The Problem of Sight-Size and Construction Drawing

        When working from life one may align the canvas with nature, so as to have the general sizes of objects (once laid in) appear the same size as the actual objects. That is sight-size as Sargent knew it, and at its least problematic. Some believe it to be a very useful canvas placement for beginners. That is the first consideration when thinking about point one.
        Secondly, all shapes as they appear in two dimensions consist of a great many angles. The obvious ones are, say, the angles associated with the shapes making up the sides and roof of a house. However, there are others innumerable - consisting of all points in relation to other points. The point of the roof to the corner of the door, or a treetop to a flower. Construction drawing sets out these angle groups to a greater or lesser degree as the underpinning of the start, or, in fact, as the start itself. Drawing from life cannot be accurate without a review for accuracy of all such angles.
        The problem today is that these two things, these two ideas  - both of which I have been a student of -  have become methods in and of themselves. They have overtaken the notion of learning to 'draw with the eyes,' as Stevenson describes the way of Velasquez. Sight-size is problematical in that it implies one needn't learn to see, but instead simply become a transfer agent for sizes and angles in and of themselves: The sum of every little factoid of size brings you to the whole. The problem of construction drawing is that its generalizations of angles are non-specific, visually putting off until later the need to draw the seen. In both cases mechanical constructs precede the actual look of nature - something not found in the great drawing of the past. Mechanics replace the seen.
        In both cases you exhaust your energies before getting to the point. The axiomatic advice of the Boston School, attributed to Bonnat that you 'make it as like as you can the first time' appears not to apply in these methods by which the look of nature is unnecessarily deferred.
        Degas believed it was a mistake to allow anyone to work side by side with the subject, as the chief concern is the relational. The reason in smallest part, being that all we do is a transposition rather than an actual copy in the first place. The larger reason concerns painting's mission, which is to find the music, the harmonies, in the relationships of things visual. Therefore his recommendation was to - if only gradually - separate the painter as much as possible from the temptation to manufacture a mere facsimile of nature by placing the model five floors away from the draughtsman.
        For Degas, nature - what you see factually, literally, in front of you - is merely the data, the setting, the field from which one works. It's not the end of painterly activity. Yes, a student must learn to draw accurately. But by using one's eyes, not obviating the use of them through non-visual strategies. Nature, as Ingres puts it, is 'la source.' Not the end. Visual beauty is the means, as well as the end.
       (By the way, neither is the primary mission of painting the expression of someone's philosophy or any other narrative. But the discussion of the relevance of subject is another entire blog post.)

Degas,  Lying Nude

Degas, Lying Nude

Degas,  Study for Scene of War in the Middle Ages

Degas, Study for Scene of War in the Middle Ages

Degas,  Scene of War in the Middle Ages

Degas, Scene of War in the Middle Ages