Before I start, I should point out that this isn’t going to be a ‘how-to’ post on working sight size.
For that, seethe step-by-step walk-through of a Bargue copy done sight size and also have a read ofsight-size.com.
This is more a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of sight size as I see them, replete with my usual meandering and wandering off the point. This is also a rather long post since I’ve used it as an opportunity to think a few things through for my own benefit.
Hopefully it will be interesting and/or relevant to you too.
For some time now I’ve been planning and roughing out this post. Part of the reason for the delay in me posting it is that I couldn’t reach a tidy conclusion on whether I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, or vice-versa. So in the end, my conclusion has had to remain somewhat open-ended.
It’s more fitting like this in any case. After all, one of the things that makes painting so interesting is that it’s a life-long learning process. There is no real conclusion, we just run out of time eventually to do any more.
What follows below represents my current thoughts on the subject. In an evolving process, nothing should be taken as absoluteI think, everything should be subject to ongoing questioning and assessment. But the time and effort needs to be spent to investigate something fairly thoroughly before any opinions, even the most tentative ones, can be reached.
Learning to paint is hard work. It requires a complex set of skills just to be able to produce a convincing translation of what we see onto a two-dimensional surface, and that’s just first base. We’re much more than a just a pair of eyes and I’m sure most people would agree that our hearts and minds play just as important a role in producing meaningful work as the mechanics of our visual receiving equipment do.
I sometimes think of learning to paint as being like blindly fumbling our way forward in a darkened room. We might decide that our goal is to get to the other side of the room, but we don’t know what we’re going to encounter on the way, what obstacles we’re going to meet and we can’t see the way forward clearly. So we just bravely set out with a vague idea of the direction we want to go in, putting one foot in front of the other and hoping for the best. I think we naturally find the known comfortable and reassuring, and the unknown unsettling.
Having spent a fair bit of time chatting to other painters on art forums, I’ve noticed that artists often tend towards a kind of brand loyalty for their chosen methods and styles. Personally, I think that it’s a natural reaction to the insecurity that’s intrinsic to the nature of our pursuit.
We don’t always know where we’re headed, and that’s scary.
When someone comes along with a plan, a sure fire way to get to the other side of the room without stumbling into things, it tends to provoke reactions that fall broadly into two types: Willing acceptance, sometimes to the point of unquestioning belief, or suspicious resistance, sometimes to the point of trenchant opposition.
I think neither are entirely healthy, but both are understandable. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of both myself. I’ve personally been witness to some quite violent disagreements on art forums, and if the history books are to be believed, it’s nothing new among painters.
But what I rarely see, to be honest, is people spending sufficient time and effort to understand something that’s new to them in enough depth to make any kind of a reasoned decision on whether or not it’s right for them, whether there are some elements that might help them or some that might hinder.
When I first started working with the sight size method as it’s taught in the modern ateliers, I found it pretty hard. Not having a teacher to show me how to do it, and learning from books and resources on the web, I was convinced that I was doing it wrong somehow. I kept thinking that it shouldn’t be this hard. But because I’d seen examples of work done this way, cast drawings and Bargue copies, that impressed the living hell out of me, I kept at it.
Now I know a little more about it and have had some practice with it I know that like many things in painting land, the basic concept is fairly simple, and I was obsessing and worrying unnecessarily over details.
I sometimes get emails from people asking me about the same details that I used to obsess over. What I want to say to the people that ask me for advice is, “Don’t worry about it, don’t worry about what kind of paper to use, or whether you have to use charcoal or pencil, whether it has to be a Bargue drawing you copy. Just make a start and you’ll figure it out for yourself.”
I don’t usually though, I try to answer their questions as far as I’m able.
But the details really don’t matter. Primarily, I see sight size as away to train observational skills. Whenever I’ve had a question of my own that I couldn’t find the answer to, I’ve tried to keep this in mind, and to ask myself whether doing it this way or that is likely to be more or less helpful in terms of training my observation, or whether it really doesn’t matter at all.
Usually, it doesn’t matter at all. You can do it with a magic marker if you like. If your observation gets better, then it was worth doing.
It seems we naturally want a plan to follow. We want to make sure that we do things the “right way.” I’ve also had emails from people that tell me I’m doing it wrong, that they were taught the “right way.” These people rarely tell me why their way is the right way, or ask me what I think might be good about the way I do it. I think they want to convince me in order to satisfy themselves that the way they were taught was the right one.
I’m not criticising them and I can’t blame them for it, but I think that taking any entrenched position like that is potentially harmful.
I think that we have to accept a certain amount of uncertainty, because it’s in the nature of what we do. Entrenched or blindly accepted ideas lead to stagnation, and possibly to missing out on something which could be useful to us. Of course, it’s easier said than done and I’m certainly no paragon of virtue in that regard. But I sometimes wish that people could be a little more open minded, a little more willing to question even their most fondly held beliefs.
The only effective method I know for finding out whether something will be useful to me or not is to try it out, to give it a lot of time and to reserve judgement until I have. That’s what I’ve tried to do with working sight size. It was tough at first, and although I find it considerably easier now I have to say it still doesn’t come naturally.
As I spend hour after hour with my arms stretched out holding the thread, trying to ignore how much they ache and keep them from wobbling, striving for accuracy in the placement of the marks I make, I find myself obliged to question the reasons for putting myself through this ordeal.
What follows is my personal take on the technique at this (I suppose still fairly early) stage of my employment of it.
How I Use Sight Size
See the link at the beginning of this post for a more in depth description, but I’ll give a quick run-down of it here, as I apply it in practice. The Bargue book has been my primary source for this.
Firstly, I spend a long time carefully positioning the easel next to the subject. If it’s a drawing that I’m copying, this part is much simpler of course, just tape them up side by side and make sure the easel is flat on to you, not at an angle since that will distort themeasurements.
Then I mark a central, vertical construction line down the middle of the paper, and hang a corresponding plumb-line in front of thesubject. With this in place, I take the thread used for measuring, stand (or occasionally sit) about sixfeet back from the easel and mark the main points – highest, lowest, furthest left, furthest right. I work entirely with one eye closed whenmeasuring. I do my best to make sure that these initial points are as accurate as possible, triangulating between them, checking andre-checking. Mostly I use vertical and horizontal measurements – theHarold Speedscaffolding approach.
Joining these first few points with straight lines gives a simplified envelope of the shape. The next stage is to mark in more points,refining the envelope down into it’s constituent smaller shapes. This process continues until an accurate line drawing of the subject isestablished, finding points, relating them to the first four points, and triangulating. At a given stage, the distances between points becometoo small to accurately measure with the thread. My margin for error is perhaps about an 8th of an inch, so once I get down to distancesof two inches or less I start to judge increasingly by eye.
Why Sight Size?
As I’ve said, sight size to me is primarily a method of honing my observation skills. The one-to-one relationship between the drawing andthe subject allows for instant comparisons to be made visually, much more easily than with other drawing approaches. Flicking your eye from oneto the other makes mistakes immediately obvious, it isn’t necessary to go through the memorising stage that a more free approach to drawingrequires, at least not whilst checking the accuracy of the drawing.
In his excellent discussion of the history of the sight size approach, Nicholas Beer ofthe Sarum Studio in Salisbury relates how the technique may have been used by previous generations of representational painters.As far as I can gather, these days the primary focus on the technique as it’s taught in ateliers is an almost obsessive concern with accuracy.The term ‘absolute accuracy’ is one I’ve seen bandied about, although I find it slightly ridiculous since a drawing will never be, cannever be, absolutely accurate.
However, I tend to follow that approach. I’ve found that striving for accuracy in at least some exercises has trained myobservational skills like nothing else. I would highly recommend it, particularly in the early stages of learning to draw. I’ve found amarked improvement in the accuracy of other drawings after sight sizing, it’s like a musician practicing scales. But I don’t believe thatthe pursuit of accuracy is the only reason to use it, or the only way it can be used. It also makes it considerably easier to concentrateon the ‘big picture’ and to keep from getting caught up in details to the detriment of the overall impact of the drawing or painting. Ithink this is a common problem, certainly one I’ve fallen foul of many times myself.
I was recently discussing sight size over email with a staunch advocate, Darren Rousar, a painter who comes from thetradition of R. H. Ives Gammell,Richard Lack and theBoston School and incidentally runs the sight-size.com website. He talked about how the technique helps to avoid what Gammell called ‘piecemeal seeing,’ and helps to create a unity of impression.Certainly, my own limited experience bears this out too.
These are the two most notable traits of work done with this technique: Accuracy of shape and unity of the optical or visual effect. Sightsize work is often fairly broadly done and concentrates on the large forms in preference to small detail. Think Sargent, Raeburn andVelazquez, not Van Eyck.
The following – probably incomplete – list is, I think, a fair assessment of the strengths and possible pitfalls of sight size.
I would say that this is the strongest argument for practicing drawing using the sight size approach. When I used to do a lot of drawingof the peopleat my local cafe, I used to notice a marked improvement in the drawings if I’d been doing some sight size practice the night before. Justlike when I’m playing the fiddle, I play better if I spend some time warming up doing scales first. It’s not just a motor reflex thingI don’t think. And like learning to play an instrument, the skill of observation is cumulative and responds to regular and repeated practice.
It’s tempting to think that because we can see something clearly enough, we should be able to judge its shape with a fairdegree of accuracy. But if that were true, we’d all be able to draw accurately without any problems, and that plainly isn’t the case.There’s obviously something much more complex than just seeing involved in drawing. I have a feeling it may be something to do with thestrong propensity we have to see things symbolically in our mind’s eye, to draw like a child draws.Ted Seth Jacobs talks about this at somelength in his book,Drawing With an Open Mind.If we’re drawing an eye, we tend to think “eye, almond shape with a round bit in themiddle,” and then draw that. It will often bear little or no resemblance to what we’re seeing, especially if we’re looking at it from anyangle other than straight on. Even if we’re trying hard to draw the eye as we see it, that mental image seems somehow to intrude and force thedrawing out of shape.
So perhaps the word ‘observation’ is an insufficiently descriptive word for the complex process of translating something from the realworld onto a two dimensional surface. Still, it’s the one we all use. If we do a drawing that hasn’t turned outwell, that doesn’t accurately represent the shapes we see, we can tell immediately. I wonder if what we call observation, or what’s oftenreferred to as the process of ‘learning to see’ isn’t much more a process of learning not to draw an internalised mental symbolof something, and to draw what it really looks like instead, a process of unlearning as much as learning. Whatever it is, however itworks, sight size can help us get it.
How necessary is it to be accurate? To some people it’s not necessary at all, and I wouldn’t argue the point with them if that’s not whatthey want. But I would argue that whatever your style, beingcapable of producing a decent level of accuracy can only be a good thing, since you’ll know then when you’ve deviated from what you see andwill be more likely to be thinking about why. Is it for a particular affect, for expression, or just a mistake? Does it help the pieceand make it better or is it just laziness? Also, see comments above regarding observation training. It’s this pursuit of accuracy that’sprimarily responsible for building the mental muscles required for close observation. Developing those muscles can only be helpful I think,whether we choose to use them to their fullest extent or not.
Lately, as my accuracy has improved, I’ve noticed an odd effect. Something happens to the believability of the form when the accuracy isclose, even in a simple line drawing with no modelling of light and shade. An accurate drawing of form seems to take on more life, a moreconvincing three dimensionality. It’s a hard thing to explain, but a drawing can seem to go from being just an average drawing one minute tohaving life and depth the next, just through virtue of greater accuracy. It’s something deeper than it just looking ‘right,’ but I can’tsay much more about it at this stage because I don’t pretend to understand it. But it’s a noticeable effect.
Training of Visual Memory
Sight size separates looking and doing. I haven’t seen this talked about in relation to sight size, but I do believe that it canhelp visual memory training if approached with this in mind. Judging accuracy is instantaneous when working sight size. But the processof actually making the marks is more delayed with this approach, simply because you have to physically walk over to the easel to makethe mark. In order to do that, you need to fix you’re eye on the paper and hold it there until you get close enough to draw it.That I find quite difficult. If it’s a line or a part of a shape I’m about to put down and not simply a point, I’ve got into the habitof mentally rehearsing the mark, visualising it on the paper before I walk over to put it down. Quite often I catch myself waving my hand around infront of me as if I was actually drawing from six feet back. Just as well no-one’s watching me work, it must look very odd. But it reallyhelps. It helps to fix the shape, line, whatever it is, in my mind long enough for me to get over to the easel and draw it for real. I keepthinking I should try and come up with some form of exercise to stretch this ability of visualisation more. I’m sure it would be ofenormous help in other kinds of less strictly controlled drawing.
Unity of effect
I’ve talked about this already in relation to Darren Rousar’s comments and the Gammell approach. The majority of my own practicewith sight size has been copying other people’s drawings, so I can’t add much here. But the iron painting and the studies for it have beendone entirely this way, and it’s been enough to convince me that there’s something in this. Any further thoughts on this willhave to wait until I’ve done more of it.
This one I can talk about. Sight size and the pursuit of accuracy taught me not to rush. It taught me to spend much more timelooking than drawing, and to spend that time looking more closely and more patiently. It also taught me that it doesn’t matter how manytimes you have to correct something as long as it’s getting better and not worse, and that just about every mark I make with a pencil,charcoal stick or a brush needs correcting and can be made better in one way or another.
I wonder if there’s something about our modern lives that makes it difficult for us to slow down and work patiently. Most of the problemsI see in beginners’ work (although I still consider myself one) is due to rushing I think. I live near London, and it always strikes mewhen I go into town what a desperate rush everyone seems to be in. Painting, at least thekind of painting I do, is partly about taking the time to experience things which we otherwise might not think worthy of spending much time on.The way light falls on some small object, the pattern that the shadows make, how beautiful a flower is or even some piece of old tatlike this iron. I try to evoke a sense of peace and stillness in my work not because of some intellectualised,rationalised decision that that’s what my work will be about, but simply because I feel the need of it in my daily life.
I think that even loose, brushy work should be the result of careful deliberation, perhaps even more so than precise detail because itcan so easily go wrong. A lot of peopleare very taken with painters like Sargent and Zorn, me included, but when they try to emulate them I get the feeling that they’ve attacked thecanvas in some kind of desperate frenzy, since they think that this is how work like that is created. The modern myth of the inspired artist at thewhim of his or her genius tempts us to believe that we should all be painting like Kirk Douglas playing Van Gogh, dashing at the canvas as ifwe were possessed.
The truth is much more prosaic I think. Personally, I do have the odd fevered moment of intense activity, but I get my best results from slow,steady application. It needn’t make the work stilted and unemotional, in fact I think the opposite is the case. Sight size taught me toconsider every mark I put down, and I think my work has improved in direct proportion to the amount of care I take over it. Obvious, really.But it’s a lesson that took to me some time to learn.
Perhaps the most obvious drawback of the sight size technique is that it can only be used in very controlled situations. It limits theviewpoint taken on the subject since the easel must be flat on, not angled, and also limits the size of the subject to some degree. It’suseless for landscape, for example, unless you only want to paint a very small portion of what you see.
I’ve never done work from a model sight size, but I do wonder how it works out in practice. I have seen examples of it, where workis done over many sessions with a model. The likelihood of the model getting back into exactly the same position every time is slim tononexistent. I wonder how that problem is dealt with. I suspect that surely, some degree of accuracy must be sacrificed.
Possible Loss of expression:
Which brings me to another point. Good painting and drawing is not just about accuracy I don’t think. In figurative work from a model, for example,people often talk about the ‘gesture’ of the pose, and there’s a tradition of trying to capture this gesture in order to givethe drawing life. It seems to me that the practice of sight size would tend to work against that.
I also wonder if an over reliance on exactness could eventually kill off the capability for expressive work in the artist. I’m sure manypeople would argue this point, particularly perhaps the new breed of classicists, but I do think that given our natural propensity forcomfortable, known approaches and methods, an over reliance on sight size and accuracy could close the doors on the possibility of admittingsome expression into the work.
Too Much Reliance on the Process:
It’s worth noting I think that even proponents of the sight size technique recognise that it has it’s limitations, and even dangers ifit’s relied upon too much. Peter Bougie and Gerald Ackerman talk about this in an appendix of the Bargue book, and I think what they haveto say is worth quoting here since they have much more experience than me with it, and have also taught it:
“Using sight size as the only way of drawing might make practitioners model-bound and interfere with their depiction of objectsfrom memory. Since models are incapable of holding dynamic poses for more than a few minutes, it may delay learning the elements that givemotion to a drawing. In addition to increasing a student’s dependence upon the model, it also creates a dependence upon ideal conditions -typically those encountered in a studio – such as a controlled light source, an uncluttered and neutral background, and a model trained tohold long poses on a raised platform.”
“Sight size is very useful in many ways but it has it’s limitations. It’s a good teaching tool and we insist that everyone useit because it sharpens the beginner’s eye for proportion relatively quickly and provides an objective context in which to work…I’ve alsonoticed that for some students who are naïve (in their drawing experience) or of a strong logical mindset, sight size gets in the way of seeingwhen they reach a certain point in their development. They will use the plumb line too much and their eye not enough.”
There you have it. My own feeling is that being able to replicate fairly closely what you see is almost intoxicating. Perhaps thatintoxication could actually become an impediment to relating a more personal relationship with the object, forgetting that painting can alsobe more than accuracy and can be an appeal to the emotions of the viewer.
The most obvious antidote must be, of course, not to do too much of it, and certainly not to use sight size exclusively. Here’s a few morequotes that are relevant here:
Gerald Ackerman (I particularly like this one – emphasis is mine):
“I am not against other methods nor a partisan of any (although I do naturally prefer and understand best what I was taught,but must protect myself from being dogmatic about it); I think that different methods of drawing from life should just be calledmethods, none the ‘one way,’ and that the principles should be recognised as part of the method that organises work and observation, notabsolutes. The payoff will always be the results.”
“I’m going to try having students do more work from flat copy of expressive figures, figures in motion, and so on, to tryto bridge the gap between the study of nature and its application to making pictures. In doing that, I’m going to compare the two and tryto show people how they differ. The trick will be to keep them on track with both the observation and the learning about conventionwithout having the limitations of each method pollute the other, that is, become short cuts, excuses, or mannerisms in the hands of theinexperienced.”
I’ll wrap up with a couple of quotes from Harold Speed, from ‘The Practice and Science of Drawing‘. The language is datedbecause the book was written in the early 1900s, but Speed is, to me, a great sourceof both knowledge and common sense, a man who understood that art can be much more than a collection of techniques and methods. Some of hiscomments on academic exercises are not dissimilar from those of Gerald Ackerman and Peter Bougie above, but he also has time for the importanceof expression and inspiration.
“The best things in an artist’s work are so much a matter of intuition, that there is much to be said for the point of viewthat would altogether discourage intellectual enquiry into artistic phenomena on the part of the artist. Intuitions are shy things that areapt to disappear if looked into too closely. And there is undoubtedly a danger that too much knowledge and training may supplant thenatural intuitive feeling of a student, leaving only a cold knowledge of the means of expression in it’s place.”
Although I agree with old Harold here, I can’t help wondering if he might feel the need to clarify that statement somewhat if he werewitness to some of the more recent developments in the visual arts. But I think he was reacting to a problem he saw in the recent past of the artinstruction of his own day.
I have a suspicion that something might be being missed by the modern ateliers that advocate a wholesale return to 19th century academism withtheir constant drilling in accuracy and technique; That individuality and expression might possibly be stunted if they’re not allowed todevelop naturally alongside the more careful and stringent academic study, and that some of the new breed of classicists, the ratherannoyingly dubbed ‘Classical Realists,’ might just be missing an integral part of what made their idols so great. Not all of them Ihasten to add, just the toga brigade that would like to turn the clock back and pretend that modernism never happened and that it isutterly without merit, and can’t see that it was a natural reaction to the restrictions, hierarchies and exclusivity of 19thcentury academism.
However, Harold certainly doesn’t dismiss the value of careful academic study himself:
“Provided the student realises…that art training can only deal with the perfecting of a means of expression and that thereal matter of art lies above this and beyond the scope of teaching, he can not have too much of it. For although he must ever be a child beforethe influences that move him, if it is not with the knowledge of the grown man that he takes off his coat and approaches the craft of paintingor drawing, he will be poorly equipped to make them a means of conveying to others in adequate form the things he may wish to express.”
I’m inclined to agree. It seems to me that the possible pitfalls of the sight size technique can be fairly well summed up by saying that it’sa means to end, not an end in itself, and shouldn’t be taken as one. I’m convinced that it has many benefits, but that the best way to makethe most of them is to ensure that different, less structured forms of practice are pursued at the same time.
I need to getout of the studio now and back to the cafe to draw!
Free Value Tutorials
Subscribe: Join over 10,000 other artists and get free updates. I'll also email you THREE FREE value tutorials that will help you bring your pictures to life.