I wanted to post a couple of videos that I made where I’m using two different measuring techniques to gauge my proportions. The first one is a sight–size technique, where the subject is drawn in the exact scale that I see it. This technique was a very common practice in the 19th Century French Academy, and is still used today in many private ateliers. It is often introduced to students as a means of copying other master drawings in the foundational stages of their academic art education. Barque plates, (a series of prints produced by Charles Bargue of plaster casts with strong geometric lines and dramatic shadow shapes) are commonly used in the practice of sight-size drawing. This method allows the student to carefully observe an image which has all ready been reduced to a series of lines and shapes. In the act of copying other drawings, paired with sight-size measuring techniques, one begins to slowly train their eye to see the big geometric shapes first, before even thinking about rendering the subtleties of form. In the French Academy a student had to master this skill first, and only then would he or she advance to working from an actual plaster cast, and eventually the live model.
I use this method quite a bit in my teaching as it is easy to make direct comparisons of my subject to my drawing, however it has some disadvantages. Unless a student is sitting within a foot or so of their subject, the information they see will appear very small when transferring their measurements to their drawing pad. This presents problems when working from life, especially if working from a live portrait model. In a larger classroom, one would have to limit the number of students positioned around the model. If each student for example, was sitting within a foot of the model, any more than two would end up crowding the space. Therefore in a classroom, this method works very well for copies of other drawings, but not so much for a live model, unless the classroom has the luxury of having a separate model for every two students.
The second video demonstrates a method of measuring called comparative measuring, which is much more practical in a real classroom setting. This method allows the student to draw or paint their subject at any scale, regardless of their position in relationship to the subject. I still recommend that my students try out both methods to understand the pros and cons of each.
With all that explained, I just wanted to add that, although sight-size and comparative measuring are both helpful techniques for gauging the width to height ratios of a subject, they are not full proof. Subtle alterations occur when applying construction lines and even if a line is off by a few millimeters, it can change the proportions of the subject. At the end of the day, one needs to be able to rely on their eye. In my own work, I myself use measuring to check my initial judgements after I apply my big shapes, and I continue to use it periodically throughout the process to refine my details.
As a student, I relied on measuring much more than I do now. Over the years, I have developed my eye to see my proportions more accurately, so measuring is simply a tool to double check my assessments rather than a necessity.
However, when learning how to draw, it can be extremely valuable especially if proportion is something that you struggle with. As you practice the methods, you too will develop your perceptions. Eventually you will learn to recognize accurate proportions and measuring will become just a way of verifying your judgements.
Comparative Measuring Demo