Developing an Accurate Eye

Article by Darren Rousar.

Developing an accurate eye.

Much of the activity that takes place when learning to draw is centered on developing an accurate eye. In fact, when a teacher critiques a student’s work, he or she is essentially looking for inaccuracies. Over the last few articles I have outlined some specifics, relative to what a student can do to improve their visual accuracy, and in this article I’m going to layout an overall plan.

Given that the specific approach to teaching I use is Sight-Size, it is no wonder that accurate sight is a particular focus for me. After all, Sight-Size helps assure accurate sight because the artist sees a one-to-one comparison between their subject and their artwork. With this in mind, all of the following recommendations should be done in Sight-Size.

One of Picasso's Bargue copies.On the left, a drawing of an antique statue, from Bargue and Gérôme’s Cours de Dessin. On the right, Pablo Picasso’s copy of the drawing (1893).*
Can you spot the shape errors?

As I mentioned in The Art of Starts and Practicing Scales, the first skill for which your eye needs to be trained is that of placement. In addition to the centering exercises from Practicing Scales, you might also try to accurately reproduce the placement of random dots, or a series of them, within an abstract shape. This kind of exercise is called Targeting.

A Targeting exercise from An Accurate Eye.A Targeting exercise from An Accurate Eye.

The next area of practice that I recommend is Angle. Angles are everywhere, but they are also relative. For an angle to be an angle it must be compared to something else. Often, this is a vertical or horizontal and the angle is described relative to that.

An Angle exercise, from An Accurate Eye.An Angle exercise, from An Accurate Eye.

Drawing is more than accurately plotting points and finding angles. It is also determining the correct distance between two points, and between the other areas of the object. In the Distance exercises, students are given a series of paired, straight lines. In each pair, one of the lines is considered a known, or reference, and the student is to accurately draw the length of the remaining line relative to that. In the examples below, the known is the line without the terminating dot.

A Distance exercise from An Accurate Eye.A Distance exercise from An Accurate Eye.

Intervals are the spaces between points. I wrote about this, here. Once a student has an accurate eye for distance, they would practice intervals.

Few things in nature are absolutely straight. It is therefore not surprising that accuracy exercises would begin to focus on curves. Of course a curve, like an angle, is nothing if it is not compared to some given or known. Oftentimes that is known is a straight line.

A Curve exercise, from An Accurate Eye.A Curve exercise from An Accurate Eye.

With practice, you will be able to accurately draw far more complex curves. In these examples, below, the surrounding boxes become the known to which the curve is compared.

Another Curves exercise from An Accurate Eye.Another Curves exercise from An Accurate Eye.

When combined, all of the preceding skills add up to Shape. For these kinds of exercises, your task would be to accurately draw them, in both shape and size, on a sheet of tracing paper. Feel free to shade in the shapes if you want as it can sometimes help.

Doing accuracy exercises on tracing paper is one sure way to allow you to check for errors. That is important because guessing and checking is how your eye learns to see.

A Shape exercise from An Accurate Eye.A Shape exercise from An Accurate Eye.

Finally, there is value. You should understand that when it comes to value, the accuracy you seek is relative. And that is a good thing because your medium will often not reach the extremes of value that you see on your source. But, if you can keep all of your values relative to each other as you see on your source, it will not matter.

A Value exercise from An Accurate Eye.A Value exercise from An Accurate Eye.

Most often, accuracy training for value begins with copying value squares, as is shown above. To do that you would shade the darkest one first, then the lightest – both slightly lighter than they will eventually be. These would be your extremes. Next, you would shade the remaining squares, relative to your under-keyed extremes. Once all relationships were correct you would slowly darken everything, as close to your source’s value as your materials allowed, and yet still relative to it.

As you advance, doing small value sketches from paintings, as well as from actual scenes, are the next logical sources to train your eye for value accuracy.

Bunker Value exercise from An Accurate Eye.On the left, a landscape by Dennis Miller Bunker. On the right, the Value exercise of that source, from An Accurate Eye.

As a supplement to your regular studies, the best way to learn to see accurately is to spend fifteen to thirty minutes, four or five days per week, on exercises like those shown in this article. In some cases, you may need to spend a week or more on a particular exercise in order to master it. There may also be some which require less of your time. Either way, the goal is to master each exercise before moving on, regardless of a written schedule.

Among other things, I suggest that my students do a number of these daily exercises in order for them to keep their skills up to date. High on the list are the exercises at which they are currently quite good because without practice, the skill diminishes. Think of this like a baseball player at batting practice, or a pianist doing scales.

How does one go about creating these kinds of accuracy exercises? You can create them yourself, following the examples in this article. Or, you could partner with another student or artist and trade exercises so that they would seem fresh to your eye and theirs. Or, you could use over two dozen exercises and directions I have created for you in my ebook, An Accurate Eye | Learn to Draw Better by Learning to See Better.

*While I am using Picasso’s copy of Bargue’s drawing as an example in this article, I think it doubtful that he did it in Sight-Size. His drawing is not the same size as that in Bargue’s Cours, and this may be the reason for the various shape and angle errors. Then again, he was only 12 when he drew it!

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Learning how to accurately see, as well as draw, is best done through cast drawing in Sight-Size. Ateliers exist worldwide to help you do that. But what if you cannot attend an atelier? Or, perhaps you're already in an atelier and would like to supplement that training? I can help.