The purpose of this article is to be a companion to my description of the sight-size method and provide some context to the method so you can make informed decisions about when to use it, and the wider context of sight-size as an artistic tool. First and foremost, keep in mind that the sight-size method is simply a tool. Like all tools, to get the most out of it you must know its strengths and its limitations. Any tool can become a crutch if it is overused and the rest of the toolkit is underutilized.
The sight-size method is not a be all and end all means of producing art, but it is an incredibly useful tool for making, learning and teaching how to create highly realistic art. Below I list 3 main contexts where I believe the sight-size method is the most useful and conclude with some thoughts on when *not* to use it.
The first strength of the sight-size method: Going Deep
To properly do a sight-size drawing, there is a lot to set up. It can take a while to set up the drawing, easel, and subject and to get your vantage point just right. Once you do, however, you can work on the same drawing for an extended amount of time. You can keep coming back to the same drawing and take weeks or months if needed. This makes it possible to keep working on a single drawing and take it to an incredible level of detail, rendering, and finish.
Drawing something from real life is always going to be a way better exercise than drawing from a book, photo, or computer screen. So having a stable setup to keep drawing the same thing from life allows you to get to a level of detail and refinement that would be very difficult otherwise.
The process of working on a single drawing over an extended amount of time becomes training in its own right. Because the subject is stationary, and the setup allows you to keep taking measurements, you can keep checking form relationships, sizes, widths, heights, and all kinds of details in your drawing. Doing this, with a medium like charcoal that allows you to keep correcting and fixing parts of your drawing, allows you to keep pushing the drawing to a greater level of realism. The only limits to this are your own time, patience, and the limits of your material.
Second strength of the sight-size method: Teaching
The second main strength of the sight-size method is its utility in teaching, and in the instructor to teacher relationship. One of the main challenges, if not the entire challenge, in learning to draw, is processing the huge amount of information your eye collects. To a student seriously engaging with this task for the first time in a life-drawing class, for instance, grappling with and juggling all the elements: form, value, anatomy, and unfamiliar materials, can be overwhelming. The sight-size method turns the process of drawing into a simple, logical, graspable procedure that can be explained and demonstrated to a student usually within one session.
In teaching drawing classes for beginners, I have personally had students who had never done any kind of figure drawing before in their lives, show up to my figure drawing class, and after about 90 minutes of explanation and demonstrating the method, have gotten a basic and roughly realistic drawing off to a solid start.
The great thing, from a teacher’s perspective, is that you can stand in the student’s vantage point (and raise or lower your eyes to the student’s eye level) and you will be seeing the drawing in the exact same way as the student. This allows you to take measurements and point out to the student things in the drawing that need to be fixed. When the student returns the vantage point, they can repeat those measurements themselves and make the corrections you’ve pointed out.
There is something interesting and fascinating that happens when a teacher points out to a student aspects of the drawing that could be fixed. I’ve experienced this as a student, myself, and as the teacher. When I worked on a drawing for an extended amount of time in one session, usually many hours, my mind became used to the drawing as is, and I had a hard time seeing or finding the problems. Having a teacher come along and point out things to correct would snap me out of that perspective and into a fresh one where the problems were apparent. As a teacher, I’ve seen students, many times, work on a drawing to a point where they quite literally could not see what to do next. Taking the time to give a solid critique and a list of things to re-measure and correct would snap them out of that perspective and help the take the drawing further.
Third strength of the sight-size method: Versatility
The third main strength of the sight-size method is its versatility and usefulness in different types of art projects. While it is great for really long and intense academic cast drawings, it can also be used for other artistic tasks such as still-life painting, portrait drawing and painting, and multi-session figure drawing and painting. Personally, I may not apply the same level of effort into setting things up each time, as I would for a really extended work of art, but it is useful for setup and to get the process going. Or, for example, take portrait drawing or painting.
When I start a multi-session portrait drawing, I may take the time to take a solid series of sight-size measurements at the start of the drawing primarily so that it’s easy for me to get the model back into the exact same position after each break and for the next session. With this in place, I then proceed with the drawing and rely mostly on comparative measurements.
Limits of the sight-size method
While the sight-size method is a great tool in for particular applications, there are many other types of drawing and painting that the versatile artist should not neglect. With the overhead of all the setup, the method is not useful for quick sketches, or most group drawing situations (where everyone is in chairs). In my opinion, a versatile artist should spend time drawing outdoors, in both urban and rural settings. It’s an art, in itself, to sketch and capture a city scene or a country scene, relatively quickly and in one session.
With regard to figurative drawing and painting, while the sight-size method is very useful for these, to gain competence in these disciplines requires study in completely different bodies of knowledge. There is a lot to learn, independent of the sight-size method, about drawing heads, placement of features and proportions. The study of artistic anatomy, additionally, is its own important subject. And finally, a versatile artist should also be able to draw from imagination. Drawing from imagination is the exact inverse of drawing from real life, and I believe it is a great skill to cultivate as it forces the mind to pay attention to retaining visual imagery, for use in imagined scenes.
In summary, the sight-size method is a great tool in certain contexts and for particular purposes. It’s not the only tool or mode of drawing you should rely on in learning to draw, but when used appropriately, it can definitely help develop your skill at creating realistic art.