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


The disproved axiom that "drawing is everything," or the equally destructive “well drawn is well enough colored” are two great errors promoted in modern realist ateliers. The discovery of a far better way of expressing the whole truth when painting from nature led painters to abandon principles of the “cult of the integrity of the outline,” as Degas commentator, Paul Valery once called it. Though he saw this new way of working all around him (presumably in such artists as Sargent and Sorolla among many others), Degas never surrendered to it as his method. I would suggest that he accommodated some of its beneficial effects in his own way, as referenced in the poet's essay “Degas Dance Drawing”:

As soon as a painter no longer conceives of color as local quality active in itself by contrast with other colors but as a local effect of all the light in a space, shared by all the forms it contains; as soon as he attempts to perceive this subtler repercussion, and use it give his work a certain unity different from that of composition, his conception of Form is entirely changed. Followed to the limit he arrives at impressionism.”*

In his book on Vermeer, Boston School Painter Philip Hale makes the point that rather than being merely the outline or contour( and what happens within it) drawing is, well ... everything, inclusively:

The trouble with trying for merely light and shade, merely for colour, merely for drawing, is not only that we miss all the other qualities but even that which we try for we distort ... a man who modestly tries to make the drawing, the values, the colour as they appear is apt if he has ability to do all three well. You cannot get really accurately modeled drawing without true colour. Indeed, if by some miracle one were able to paint each color right in tone, shape and shift the drawing would come by itself. They are simply other names for colour. The truest drawing is a melange of light and shade. The moment a man searches for one quality alone he does, by the very act, strip it of some of its most important attributes. We too often forget that all things are made manifest to us through the action of light. “Light and shade” cannot truly be rendered unless it includes colour and form. Form, as it appears to us, cannot be rightly indicated without the aid of colour and of chiaroscuro. Colour, true colour, cannot be well suggested unless the shapes are right and the modulation; in other words the drawing and values.

The reason Vermeeer made his drawing so just, his values so true, was because he cared so much about colour. His drawing in his best things came right because the chiaroscuro, the edges and the colour were rightly observed. He loved light and shade, he was a master of it, and the only way he could render its beauty as he saw it was by getting his drawing and his subtle colour shifts just right.

By bringing such thinking into actual practice, bringing all the elements, all the horses, into the exercise from the beginning and not just the outlines of objects, Boston School painters achieve greater unity in rendering nature. In doing so, they encompass more actual content than ever before, altering forever the very idea of unity itself. The complete painter understands this.

Paul Ingbretson, October 2017

*In a future post I hope to follow up with a finer analysis of the “unity different from that of composition” point which is unlikely to mean anything at all to the object outline painter not initiated in the way of working referred to here.

Degas, "Portrait de Marguerite Degas," 1859.

Degas, "Portrait de Marguerite Degas," 1859.

Ingres, "Madame Gonse," 1852

Ingres, "Madame Gonse," 1852

DeCamp, "Blue Veil," c. 1913.

DeCamp, "Blue Veil," c. 1913.