How to Draw with the Sight-Size Method

by Ben Rathbone

I created the first version of this page in the year 2001, and have maintained it ever since. I originally posted and maintained the page on my personal site. Around 2000, digital cameras were still new and expensive, so I took the original photos in 35mm and had them scanned. The page has gotten a steady stream of traffic over the years, and people have found it useful. I've given it a new home here, expanded it, and will continue to add more information and detail. I hope it helps you. --B.R.

The sight-size method is a way to construct realistic drawings with great accuracy and detail. It has been used for learning and teaching drawing for centuries. It is a method by which anyone with any amount of drawing experience can set up and execute a realistic drawing. I will describe the method in terms of drawing on this page, but the method it can be used for drawing or painting and can be applied to portraits, figures, a still life, a cast, or any stable scene.

Below is a description of how I used the sight-size method to execute a highly-rendered charcoal drawing of a plaster cast. I completed this drawing in 2001 at the School of Representational Art in Chicago. For a longer discussion of the strengths and limitations of the site-size method, see this article

Basic Ideas

The basic idea on which the method depends setting up a specific relationship between you, the drawing, and the subject. The relationship necessary for the method to work is where you are positioned so that you can easily view the subject and drawing so they appear to be the same visual size. Once the subject and drawing are seen as being the same size, it becomes possible to mechanically measure and compare the proportions of the subject to the drawing and judge the drawing's accuracy. The process of engaging in this method, over time, trains the eye to perceive finer and finer deviations in form between the subject and drawing and increases the artist's ability to create a realistic and accurate drawing.

To illustrate the basic idea, imagine standing inside a house on the ground level. Imagine looking through a large window to the front yard at a person standing outside about 20 feet from the window. If you, standing inside, stood at arm's length from the window, you would be able to place some tape on the window where you see the top of the person's head. You would also be able to place some tape on the window where you see the person's feet, fitting the person between the pieces of tape on the window.

Or, imagine a straight laser-like line going from your eyeball, through the window, to the top of the person's head. Imagine a second straight laser-like line going from your eyeball, through the window, to the bottom of the person's feet. Now imagine placing some tape where the first line intersects the window as well as where the second line intersects the window. You will have marked the visual height of the person as they appear on the window. Now imagine taping a sheet of paper to the window, next to where you see the person and have placed the tape marks. The crux of the sight-size method is getting the person to 'fit' on to the paper you have taped to the window and having the distance between the tape-marks correspond to the size of the drawing you wish to create on the paper.

In a studio setting and drawing a model, the position of the model would be fixed, but your position would be movable. To get the model to fit on your paper, as you moved away from the model, the model's visual size would become smaller. Plus, the distance between you and the easel can be varied to alter the size of the drawing corresponding to the model. As the easel is moved closer to the model, the size of the drawing would approach the actual size of the model.

Tools Needed

The tools needed are a long ruler or T-square, string, easel, drawing paper, and whatever drawing medium is desired. The drawing medium can be anything: pencil, pen, pastel, or paint. In this case, it was a charcoal drawing, so I started using soft vine charcoal and switched to harder and harder grades of charcoal as the drawing progressed. 

For this cast drawing, I built a wooden stand with a platform about five feet high. I draped the stand with a black cloth and attached a large board covered in gray paper behind the cast for a background. I purchased the cast shown from the Giust Gallery in Boston, and I was extremely pleased with the quality. 

I mounted my paper (Canson Mi-Tentes) on a large flat board and placed this on an easel. I created a plumb-line by tying a large hex-nut to a piece of string and tying the string to a wooden rod that I suspended above the cast. This creates a nice, stable vertical line in front of the cast that will be useful in the process of drawing.

Another item needed is something to take horizontal measurements. The traditional item is a knitting needle or another long and straight object where a distance can be noted by placing the thumb on the needle. I've always preferred and used a drafting divider, the type used to measure distances on a map.


A photograph of a plaster cast placed next to a drawing board
Figure 1: This shows the cast set up directly to the left of the drawing paper.


First Step: Setting Up

The first thing to set up in any sight-size drawing is the subject, drawing, and "vantage point" or position from which you will make your visual measurements. For sight-size cast drawing, the drawing and the cast need to be at the same height, and both need to be at eye level. For my drawing, I mounted my paper on a large wooden board and set the board on a wooden easel. I positioned the board with paper so it was perpendicular to the ground and not tilting forward or backward. I custom built the wooden stand on which I placed the cast so that I could be sure the cast was right at my eye level. 

To find the vantage point, I stood in front of both the cast and my drawing and started taking several steps directly backward. I positioned myself so that I could visually take in both the cast and my drawing without moving my head and only minimally moving my eyes. The rule of thumb is that the distance between your vantage point and the drawing should be about 3 times the height of the drawing. The key idea is that I could comfortably visually take in the cast, and my drawing and both appeared to be the same size. I also pulled the easel forward so that the plane of the drawing aligned with the front of the cast. 

Once I had picked a good vantage point, I marked the spot with masking tape on the floor. I used pieces of tape to make an outline of my shoes, on the floor, so that I could return the exact same spot and stand in the exact same position, each time I stood at my vantage point. I also made sure I wore the same pair of shoes every time I worked on the drawing so my eye level remained the same. 


Second Step: Initial Marks and Reference Lines

Once everything was positioned properly, I was ready to start the drawing. The first task in this set was to establish an initial set of reference lines to aid in the basic construction of the drawing. One can think of these as the scaffolding on which the full drawing will be built.

To do this, I stood at the vantage point, extended both arms, and held a piece of string between them to form a straight horizontal line. Raising the string, and keeping it as horizontal as possible, I positioned it so the string aligned with the top of the cast. I placed the middle of the raised string between the drawing and the cast. I made a mental note of the exact point where the horizontal line of the string intersected the edge of the paper closes to the cast. I then walked forward to the paper and made a mark, with charcoal, at that spot.

The process of making the initial marks on the edge of the paper, for a new sight-size drawing is never exact. So the process of making any marks is one of making an initial guess, and then returning to the vantage point to check the mark by holding up the string, and creating the same horizontal line between the top of the cast and your mark. When you are checking an initial mark, you only have to remember if it was too high, or too low, and then return to the paper, erase the first mark, and make a new one. This is why I use very soft charcoal to start, as soft charcoal is easy to erase. 

I repeated this process to create a handful of initial marks. It's not necessary to make too many marks, at this point, but to just get the top, bottom, and the borders of large masses set up. 


A photograph of an artist demonstrating using the sight size method.
Figure 2. This describes holding up a string horizontally to create a line that extends from the cast onto the paper.


A diagram over a photograph illustrating imaginary lines and points used in the sight size method.
Figure 3. Illustrates reference lines and marks


Third Step: Establishing Reference Lines

When five or six of these marks were in place, I took my ruler (in this case a large level), placed it horizontally on the paper, and extended a line across the paper from each mark. Figure 4 illustrates this. The result was a series of horizontal lines on the paper. I again used very soft charcoal to make these lines, as I would erase them later. I also used very little pressure with the charcoal, so the charcoal did not dig into the paper. 

Next, it was time to decide where the vertical center line would be in my drawing. The vertical center line would correspond to the plumb-line string that I had set up. The center vertical line on the drawing can be anywhere, provided there is enough space on the paper on either side for the cast as well as extra space so that the whole drawing has a pleasing composition. So I accounted for this and picked a spot for the vertical line and drew it with the level held vertically.

A photograph of an artist using a ruler to draw lines and using the sight size method.
Figure 4: Drawing horizontal lines to create reference lines from the marks made on the left of the paper.


Now I had a series of horizontal lines and a vertical line. These lines formed the scaffolding for my drawing. From here I was able to begin placing very basic lines to establish the big shapes of the cast. Figures 5, 6, and 7 show how I used these basic lines to judge a specific width, in this case, the width of the head. The width of the head on the cast can be divided into two smaller widths in reference to the plumb line. Figure 5 shows a point on the cast, above the eyes, in the middle of the cast's forehead and how it corresponds to a spot on the drawing.


A diagram over a photo illustrating a point about the sight size method.
Figure 5. Shows two points that correspond of the cast and the drawing.



Fourth Step: Drawing and Measuring.

Now that I had a basic scaffolding for the drawing in place, I was able to start defining more big shapes and forms. The rest of the drawing process was the same basic cycle of drawing and checking by measuring. An important point for this type of drawing is to always start working on large masses and forms first, and get those into place, before working on smaller shapes or details. 

To make specific shape comparisons, I used (and still use) the drafting divider. This is my tool of choice, however many people hold up a knitting needle and their thumb to delimit a length. I've always liked the divider as one can extend it to measure a length and once it is extended, it retains that length. To check a measurement on the cast, I returned to the vantage point. Figure 6 shows how I would extend my arm and hold the compass. I would extend the compass to gauge the length from the point on the plumb line to the edge of the head. Once the compass has fixed this length, I simply moved my extended arm over to the drawing and checked if my line was in the right place. If the lengths matched up, then I knew that half of the total width of the head was correct as compared to the actual cast.

A diagram over a photo illustrating a point about the sight size method.
Figure 6. Using the compass to measure a width on the cast.
A photo illustrating how to use a divider with the sight size method.
Figure 7. Using the compass to check the width on the drawing.


I repeated the process of taking measurements and comparing lengths on the cast to what I had in my drawing constantly. The compass can be used to judge all kinds of lengths, widths, and spatial relationships. It can be used to not only judge positive space relationships, but negative space relationships as well such as the space between the features, or the shapes of shadows. I mapped out big shapes and forms first and then broke them into smaller shapes and forms. 

I did an initial version of the cast drawing on newsprint. I did this for specific reasons. First, when working with charcoal, the process of drawing and erasing takes a toll on the paper. The more you draw and erase, draw and erase, the more the fibers of the paper get worn down. Second, every subject that you apply the sight-size method too will have its own personality. Every drawing is a challenge and will have its own unique challenges. Doing an initial drawing on cheap newsprint allowed me to get a sense of the challenges for this particular drawing. It also saved me from overworking the nicer, more expensive paper that I would use to fully render this drawing. Since my vantage point, easel, and cast were all fixed in position, it was easy for me to transfer the drawing on newsprint to the nicer paper, and continue the drawing process with many measurements and lines already established. 


A photo of a drawing done with the sight size method.
Figure 8. Preliminary charcoal drawing.


A photo of a fully rendered charcoal drawing done with the sight size method, side by side with a plaster cast.
Figure 9. Final fully rendered drawing.


Click here for a larger image of the finished drawing.

I've described how I set up and started this drawing. The basic process of the sight-size method of drawing stays the same to the end of the drawing. The tasks of adding values, rendering, and taking the drawing to a high level of detail are outside the scope of this page, however, it retains the core of drawing and measuring and repeatedly comparing the drawing and the subject from a fixed vantage point. 

The sight-size method can be used applied to almost any kind of visual art where highly detailed realism is the goal. I've used this same process for cast painting, portrait drawing, portrait painting, figure drawing, and clay sculpture. As one employs this method more and more, one develops the ability to see and make finer and finer shape and form discriminations. The ability to see finer and finer deviations between the subject and drawing is what enables the ability to execute drawing with increasing accuracy and greater realism.

Additional Information

I learned and practiced this method at the (now-closed) School of Representational Art, in Chicago and The Academy of Realist Art, in Toronto, and Atelier Eftimov in Chicago. Both are wonderful institutions dedicated to keeping Classical Realism alive and vital. For more information on Classical Realism, I recommend the Art Renewal Center for more information.

Also, click here for a longer discussion of the strengths and limitations of the sight-size method. 

All the best,

Ben Rathbone