Drawing Basics: The Benefits of Sight-Size Drawing

Portrait of Jeff by Tim McGuire, charcoal drawing

Cast Study—Laocoon by  2005, charcoal drawing
Cast Study—Laocoon
2005, charcoal and white chalk, 26 x 19.
Collection the artist.

Students attending contemporary art schools modeled after 19th-century academies often spend their first months on the drawing basics and making sight-size copies of lithographs from Jean-Léon Gérôme and Charles Bargue’s Cours de Dessin or drawings of plaster casts. The point of these rigorous exercises is to train students to record exactly what they see without deviation or interpretation. The belief is that when artists have acquired that understanding and skill, they are better prepared to coordinate their imagination and observations in a controlled execution. That is, the hand will be better able to document what their eyes see rather than what their mind desires.

Tim McGuire was amazed by how quickly he developed that ability when he was first introduced to sight-size drawing four years ago at the Florence Academy of Art, in Italy. That experience is so fresh in the young artist’s mind that it motivates him to introduce others to the benefits of sight-size drawing. “It was a huge awakening for me,” he remembers, “and though I struggled to understand and apply the technique, I quickly realized the benefit of being able to record exactly what I saw while looking at a stationary object.”

McGuire emphasizes that this method is exacting, to the extent that one must follow specific procedures, work under unchanging conditions, and never deviate from the position established once a drawing is started. “It is not uncommon for students at the Florence Academy of Art, where I studied, to spend a full day setting up their cast; adjusting the position of the cast, easel, paper, plumb line, and lighting,” he explains. “It is a real challenge to compose the light so that it is interesting, dramatic, and unfaltering.

Copy of Bargue Plate Anne of Brittany by Tim McGuire, 2002, graphite drawing
Copy of Bargue Plate
Anne of Brittany

2002, graphite, 33 x 19.
Collection the artist.

“Some people even recommend wearing the same shoes throughout the drawing process so there isn’t even a fraction of an inch difference in one’s height,” McGuire adds. “It goes without saying that the subject one is drawing—a Bargue plate or a plaster cast—must never move or be influenced by a different lighting arrangement. The drawing paper must also be in the same position, and artists should mark the position of their feet on the floor to be sure they are always standing in the exact same position.”

McGuire and others who teach the sight-size method carefully prescribe the way subjects are set up to be drawn and the surface on which the drawings are made. “Artists need to be sure they are looking at the center of the subject and the center of the paper when they stand erect at a measured distance away from the easel,” he explains. “All of the observations are made from that distance, not from the view available when one is at the easel, because there can only be one point of observation that guides the artist in making the drawing. Artists stand at that point marked on the floor, calculate measurements by using a plumb line held either vertically or horizontally, and then walk up to the drawing paper to indicate precise marks with graphite (for drawings 11" x 9" or smaller) or charcoal (for larger drawings). The accuracy of those marks is determined by stepping back again to the spot on the floor, not by looking at the subject while positioned beside the easel.

“Beginning students are advised to make copies of the Bargue plates because most of those reveal both the outline of the cast drawing on one side of the lithograph and a shaded drawing on the other half,” McGuire continues. “That makes it easier to determine the outline of the forms and the simplified shadows. Bargue’s drawings are composed of only a few shadow shapes rather than the multiple shadow variations one can see with the human eye. After making copies of several Bargue plates from the simplest to the most complex, the student is ready to move on to drawing an actual plaster cast.”

Portrait of Jeff by Tim McGuire, charcoal drawing
Portrait of Jeff
2004, charcoal and white chalk, 19 x 13.
Collection the artist.

Plaster casts are often placed inside a three-sided box painted black or warm gray, and they are angled toward either a north-facing window or an incandescent light so that the illumination on the cast is constant throughout the drawing process. A plumb line is often dropped in front of the artist’s view of the cast to help establish at least three clear points of reference, typically edges of shadows or anatomical features. The vertical alignment of these features is essential in capturing the correct gesture. Also, from the plumb line one can easily take width measurements.”

It is imperative that the drawing paper be taped to a rigid board and placed in a perfectly upright position so the drawing surface is perpendicular to the line of the artist’s vision. The board should be secured in the easel as close to the Bargue plate or the box in which the plaster cast has been placed, ensuring the paper and the subject line up next to each other while the artist is judging measurements.

The ideal size for a drawing is either the exact dimensions of the Bargue plate or the size of the observed plaster cast when the drawing surface is roughly halfway between the front and back of the space occupied by the plaster cast. “In determining the size of the paper when drawing a plaster cast, I observe my setup and position my paper to include the cast and its environment,” McGuire explains. “I position my easel so my paper is halfway between the front and back of the cast when viewed from the side.”

The optimum distance for the observation position to be marked on the floor is often three times the size of the largest dimension of the drawing. That is, if the drawing is 24" x 18", the artist should stand six feet away from the drawing surface. “In determining how far back to stand, the idea is to be far enough away that one can take in the cast and the paper in their entirety,” McGuire says. “The specifics aren’t really the most important issue. The idea is to be able to take in everything at a glance. For me, that typically means standing six to 10 feet back for a small- to medium-sized cast. For anything larger, I stand back even farther.

“The first steps in the drawing process include indicating the absolute top, bottom, left and right parameters of the cast; a middle height (not necessarily the exact middle, just a key point); and a stationary plumb line,” McGuire goes on to explain. “That’s noted by one simple line judged while standing away from the drawing. If, when stepping back and forth to evaluate those marks, it becomes clear that one of them is inaccurate, it’s necessary to erase it and make one that is completely right. The judgments should be made by observation rather than measurements from a yardstick because a ruler or yardstick is not only impractical but also less accurate than the human eye. The eye can be trained to discern subtle nuances that simply cannot be seen any other way.

“We sometimes refer to the next step of drawing the angles of body parts in a cast as marking the ‘potato shapes,’ or the first suggestion of the silhouette,” McGuire says with the first sign of humor in his conversation. “Those are merely a connection of the most basic outer contours of the cast. From this shape, drawn in long, straight lines, I find more specific contours. Within the potato shape, I indicate the main angles that will help to further express the gesture.”

Manipulating charcoal was difficult for McGuire when he first studied drawing because he was accustomed to smearing the black material rather than using it to create soft, definite lines. “Charcoal can be an instrument of precise drawing if artists relax their grip, let the stick trail behind the movement of their hand, and allow the tooth of the paper—rather than firm pressure—to pull the charcoal off the sharpened edge of the charcoal.  If the line becomes smudged, it can be cleaned up with a kneaded eraser so the marks remain thin and precise.

“Charcoal should never be rubbed with one’s fingers,” McGuire adds. “The oils and acids in the hand will change the way the surface of the paper accepts and holds the particles of charcoal. I prefer to rub the charcoal with a stump or, better yet, a very hard charcoal.

“Shadow patterns should be made to appear light and flexible so they are easy to correct,” McGuire says in indicating how a sight-size drawing should be further developed. “Once the shadow and the outline of the figure are locked in the right contours, lines, and shapes, a drawing is well along toward completion. That strong, accurate structure is critical. Once it is in place, the artist can develop the midtones and refinements.

“It’s important to continuously analyze the accuracy of a drawing as it progresses,” McGuire insists. “Remember, the goal is to draw the specific form, not a generic representation of the subject. There are several ways to objectively evaluate that accuracy. One is to look at the drawing through a standard silver mirror, another is to view it through a black mirror that will compress the values and pronounce the difference between dark and light. I only use a black mirror when I’m at the stage of making value decisions about the drawing. Otherwise, I rely on the silver mirror exclusively. “One can hold a mirror along the side of one’s eyes as if it were a blinder on the head of a race horse, or it can be held above the eyes as if it were the brim of a baseball cap,” McGuire suggests. “Those odd positions will actually give a different vantage point from which to judge the developing drawing.

“For beginning students, all these rigorous procedures impose a discipline and aid in developing an ability to look at one’s work objectively,” McGuire concludes. “Once they develop the basic skills of accurate drawing, they begin to understand that drawing relies on describing relationships of line, shape, value, and transition. They then are prepared to consider the effect of light on an object or person. I’m now at a point in my study with Adrian Gottlieb that I am focused on creating that sense of light in my drawings, and that process is just as exciting as sight-size drawing was four years ago when I began my studies.”

McGuire’s enthusiasm for the sight-size method is quite apparent to the students who work with him at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art. He offered two one-day classes in the method during American Artist’s Art Methods & Materials Show, in Pasadena, California, which took place October 5 through 9, 2005 (www.artmethods.com). 

by M. Stephen Doherty  

About the Artist 
Tim McGuire earned a bachelor of arts degree in education at Buffalo State University, in New York, and a master’s degree in education from California State University, Long Beach. He then studied at the Florence Academy of Art, in Italy, as well as privately with Adrian Gottlieb. McGuire currently teaches kindergarten in the Los Angeles Unified School District and sight-size drawing at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art (LAAFA).

M. Stephen Doherty is the editor-in-chief of American Artist.

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2 thoughts on “Drawing Basics: The Benefits of Sight-Size Drawing

  1. Dear Mr. Doherty,
    The Bargue/site size method is, with respect to pre mid-19th C., academic art, a scam in that it promotes a purely 2-D, photographic approach to drawing vs. a 3-D, intellectual “form” drawing one.
    Hence the way Michelangello, Rembrant, Velasquez etc. drew from casts was entirely different from the stiff, angular, contour approach of the 19th C. artists using this method. Unfortunately many students as well as working artists today are mislead into believing this method, your promoting, is related to classical drawing when in fact its the opposite and destroys the mind’s intellectual capacity to design spatial relationships. Its appropriate alignment with the blatent, and illustrative “photo realism” of today makes its popularity more understandable, but it is a shame that people interested in traditional art don’t enlighten themselves beyond the 19th C. Most so called, academic schools today fraudulantly proclaim this method has ties with classical art because they’re more interested in an easy teaching method to make a buck than they are about researching the past and developing formal skills. Academic art is NOT based simply on “what you see”; rather its based more on what you know and how you apply it to nature. Just some food for thought. Although I’d like you to print this, I doubt you will as its much too contraversial. I’m not interested in critizing artists as much as simply getting the truth out, particularly to vulnerable students who might believe anything so I’d hope you’ll think twice about how you present method’s like this in the future.
    Russ

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