Drawing and Painting From Life – The Layout Sketch

Using a few techniques and equipment can enhance the accuracy of a layout sketch from life.
Measuring
The technique is simple in principle, but requires much practice to master.
The simplest tool is use of a pencil (or brush) as a ruler and protractor. For example, when drawing a face, the pencil can be used to measure the relative size of an eye, the distance between the ear lobe and the corner of an eye, or the angle of the nose.
Hold your pencil at arms length. If the pencil is as far away as possible it will be easier to shift your eye’s focus between the pencil and the subject. Additionally, holding the pencil at arms length ensures that each time you take a measurement, the “ruler” is always the same distance from your eye/subject, and measurements will consequently so be consistent.
Place the point of the pencil where you want to measure from, and grasp the other end of the pencil at the exact point you wish to measure to. Without changing your grip, move the pencil to the paper and make a mark on the paper at the tip and point of your grasp. It helps to always measure in one direction (e.g. left to right) and that direction will depend upon whether you are left or right handed.
It is critical that you always view and measure the subject from the same point. Don’t shuffle from side to side, or bob up and down.
Scaling is tricky (a bit trial and error), but essentially requires the artist to be at the correct distance from the subject. Broadly, you need to be further away to scale down, and closer to scale up.
Grid method
Another slightly outdated but effective method of laying-out is the grid. A grid is best described as a frame containing a set of horizontal and vertical wires. The subject must be viewed from a fixed point, through the grid. The paper or canvas must similarly be covered with a lattice of squares equal in number to that of the grid. Layout is achieved by separately copying the contents of each box of the grid to the corresponding square on the paper. In effect, your layout will comprise lots of tiny drawings that all fit together to make the whole.
The artist must always view the subject from a fixed point.
Using a grid limits the potential for error, and the smaller your grid boxes, the more accurate your copy will be. If your grid is say 1cm squares, then your layout lines should never be inaccurate by more than 1cm (unless your grid is inaccurate, you draw something in the wrong square, or you do not consistently view the subject from a fixed point), but the chances are your sketch will be pretty close to millimetre perfect.
Grids take a good deal of effort and discipline to use. There are many ways to go wrong when using a grid.
Optical Systems
There is compelling evidence to suggest that many Old Masters used the equivalent of a pinhole camera to project an image of their subject on to a canvas. Layout lines were drawn directly on to paper or canvas, using the projected image as a guide.
Reproduction of this technique is somewhat impractical, other than by use of an evolved tool – the modern camera.
I find it somewhat paradoxical that the device that artists developed to allow greater accuracy and realism in their paintings has become a means to an end in itself, and in many ways a competitor. If you strive for the greatest possible accuracy, there is little reason to draw or paint from life when the camera captures the scene or moment with speed and precision.

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