer to the center due to extreme foreshortening of the circle.
Once the image is taken away, our perception is not persuaded by the details of the image and the perspective present in it. The illusion of three dimensions disappears, and what we see is the perfect ellipse emerge, divided equally by the major axis.

That’s it! The best ellipses come from practice! Try to practice from real-life (lids!) with careful observation of the minor and major axis. Now it is your turn to draw!

RATED A2.

This article is rated “A2” in the Workshop’s Rating System because it discusses intermediate art concepts. For more on the rating system and to find other rated content, follow this link: Workshop’s Rating System.

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Skyrocket your art skills with the ultimate guide to drawing that takes you step-by-step from beginner to full competency. 

Venture beyond fundamentals through a carefully structured curriculum. The 18 Steps will transform how you think when you draw – which is the only way to achieve real results.

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