On the left: A photograph of Coventry Patmore (1891). On the right: A detail of Sargent’s painting of him (1894).
At their most basic levels, drawing and painting are initially all about creating the correct shape in the correct place. On their own, neither a shape nor placement suffice. To be completely accurate, both must be correct.
Learning to see begins by training your eye to correctly see shapes and their relationships to the other shapes in the scene. Once you can do that effortlessly, deviating from those shapes and placements for artistic purposes is certainly fine (as you can see in the comparison image above). But when the deviation is due to inaccurate sight, you have yet to fully learn how to see.
The concept is never more critical than when doing a portrait because minute, accidental inaccuracies greatly affect the portrait’s likeness to the sitter. Sure, with a landscape (and perhaps some still life objects) you might be able to get away with shape and placement errors. I mean, being off by a quarter of an inch for a tree branch will not affect its still looking like a tree. However, be aware that it will no longer look like the specific tree you were drawing.
That is one reason why shape and placement accuracy is so important. It is solely where likeness (of a person, tree, whatever) resides. Therefore, as a student it should be your primary concern.
You must get your spots in their right place and your lines precisely at their relative angles.
John Singer Sargent, as quoted by his student Henry Haley.
There are basically two ways to go about this, although it would be incorrect to assume that there is no crossover. The most challenging approach is to attempt to create the correct shape in the correct place right from the start. Doing so requires great mental focus and a commitment to never accept anything less than perfection at all stages of the drawing or painting.
John Singer Sargent was a master in the pursuit of getting the correct shape in the correct place, and only then deviating from it. Many sitters to him wrote about how he would struggle with this. While most trained artists draw or paint a shape, and then adjust it, Sargent wanted to create each shape correctly in one line or stroke.* After each attempt, he was known to have stepped back into his viewing position to assess it. If the stroke’s shape or position was flawed, he yelled out, “Demons!”, then scraped it off and tried again. This is why his number of required sittings was at times legendary.
Detail comparison of Madame Gautreau’s head in Sargent’s Madame X (1883-84).
On the left: One of Sargent’s drawings for the painting. Center: A close up of the final painting.
On the right: An X-radiograph of the painting, with the outline of the final version superimposed.** According to that analysis, Sargent repainted her profile at least eight times.
During Sargent’s time, an elongated elegance was the predominant style that artists used when deviating from nature. Due to his training and skill, I think we can assume that much of his frustration was caused more by his search for a believable elegance than for visual accuracy.
Of course, it is possible to make it appear that you drew or painted an accurate shape in one stroke, even though you may have used many. And that brings us to the other way to arrive at the correct shape in the correct place, which is through a process of continual, additive correction. This is the process of those who block-in their drawings with facets.
More so than Sargent, Velazquez was known for representing an accurate visual impression as opposed to using an elongated style. He also seemed to have adjusted his shapes as he went, rather than pursuing an alla prima* approach to them.
You can see an example of this in part of one of his unfinished paintings, below.
Velazquez, detail of The Needlewoman (c. 1640).
Continual, additive correction is done by correcting the error rather than blotting it out and beginning again. Oftentimes an error is a useful path on the way to accuracy. Your eye uses it to judge how far off the shape is from correct. In fact, the error may not really be an error at all. It may simply be an intentional step in the process (like the block-in mentioned above).
Velazquez, The Needlewoman (c. 1640).
Regardless of which path you choose, in order get the correct shape in the correct place you must learn to see the whole while you attempt the specifics.
*This approach to painting is more in line with the original understanding of the Italian term, alla prima (which translates to from the first).
**Both Sargent’s drawing and painting are in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection. The X-radiograph image comes from the Met’s Journal, 2005, available here.