Fundamentals of learning to see:

Proportion – Shapes – Values – Edges

These are the fundamental elements used in any form of representational or “realistic art”. In order to see in a visual sense we have to unlearn the way we have grown up to see and instead see the world from the view of patches of shapes and colour. We develop from an early age the idea of an outline or silhouette, this becomes entirely apparent when one looks at a drawing attempt by an untrained amateur. Universally people will use line to distinguish forms normally in isolation. An example of this will be a portrait profile where a hard line will be drawn from the top of the head to the bottom. This way of seeing is very useful for us in order to understand size weight and relative placement of an object, look for example at a book/vase etc and you will have a very good idea of its distance and weight. You can see this visual understanding of the world develop if you ever have seen a baby or toddler hold an object, they will manipulate it in any way possible, holding biting and feeling it, this will give them a mental library of the world around them.
It is interesting to ask a beginner student as to why they have used line and if they can point to the line they have drawn on the setup, normally they will draw (many more puns to come) a blank unable to explain why they have drawn what is in reality a made up mark with no bearings on the reality around them, this is first step in learning to see what our eyes are really seeing and not what our mind has told us is there.
what we have to do is deconstruct this world into fore said abstract shapes, this can feel like stepping off into the unknown, and new students often feel lost and frustrated.
by using the fundimental elements of porportion shapes value and edges, the world around us can be abstracted, manipulated and ultiminated understood and finding that illusive sense of reality.

At every school teaching any sort of realism worth their salt will put the student through as much drawing practice as they need, drawing underpins everything you ever do in this form of art. Be it portrait, figure, still life, landscape or Cityscape all colour should at first be ignored and drawing should be the sole focus, without drawing the whole piece WILL collapse.
“Drawing includes three and a half quarters of the content of painting…Drawing contains everything, except the hue.”  Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Ingres epitomised classical realism and so is a good authority when it comes to understanding the importance of drawing. It is tempting to whip out the brushes straight away and get going with those juicey paints as the masters make it look so inviting. Remember in every stroke is years of practise, just as by listening to Miles Davis one could assume jazz is just lots of notes played quickly. Upon attempting the same a layman will find him/herself forcably removed from the area by a baying crowd.

Drawing is not a thing to be rushed or skimped but something to study endless, every AHA moment will lead to many more questions to be answered but also a greater understanding of your craft. The more you understand the more you will be confident in your work and something once frustratingly hard will leave you wondering how you could have come unstuck. Adults often have a very hard time accepting they are wrong and so many give up upon their first attempt, often commenting that it looks like a childs drawing. This by and large is because their drafting development will often stop as a child, just like if we didn’t practice our handwriting into adulthood then we would still write like a child. It is fascinating as a child is often not worried about being wrong and so developing these visual skills can come naturally to them, just like verbal language.

With all this in mind lets tackle the most important (this can not be stressed enough) aspect of drawing

The best way to summarise proportion is to look at a scaffolding on a building site, sitting in my studio now there are teams of workers who for the past 2 weeks have been erecting scaffolding around a building. it seems an awful lot of work to put into something that will simply be taken down again but without its support the building work could never commence.
Proportion is best shown at the beginning using simple shapes, bottles, vases etc work great. Although this seems miles away from the Rembrandt, Zorn or Sargent like paintings you may want to get stuck into, all have their roots here.
What many beginners find is that they begin drawing but after a while they realise that they can not fit the head hands feet or what ever it may be onto the page and so those hours sometimes days of work is wasted. if only we could select the drawing and move it but alas in this analogue world of art there are some drawbacks.
To stop this from happening you must before anything else define your outer limits of whatever it is you are drawing. These are your anchors and allow you to have a tangible grasp on your subject.
In compositions that are vertical i.e. a standing figure pose your anchor points should be something like the head and feet in compositions that are more horizontal your anchor points should be the furthest to the left and right. What this means is that these lines CAN NOT change, and it is the other two that can be moved in and out or up and down. although that seems like a massive restriction it allows you to draw at any size you would like just simply asking your self too wide or too narrow? This, as with anything worth doing takes lots of practice but after a while your eyes will begin to improve and accurate placement will become easier and quicker.
Creating this box (the highest, lowest, furthest point to the left and furthest point to the right) gets you into the drawing and past the most difficult part- the beginning, staring at a blank page/canvas can be like staring into the abyss. Having something simple on the gives us a starting point.
Many schools get around this by utilising the sight size method, where by the the size of what you see is the size of what you paint. For example to draw a portrait life size one would have to set up the paper or canvas directly next to the model the further back the paper or canvas is the smaller the final image is. While is solves problems of scale it can lead to crutches later on in your artistic endeavour and sometimes you will not be able to stand in exactly the right space that you want. But as long as you understand that anything can be scaled up or down simply by keeping the whole in proportion.


After this initial placement (1) has been set and the box( when we refer to the box what we are referring too is the embodiment of the whole scene or whatever you are enveloping) defined, you want to use horizontal or vertical lines to break it down into smaller areas. Remember to find the outside only, so in this example we can see the tops of the smaller boxes and those are the lines we find.

Here for example it is easiest to find a vertical line for the two smaller boxes(2) in one group and find the vertical line for the box on the far left(3), All the time asking your self too wide or too narrow. We then find the the horizontal line for the highest of the two (4), now asking yourself too high or too low, and then the horizontal line for the lowest one(5). Now we find one vertical line to find the two boxes separately- boxes within boxes!

This idea of drawing boxes gives you a good insight into how to simplify a large group of objects in order to break them down into their individual components. Of course you will probably want to draw more than just boxes during your artist career.

Here we have a bottle which tapers top the neck, at first we go back to drawing the box (1) but now we want to indicate where the neck starts with a horizontal line going through(2), joining the two sides. next we want to draw two lines that meet the top of the neck(3), being careful about the placement, in this case it is simple as the opening will be in the center of the box. At this point check the lines are correct. From here we find two more to indicate the slope of the neck on each side(4). As you can see we keep it very simple developing it one stage at a time.

Another example using two different size bottles, showing where to place the first guide line (shown in yellow)

these initial lines will vary hugely as not every scene will contain the same elements but as long as you are looking for those largest areas to break down first you should be able to find your way.

  • portrait proportion

The same process is applied to portraits, here the process repeats itself over and over as people are fair more similar than they are different. Everyone has two eyes two ears one nose and a mouth. there are obviously any number of ways to start a drawing (such is art) but I have found over the years all portraits can be started with just 5 lines and you will have a very good idea if you are on the right track and if it looks wrong then you only have one of 5 lines to adjusts. These are one for the shoulder ( imagine a skewer running through the middle of the shoulder) one for the top of head one for chin and two for each side(1).
Once these five lines are decided upon, there are six more you would want to find(2), one for the fringe ( of course this will depend on the model) one for top of eye brow (probably the easiest line to judge) , one for bottom of eyes one for nose- important to remember the bottom of the nose and not the shadow and a line for the middle of mouth and a line indicating the bottom of the lower lip. From here I find the corner of each eyes creating a box for each, corner of nose and corner of mouth(3). You see how I find all my horizontal lines first then the vertical, this means if there is something wrong I then only have to move them up or down- making the decision making even easier! And the vertical lines I just have to move left or right.

From here I would then find the whole mass of the hair(4), breaking down the portrait into two masses, keeping my lines simple and straight. Two lines would indicate the each ear aswell if they are seen.

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You will find that if you were to draw these proportional lines and then change the lighting by and large they will remain true, chasing shadows too soon will lead to continual changes where as by finding the proportion shadows can be “draped” over.

Plate 3 of Adolphe Yvon’s “Methode de dessin”

Here is a plate from Adolphe Yvon (1817-1893) manual “Methode de dessin” published in 1867, this manual was written for the benefit of “schools and high schools”. This is the same method that John Singer Sargent used when studying in Paris.
The plate describes in similar style as the portrait example how to simplify the forms into horizontals and verticals and then long simple straight lines, simplifying complex forms into big geometric shapes.

By completing this stage as accurately as possible you have given yourself the foundations of a successful drawing or painting and now mistakes will become smaller and in doing so easier and quicker to change and correct.

find a sketchbook and practice using bottles vases, teapots etc and you will see with this very simply method any object/a can be drawn accurately.