How to Use Sight Size Drawing for Accuracy – and a Watercolor Portrait

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 a light scaffolding of shapes and angles under watercolors, I find the grid method and sight-size drawing both 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.

The artist arranges the subject (in this case above, the reference photo) and the 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 Drawing

  • 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: 1) the way your brain is hardwired to learn, 2) the style your teacher uses to teach, 3) what you tell yourself along the way, and 3) 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.

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

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

10 thoughts on “How to Use Sight Size Drawing for Accuracy – and a Watercolor Portrait”

  1. Pingback: How to Paint a Portrait of a House in Watercolor - belindadelpesco

  2. Pingback: 5 Great Tools for Beginner Watercolor Artists - belindadelpesco

    1. 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!

  3. 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!

    1. 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. ??

Write something.... pretend we're neighbors, and we’re painting watercolors together in the garden....