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

A Relational Reply to "Ask the Experts: Two Methods for Accurate Drawing, The Artist's Magazine, March 2017"

March 2017

To the Editor:

Re: Ask the Experts: Two Methods for Accurate Drawing

    After reviewing the article cited above I felt that as a teacher of “relational” drawing I should respond to various presumptions about our methods. Since there are various exponents of non-sight-size drawing out there working in as many ways I can only speak for relational - what is inadequately referred to as “comparative” - drawing, as we apply it. (The article conveys the impression that there are only two kinds of “accurate” drawing, sight-size being the opposite of any and all others, hence my interest in responding to the broad brush approach.) However, there are so many false assumptions presented here about what presumes to constitute this approach at large, and the level of confusion it generates is so great not to mention damaging, that it is important for the neophyte familiar with the problems inherent in sight-size to hear another point of view.
    The article seems in general to be a celebration of sight-size and wholly confusing and dismissive of relational drawing, if only by the inadequate and misleading way it presents it. One of the great draftsmen of all time, Degas, believed sight-size was so problematical that he created in his mind a teaching studio where it would be impossible to practice it after the first year. This was because he knew that ours is primarily an art of relations. Those dedicated to the gods of neo-realism believe something quite different. Here is a list of a number of the key errors in the text of the article, as it relates to traditional relational teaching and working, followed by a short discussion referencing the numbered points.

1. “Working from the inside out”
2. “Structural drawing”
3. “The artist generally stands or sits directly behind the easel.”
4. “Small shifts in the contour of the pose will not...undermine anything essential.”
5. “Straight rods and skewers are often used for siting angles and measurements.”
6. “A certain understanding of anatomy [bone structure, musculature] often comes into play allowing artists to inform what they see with what they know.”
7. “Unique record of an artists opinion”
8. “Form drawing is often based nearly as much on an intellectual understanding of the subject as it is on direct observation from life.”
9. “Piecemeal.”

    First, starting with point seven (7), relational drawing from life is not the expression of an opinion. Its entire purpose is the accurate rendering of the truth before the artist and, for a student, critical for instruction and correction. As such, it is wholly ineffective when based on some “intellectual understanding” (8) rather than immediately observed and compared visual truth. The same applies to the totally non-visual “structural drawing” so common to college courses. No amount of understanding of anatomy (6) or anything else is even slightly helpful for training the eye, but frankly a stumbling block - except, as with any other method, to check results. Measuring beforehand (5) is totally frowned upon and any devices are only used to check expressed observations. “Small shifts in the contour of the pose” (4) always undermine the progress of the honest articulation of the truth since the same accuracy applies to relational as to any other kind of life study per se. Since the method involves working from the greater to the lesser, we naturally and regularly work from the outside in and not the inside out (1) although we often involve other strong visual elements early to the extent they may assist in visually establishing major shapes, etc. We never work by standing immediately behind the easel (3) unless doing a very small picture, period. Anyone who cares about seeing the thing as a whole remains far away from both model and image to see them as a whole. Piecemeal (9) working is far more likely to be a problem for a sight-size method painter since they continually reference local information as though it were true in itself, rather than a function of other data. In other words: Unlike sight-size as a method, since the relational is the only truth in nature that is useful, there is little if any use for any isolated local truth having a one-to-one relationship with our canvas.
    As a student of R. H. Ives Gammell, I can assure the reader that these are not haphazard conclusions. They are the product of a lifetime of study and practice of methods not just of Gammell himself, but the Boston School as well - whose way of working was neither Gammell's, nor sight-size as practiced today. I invite the reader to consider again the problems associated with sight-size as a method, rather than what it should be: Just a place on the studio floor, and revisit the all-important world of visual relationships, the ultimate source of visual music. Anyone interested in further discussions are welcome to my time.

Paul Ingbretson

Paul Ingbretson,  Red Teapot

Paul Ingbretson, Red Teapot