Monday, December 22, 2008

Seven Inch Figures

How big should you make your figure drawings? When I was in art school they told us to buy 18 x 24 inch paper, and the figures were supposed to be about 21 inches tall, enough to fill the vertical page.

British academic painter Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896) made the case for drawing them about one third that size.

“In drawing a whole figure from nature we should be three times its length from it, to oversee it properly. If we draw normally, we must draw on the scale on which we should trace, if our sheet of paper were a sheet of glass held up, and if, instead of pencil, we traced with a diamond on this interposed pane you will find that a five-foot figure then comes about seven inches high on your glass, or its substitute, your paper.

On this scale the comparison is direct and not proportional. On this scale, and, largely, in accordance with this law, are drawn all studies from nature by masters of all periods. Of course, I am not speaking of cartoons. The studies I speak of could be squared up and enlarged to cartoons on any scale required for decoration in fresco, or on canvases.

Now, if Rubens and Longhi and Watteau and Fragonard and Ingres and Millet and Puvis and Keene, and all the company of the blessed drew on that scale, they probably knew what they were about.”

---As recalled by Walter Sickert, quoted from The Study of Drawing, 1910, reprinted in Apollo Magazine, 1996, page 47

More on Leighton at Art Renewal Center, link.
In reference to the distance to sit from the model, see previous GJ post: "Pyramid of Vision."

Note: "Cartoons" is used by Leighton in the sense of full size preliminary line drawings, not in the sense we use the word to describe small humorous drawings.

Addendum: Blog reader Godo, who doesn't have an account for comments, sent an email with the sketch above, as well as the following interesting discussion:

Since several weeks I am reading your blog, a real interesting publication.
Maybe you are interested in what I wanted to say, so here is my contribution:

This is a problem of elementary geometry. The intercept theorem explains the relationship between the size of the figure (A), the distance of the painter from the figure (B) and the distance of the drawing paper or canvas from the painter’s eye (D) (see picture).

Sometimes I heard my students say: I cannot draw something different from what I see. What does it mean I wondered? In fact it was the case what Erik stated above: it is natural and the easiest way to draw. Sometimes you cannot approach a subject as you want. When I asked to “zoom” the picture they felt uncomfortable as they had to draw bigger than they “saw”.

“In drawing a whole figure from nature we should be three times its length from it, to oversee it properly. … will find that a five-foot figure then comes about seven inches high on your glass, or its substitute, your paper.

From this statement we can easily calculate, that the painter held his drawing paper at a distance (D) of about 21 inches (54 cm); this is approximately the length of the stretched arm.
Thanks, Godo!


Erik Bongers said...

Yes, I'm sure there must be something very natural to drawing at the size of what you would see through a glas plate, held at the drawing distance towards the model.

By looking up at the model and down at our paper again, it must be as if we just have to draw the memory of what our eyes saw just a second ago.

I'll try this in the model group next time.

jeff said...

I don't do sight size drawing but this method produces figure drawings that are larger than 7 inches. From what I have seen these drawings are in the 24" x 16" range.
Most of Prud'hon's drawings are this size, at least the ones I have seen and the drawings seem to be in proportion to the height of the paper(24").

I do agree with the idea of doing smaller drawings. The problem is that for any life drawing situation it's going to relative to your position from the model stand.

I teach drawing myself and this is a problem as some of the other drawing teachers are into making the students do large drawings all the time. I use a 14 x 17 pad in my class so I'm having them do larger drawings than this, but I am into getting them to measure using relative head measurements.
Which is sometimes like trying to get blood out of a stone with some of the students.

Making A Mark said...

I always used to use a small pad - and produced drawings a little bigger than 7" - for the 'quickie' whole figure drawings at the beginning of a life class. My rule was that each drawing had to very nearly fill the page. It was great for making sure I observed carefully the relative proportions of body parts in different poses even when drawing fast.

I'd then switch to a larger A3 or A2 size pad for the longer poses.

The thing I notice most about people doing large size drawings of the quick poses is how much time they have to waste changing their paper on their easels!

Meanwhile I'm afraid I grin like a Cheshire cat as I just turn a page on my pad!

Steve Lieber said...

Robert Fawcett made this argument very effectively in his book "On the Art of Drawing" and included some nice diagramatic drawings explaining the concept.

Unknown said...

I guess that works great if you work in a medium that supports small detail, such as pencil, and have good eyes and dextrous hands. I couldn't imagine drawing that small with vine charcoal, especially if you wanted to capture features on the figures.

r8r said...

I think the whole point of the sight-size process is to get an image that is unaffected by perspective parallax, and thus learn human proportion without having to figure in that variable.

Once that idea is firmly in your head and hands as a standard, then there isn't any reason why one can't choose any viewpoint and any angle from which to draw a figure.

Something Sickert alludes to is the need to move the eyes and hand as little as possible when shifting from observation to drawing and back again. A well-positioned easel or drawing board is a tremendous help.

Godo said...


Stephen James. said...

It's a very good question. I find that measuring gets more difficult when the figure gets smaller. The leg can be a milimeter off, and suddenly the whole figure looks wrong.

anima-base said...

Wow. It's a good post.