Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we don’t start measuring her limbs. –Pablo Picasso
I’m sure you’ve all seen an artist at some point, either in a photo or a movie or maybe even real life, that is holding a pencil or thumb straight out in front of them and squinting one eye.
What they are doing is measuring proportions and angles. This is different from measuring for dimensions. If you wanted to get the dimensions and size of a chair, you would have to use a measuring tape. When you’re drawing, unless you’re doing an absolute life-size drawing of something, you can’t use a ruler or measuring tape. Even if you did do a life-size drawing, a measuring tape would do you no good since perspective comes into play. Say the top of the back of the chair you’re drawing measures 12 inches but it is slightly turned; the width of the chair remains the same in three-dimensional space, but the way we are seeing and representing the chair, in two-dimensional space, is much different. We are looking for proportional relationships, not a diagram.
In this lesson, we’re going to learn about sighting, or measuring objects for your drawing.
Here are the topics we’ll be discussing:
Are you excited? I am! Let’s get started!
Back in Two-Point Perspective, we briefly mentioned that your vanishing points would not always be on your paper. Let’s get back to that discussion now.
When and why do vanishing points move off the paper?
Vanishing points are where two or more lines intersect in the distance. Because real life is bigger than an 8” x 12” piece of paper, sometimes the vanishing points move off your page. If you’re drawing something that’s directly in front of you, chances are the vanishing points will be somewhere off your page.
I just took a photo of a tissue box to illustrate my point.
Let’s say I want to draw this tissue box exactly how it looks in this photograph. I’ll turn my page to portrait orientation (the side edges are longer than the top and bottom) and start to make my vanishing points. But if I make my vanishing points so that they fit onto this piece of paper, my tissue box will be wonky looking:
The first thing I did wrong here was to make the tabletop my horizon line. By trying to fit my vanishing points on the page, I was forced to invent the horizon line and now it’s in the wrong place. The second thing I did wrong was to put the vanishing points on my paper.
They’re way off my page and look at where the horizon line is—it’s above the tissue box and not even close to the tabletop.
So how do you determine where the vanishing points will be when you’re drawing something like this? It’s a little tricky, but now we’re not going to worry about marking our vanishing points anywhere. Think of having your vanishing points on your paper as riding a bike with training wheels. You have practiced and practiced (because I made you draw so many darn cubes) and now you’re ready to graduate and take the training wheels off.
Let’s Get Sighting!
Now we are going to start determining the proper angles by using our pencils. This is what is known as sighting.
In the image below, the artist is trying to determine the angle of the roofline. Hold your pencil at the same angle as the roof then, keeping it in the same position, move the pencil down to your paper and draw that angle.
I like to keep a clock in mind when I’m doing this. I hold my pencil up to the angle I want to draw, then look at the pencil to see where it would be pointing to if it were on a clock. So instead of keeping my pencil at that angle and moving it down to my paper to draw, I just remember the angle of my pencil in relation to a clock. For example, in the picture above, I would say that the angle of the roof is at about 2 o’clock. In the image below, the woman’s head is tilted at an angle just before 12.
Instead of a clock, some of you may find it helpful to think of a protractor (though certainly not me!):
Instead of 12 on the clock, it would be 90 on the protractor. The roof line in the above example is somewhere around 160 on the protractor.
Determining the correct angle of the thing you’re drawing will help you keep it in proper perspective. Not everything you draw is going to fit perfectly into your sheet of paper with the horizon line and vanishing point mainly because life is larger than 18” x 24”! Keep your vanishing points in mind, but note that most of the time they will be far away and off the edge of your paper. You’ll determine the correct angles from now on with your pencil.
One big mistake that a lot of people make is not keeping their arm straight when measuring (we watched a video by Michael Herron in the Value and Gesture lesson about this). Think about it: if you measure something using your pencil with your arm bent then measure something else, your elbow will not be bent in exactly the same way as it was before. That means the pencil is either further away from you or closer to you with each measurement you make. When that happens, you’re not measuring accurately.
When you measure with your pencil, keep your arm out straight in front of you.
Exercise One: Draw A Box Using The Sighting Method
Don’t worry—I’ll go through it with you using the tissue box I already have set up on my kitchen table from the vanishing points discussion.
All you need for measuring your object is a pencil, which you already have in your hand if you’re drawing. Find a box of some kind (tissue, pasta, cereal, etc.) and set it up on a table. Now grab your pencils, eraser, and paper and sit a few feet away from the box.
The first thing I’m going to do is draw in the horizontal line of the tabletop. Remember that I’m drawing my own setup. Your tabletop may not be perfectly horizontal—check it with your pencil to see if it is. Also, please refrain from using things like rulers to make straight lines. This isn’t an architectural drawing or a schematic and there’s no race happening, so it doesn’t need to be exact or fast. I want you to start training your hands and eyes so that you will eventually be able to draw exactly what you want without anything other than your imagination and a pencil. Keep your grip on the pencil loose and you’ll be able to get a much straighter line than if you grip it too tightly.
Next, using my pencil, I’ll measure the distance between the bottom front corner of the box to the top corner.
The distance between the bottom corner and the tabletop is the same distance as from the tabletop to the top corner. In the second photo, you can see I have drawn the vertical line of that front edge so that the top and bottom sections are equal, with the tabletop being the center line. Remember that this may not be the case for your setup! Eventually, I will erase the tabletop, but I’m leaving it in for now so that I can continue using it if I need to.
Next, I use my pencil again to determine the angle of the bottom left edge of the box (this is sort of arbitrary—I could have found the angle of any of the edges first…this one just made sense to me as I was drawing).
Even though you can’t see my arm, it’s straight out in front of me.
It looks to me that the bottom edge is somewhere around 10 o’clock (on my imaginary clock) so I hold my pencil up to my paper at that angle, look at the tissue box again to check for accuracy, then sketch in that line.
Now for the other bottom edge:
I am repeating the same process on this edge of the box. I also measured the width of the right side of the box against the width of the left side of the box and determined that the left side is longer than the right.
I used my pencil to determine the widths of each side, but I’m drawing over this photograph so you can see it better. The two white lines on the bottom edges of the tissue box are the same size! The red line on the left is how much extra I need to draw to complete that edge of the box. Turns out, it’s about half of the white line. See here:
I lined up the white lines and the red line for you to see that the two white lines are in fact the same size and the red line is just about half of that. So now I’ll measure that (again, using my pencil) onto my drawing.
Next, I’ll use the same method to find the angles of the top edges of the box.
Once I’ve sketched those in, I’ll find the back corner—the actual top—of the tissue box. Instead of sighting the angles of the very top edges, I’m going to measure the angle from the front corner of the tissue box to the back corner.
I’m adding the hole on the top of the tissue box, but instead of measuring it all out, I’m going to eyeball it and look at the spaces around it to make sure it’s accurate. In this picture (above), I’m looking at the proportional space between the edge of the hole and the corner of the box (my pencil is hovering right over that space). It looks a little too big, so when I recheck my lines, it turns out I made the right side of my box too big. Oops! I’ll change that now.
You can see where the old line is and the new line I just sketched in. I double-check the bottom edges that I already measured and they’re much better now.
And there you have it—a tissue box drawn with the sighting method! Once I’ve double-checked everything and made sure my drawing is accurate, I can go ahead and start shading it and adding details.
Once you’ve finished your box sketch, send it to me using our submission form.
Each object may have a number of different angles. To illustrate that point, let’s take a look at another painting:
I’m going to show you just a few of the angles I’ve found.
Once you have established the angles of the interior structure, you can start looking at the angles of the exterior bits as well:
Usually when I sit down to draw something, I will first establish a rough estimate of where it is on the paper, then begin sighting angles and proportions.
It’s best if you can find one area of your object to measure everything else against. For example, in the diagram above, we can see that the head of the tiger statue can be used to measure out the rest of the body. This first measurement is the length from the tip of the tiger’s nose to the top of the neck. Holding your pencil straight out in front of you, line up the end of your pencil with the tiger’s nose and mark with your thumb the ending point of that measurement—the beginning of the neck. Keeping your thumb where it is, you can move your arm slightly to continue down the length of the body, visually noting each additional segment. As you can see in the diagram, this particular tiger statue is the length of six heads.
When you draw the tiger statue, you’ll mark the length of the head on your paper, then copy that length five more times. That will be the space in which you can draw the length of the tiger statue. You can also do this vertically (the distance from the top of the tiger’s head to the bottom of his foot looks to be about 2.5-3 head lengths).
Draw these observations as you note them. There’s no need to write them down on a separate piece of paper—just start drawing. Remember that it’s only pencil and your lines aren’t permanent—you can always go back and change them later. For you left-brainers out there, I’m sorry but there’s no math involved in this technique! It’s all about eyeballing and guesstimating. Remember Learning To Trust Your Eyes? That’s what we are doing here.
Here’s another example of measuring using de Chirico’s Red Tower.
The first line I made was on the right side of the red tower to determine the height of the building before it begins to curve. I used that same unit of measurement to determine the space between the dark buildings in the foreground—there are three red tower heights between the two dark buildings. The height of the base of the horse statue on the right is half of the red tower height. I also measured the height of the largest window and found that the front side of the small farmhouse on the right is the same height as the window in the red tower. On the left, I discovered that the point where the light ends on the building is two red tower heights plus one window.
I could keep going with this until every object in the painting was measured against another object, but you get the idea.
In the following images, you will see that I have set up a simple still life of a milk carton, an orange (actually it’s a tangelo, but that’s neither here nor there), and a banana in my kitchen. Sitting in a chair about 5-6 feet away with my drawing pad on my lap, I’m holding my pencil straight out in front of me to measure the objects and the proportional relationships between them.
Keeping my thumb where it is, I rotate my pencil sideways to use the same unit of measurement against the rest of the still life.
I can see now that my still life setup—from the widest point of the banana to the edge of the milk carton is just slightly longer than the height of the milk carton. Now when I start to draw my still life, I will make the height of my milk carton (however large I want to make it on my paper) then make small pencil lines marking the outer edge of the banana and the milk carton just slightly wider than the height of my milk carton.
Still Life Video
Watch this video of Brad Hicks as he starts a drawing of a still life by using the sighting technique.
He gives a simple explanation of what sighting is at the beginning of the video and around 2:30 he sits down and begins the drawing (start there to skip the explanation, which is similar to what we’ve already discussed). It’s a nice video because it’s shot over his shoulder so you can see the still life and watch him as he draws it. Notice how he’s holding his pencil—he’s not holding it as though he’s about to write a letter, but at the end of the pencil, which makes softer lines that can easily be erased and reworked.
Exercise Two: Measure Proportional Relationships
Find a simple object in your home or studio and measure one part of it against the rest of the object. You can use a milk carton, a couch, a sleeping pet, or a friend if you’re feeling bold (and tell them not to move!). This exercise is about looking—if you want to sketch the object, that’s fine, but all I’m asking is that you start looking for proportional relationships.
So now that you know about both determining angles and sighting proportional relationships, you can use them to help you draw a still life. Using this example from Pieter Claesz (swoon!), I’ll show you how I would go about starting to draw it.
I will start by establishing the surface my objects are on (here, a table) and very loosely sketching in the basic shapes where I think they should go.
Note that the back edge of the table is not the horizon line. The horizon line is somewhere between top of the wine glass and the champagne flute (tall skinny glass). You can tell because it seems like you can look into the wine glass, making it below the horizon line, whereas the champagne glass cannot be looked into, putting it above the horizon line.
The red line is about where the horizon line is.
Now I will start my measuring. I’ll find one object to use as my unit of measurement and start measuring everything else against it. As I do this, I may need to erase and draw the object again to get it right.
I will then establish the interior angle of the objects, imagining that it has a spine that runs from one end to the other (see the blue lines in the photo below).
Next, I will find my three-dimensional forms.
And after that, I’ll look for the exterior angles. It probably seems silly to draw a sphere over the wine glass then go back and make it blocky again, but it’s just a placeholder for now.
The wine glass isn’t a perfect sphere, so that’s why I need to go back and sight the angles of the glass (if you look closely, you’ll notice the top third of the wine glass has straighter edges than the rest of it).
This is why I like to go through all these steps when I’m creating a drawing—so I know I am as accurate as I can be. Of course, once I’ve got everything accurate, I can go back and make things inaccurate if I want! That’s the beauty of art. Just make sure that when you do something inaccurate, it’s your choice to make it that way, not just because you don’t want to take the time to make it right.
So to summarize, first I set up my still life, then loosely drew out the basic shapes and placements of everything. Next, I used sighting to measure the actual forms and their proportional relationships (within the objects themselves and their relationships to the other objects). Then came the interior angles and geometric forms, then exterior angles. I finessed the drawing by checking and adjusting where necessary the shapes. In the very last step I added my details and shading/highlights.
Exercise Three: Sighting And Drawing A Still Life
Set up a still life for yourself using three objects. Sit far enough away from it (somewhere between 4-8 feet away is ideal) so that you can see the whole setup and hold your arm straight out in front of you without touching any of the objects. Before you even start drawing anything, just use your pencil—holding it straight out in front of you and squinting one eye—to start measuring heights and distances between objects. Take your time and really analyze the scene you’ve created. Once you’ve got a good feeling for the objects’ mass and placement, go ahead and start drawing them using your measurements and angles. It’s helpful to have your sketchpad upright between you and your still life so you can check your accuracy better. If you have an easel, set your sketchpad up there. If not, try propping the sketchbook up with books, your knees, or a cookbook stand.
Make sure you get all of your angles and proportional relationships accurate before you start the fun part (“rendering”—or shading and details). That part is your reward for doing the hard work first! Don’t rush yourself—take as much time as you need to do this.
When you’ve finished your drawing, send it to us using our submission form! We want to see your progress. Also, be sure to send in any tips or discoveries you want to share with your fellow students!
Key Lesson Learnings: You have learned how to use sighting with a straight arm to draw an object onto your drawing paper, and sighting proportional relationships to accurately draw multiple objects in a drawing.
Next lesson: Forms Into Objects