How to Use a Grid or Sight Size drawing for better accuracy – and a Watercolor Portrait

watercolor portrait of a woman on a couch next to a cat
Lull 10×7 Watercolor on Plate Finish Bristol

The Trifecta: Grid Method, Sight Size Drawing and Watercolor Glazing

Artists have developed many tips and tricks to improve accuracy and results in art-making. For drawing under watercolors, I find the grid method and sight-size drawing both very beneficial. In painting – I love the gossamer affect and shape-control you get with watercolor glazing. If you’re unfamiliar with these methods, let’s talk about them a little with this watercolor portrait (above) as an example.

Using a combination of the grid method and sight size drawing on a watercolor portrait
Using Sight-Size and the Grid Method together: The reference photo and the drawing are the same size. The photo is folded into a grid, the sketch has the same grid in light pencil.

Why Should You Try Sight-Size Drawing

Sight-Size (also called cast drawing or old master drawing) is used in portraiture and interior/still life paintings to get more accuracy by arranging the subject (in this case above, the reference photo) and your support (watercolor paper) in identical sizes, and close together, for measuring and comparison. If your painting surface is 11×14, and you paint from photos, your photo/subject should be 11×14 too. Your reference photo’s parts – and your drawing’s parts should match in size and relationship. Sight-size drawing improves our drawing memory. It’s a practice for recording details as “twins” when you focus on measuring, and same-size duplication of shapes and lines. If your source photo is small, and your support is large, you have to mentally enlarge the shape before you lay pencil to paper. Does that make sense to you? (If not, have a piece of chocolate [it’s helpful, I promise], and read on.)

sight-size-painting-in-watercolor
A watercolor in process, with the reference photo enlarged at a local copy shop to match the size of the watercolor paper.

What is Sight Size Method?

What is Sight Size Drawing?

Sight Size drawing is a method of rendering your subject and your painting in the same size, set close together, so you can see your work and your subject without moving your head, and without any distortion or angles. Drawing is a memory task. We look at a subject, and then look away from it, at our paper/canvas, trying to remember and replicate the shapes, proportions, angles and shading. If your drawing is smaller than your reference, or your work surface is angled away from you, your brain has to interpolate differences between the subject’s size and angles before you draw each line. Your art-brain gets taxed with adjusting scale and angle, on top of recalling the shapes and particulars of the subject. By keeping your reference and drawing identically matched, you can move your eyes back and forth, over and over, between the same size subject and same size drawing, to compare measurements of all the drawing’s parts.

OK, how about now? Does Sight Size make more sense to you? sight-size-drawing

Online Resources for Sight-Size

  • Artist Sadie Valerie has recently launched an online Atelier that includes a number of painting and drawing classes online that you can either download, or subscribe to. Her line up of courses includes cast drawing here.
  • Florent Farges describes sight-size on his YouTube channel and discusses the pros and cons, best subjects, and where it has limitations. Click here to see his take on it.
  • Ben Rathbone teaches a step by step approach to Sight Size on a page on his website studydrawing.com. You can check it out here.
After sketching the figure using sight size and a grid (see more on that here), I used watercolor glazing to build values. Oh yeah, and I added a cat. 😸

Ignore the Art Police

Don’t let anyone tell you that Sight-Size or Gridding or Glazing are the *only* way to draw or paint. They are three of many drawing and painting tips. Each of us learns in different ways, so Gridding or Sight-Size will work for some and not at all for others. Explore some of the resources for Sight Size drawing online, or buy a book on the subject to see if it makes sense to you. Experiment in your own work with Sight Size or Grid Drawing or Watercolor Glazing. (Sign up to be notified when my Grid Method for Watercolor class goes live here.) Repeated practice of different drawing and painting methods builds confidence, which makes the process more enjoyable. Leave no stone unturned in your quest for art-making directions that speak to you. Absorption of new painting and drawing methods depends on four things: the way your brain is hardwired to learn, the style your teacher uses to teach, what you tell yourself along the way, and whether you can commit to practice long enough to get through the discomfort of beginner-hood. The last two are very important. Do you agree?

A demonstration of watercolor glazing on my youtube channel

Don’t Be Mean

If you’re just starting a journey into drawing and painting watercolors, remember to be kind. The same civility we encourage towards other people should be applied to ourselves when tackling a new task with a long list of skills to learn. Your mindset is a cornerstone for your success or failure at anything new and challenging. If you are prone to internal browbeating, painting watercolors as a beginner could be more stressful than joyful or relaxing. You have a choice to make there, and I’d recommend leaning towards the mindset of a student on a long, exploratory adventure. All growth, even in a bean sprout, is incremental, so premature expectations of perfection will make painting into something intimidating. And then you’ll wonder why you don’t make art very often. Praise effort over results. To keep your art pleasant, be pleasant to yourself while practicing. To keep your art skills growing, paint often.

Thanks for stopping by today, and I’ll see you in the next post –

Belinda

P.S. If you’re new around here, subscribe (free) to get each new post via email.

Art Quote

There’s scientific evidence that the neural connections grow and become stronger the more you struggle with learning and correct your mistakes. 

The Khan Academy
If titling your art leaves you blinking and staring at your work, or you settle for obvious subject based titles (titling a red barn painting “The Red Barn”), this course will help you.

9 Responses to How to Use a Grid or Sight Size drawing for better accuracy – and a Watercolor Portrait

  1. Steina Einars Fine Art 19/09/2019 at 10:03 am #

    Hello Belinda. Thank you for your wonderful instruction video which each time I learn more from, even though I am not doing much art at present due to health reason. Much appreciated.

    • Belinda Del Pesco 19/09/2019 at 10:12 am #

      Hello Steina! I’m sorry you’re not feeling well. I hope you regain strength and stamina so you can get back to making art very soon, even if it’s only doodling flowers in the margins!

  2. maryliztippinmoody 17/09/2019 at 3:18 pm #

    Thank you Belinda for all your encouragements and explanations of the “how” and “why”! I am a teacher of senior adults, and it can be tricky sometimes to convey the how or why without seeming stilted or too academic. I love your statement to be kind to yourself when learning to draw via sight-size. It is empowering to see people get the hang of it – a feeling of joy! Lovely painting too, as always!

    • Belinda Del Pesco 18/09/2019 at 8:32 am #

      Hi Mary Liz, I’m so glad the how and why makes sense to you, and provides additional verbiage for teaching your students. I applaud your conviction to relay a deeper, more graspable understanding of art-making to budding artists. 👏🏼

  3. selena dixon 17/09/2019 at 8:19 am #

    thank you for this and all the links! so helpful…

    • Belinda Del Pesco 18/09/2019 at 8:20 am #

      Hi Selena – Thanks for your visit and your feedback. I’m glad the links were helpful.

  4. Laurel Daniel 17/09/2019 at 6:22 am #

    You are so good!! As usual, instructive and inspiring. And I love Lull.

    • Belinda Del Pesco 18/09/2019 at 8:19 am #

      Ahh, hello there, my friend! How are you? Thanks so much for the visit and the sweet comment. I’m so glad to see your beautiful work in my inbox again. (hugs)

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 5 Great Tools for Beginner Watercolor Artists - belindadelpesco - 11/10/2019

    […] important to you, use Sight-Size or Grid methods to help with the placement of shapes and angles. Here is a post about using Sight Size, and below are some tools to help with your beginning watercolor painting […]

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