Level Up!

Article by Darren Rousar. Most recently updated in December of 2019.

Line level cast

One issue many students face when first attempting Sight-Size is keeping their plumb line level (this is especially true for my online students, since I’m not correcting them in-person). The problem is the relative strength of your dominant arm, and oftentimes the result is a drawing that is higher on the paper than is the subject. The solution is to level up!

Before we go on, there are two important preliminary considerations. First, always guess at the position of your target before you resort to mechanical means. See the article, The Guess and Check for the reason why.

The second consideration is that mechanical measurement is often a little less than accurate. The dimension of the instrument (plumb line, charcoal stick, etc.) factors in, as does your distance from the setup. But for some amount cognitive bias, the accuracy of your eye will often surpass that of your plumb line. You just need practice listening to that little voice which tells you something looks off.

Two Ways to Level Up

There are two ways to level up – one visual and one mechanical. Both require that you are at your vantage point and are viewing your plumb line with your elbows locked straight.

Visual leveling is done by first aligning the plumb line to either the top or bottom of your paper or drawing board. Choosing the top or bottom is determined by which is the closest to your intended target. Once level is established, you would then bring your arms equally up or down to your target.

Take a look at the animation, below, to see what I mean. I’m confirming that the top of the cast in my drawing is at the proper height.


A Line Level

The mechanical version of leveling up is to use something called a line level or string level. This is a bubble level with little plastic or metal hooks on each end. Most line levels are 3 inches long, but if you can find a shorter one you’ll be better off.


In construction environments you would simply thread your plumb line through both of the hooks. However, for our purposes you should actually tie one end of two strings to each hook. That way the level will not slide or fall off of the line.

Using a plumb line with a line level attached is fairly straightforward. You use it as you would a normal plumb line except that the line level lets you know when your arms are, in fact, level.

You can see an example at the top of the article.

Ideally you would no longer need the line level after a week or two of consistent use. After that your arms will have gained some muscle memory and your eye will have improved.

What if it’s too late?

So what do you do if you notice that you’re out of level – before using the line level to draw with? That depends upon whether the error is uniform.

If only parts of the drawing are high or low then redrawing is in order. In that case, it’s best to use the line level for awhile so that you’re practicing correct plumb line form.

If the entire drawing is too high (or low) then you have three options:

  • You can redraw, which is not the worst idea. Remember The Art of Starts.
  • You can adjust the height of your drawing board or paper.
  • You can leave it and continue drawing on an angle.

360 Degrees

Regarding those last two points, although Sight-Size is normally done with your subject and artwork side-by-side, any angle will do.

Philip Alexius de László canvas heightPhilip Alexius de László painting a portrait (1934).

Above you can see two views of Hungarian artist Philip Alexius de László painting a portrait. On the left he has the canvas at its usual height for a Sight-Size arrangement.

On the right he’s raised the canvas, presumably to keep the area he’s working on nearer his own eye-level. That’s one of the advantages of a crank easel – easy height changes.



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