Relational Seeing

Article by Darren Rousar.

velazquez-juan-de-pareja-1650Portrait of Juan de Pareja, by Velazquez (1650).
During the last half of his career, Velazquez mastered relational seeing.

Relational seeing is a hallmark of many ateliers that are influenced by the teachings of R. H. Ives Gammell. Seeing relationally requires that the specifics of every aspect of the scene relate to each other: All values are compared to the darkest dark. All edges are compared to the sharpest sharp. And so on.

Opposite of relational seeing is piecemeal seeing, which is seeing the specific aspects of the scene independent of each other. Each value, edge, and color seem to exist on their own. When you see piecemeal, it’s as if you’re seeing and rendering the scene through a pinhole.


Vertical plumb is nature’s great equalizer. It’s as if a line runs from the center of the earth up through whatever object you’re looking at.

An illustration from Charles Blanc's 1867 book, Grammaire des arts du dessin.

Therefore, whether you’re using a physical plumb line or simply eyeballing them, verticals in your scene must comport with each other and to the sides of your drawing. If they don’t, your viewer instantly perceives them as drawing errors.

All angles in the scene are only angles as they relate to vertical, to each other, and to the four sides of your drawing.


Nature, as well as your eye, has a greater range of value than your drawing or painting medium can manage. The result is that you’ll need to compress the range you see down to that of your medium. While squinting can help, determining the perceived extremes is better.

Your eye also has the unique ability to compensate for the value range in the scene.

Though I am loathe to compare a camera to your eye, some similarities do exist. Take the video above for example.

As the camera’s view changes orientation between the landscape outside the window and the dark of the brick wall inside, it compensates by allowing more light to enter the lens. Reverse the orientation back to the landscape and the camera restricts the light. All of that is in an effort to present an evenly distributed range of values.

The same effect happens with your eye, though perhaps less dramatically. The surrounding values in the scene affect your perception when you focus on a specific area. This happens with color as well, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

So, when you see and draw piecemeal, you’re actually rendering a series of vignettes that you composite together. But when you learn to see relationally, you’ll render the whole effect of the scene and your viewer will perceive that as well.

As mentioned above, relational seeing begins with determining the extremes.

  • What is the darkest dark?
  • How about the lightest light?
  • All other values must be judged and rendered relative to those extremes.

Seeing in this way also helps you use the full value range (gamut) of your materials. As an example, many beginning landscape painters make their paintings far too light overall. But that won’t happen to you if you practice relational seeing.

Velazquez-The Fable of ArachneThe Fable of Arachne, by Velazquez (1655).


Your eye’s ability to adjust for value is nothing compared to its ability to adjust for edge. Focusing anywhere in the scene results in that area appearing sharper (more in focus) than its surroundings.

This applies equally to soft edges that are in focus. They will appear sharper when seen in isolation than when seen in relation to the whole.

The camera does something similar, though it focuses on the plane of the sensor rather than the concave surface of your retina. That difference has profound implications that are best left for another article.

As with value, seeing edges relationally requires that you first determine the extremes.

  • What is the sharpest sharp, based upon your intended focus point?
  • How about the softest soft, again based upon your intended focus point?
  • All other edges must be turned relative to those extremes.

las-meninas-velazquez-sargent-1879On the left, Velazquez’s Las Meninas (1656). On the right, Sargent’s copy (1879).


Though the concept gets a bad rap in some circles nowadays, seeing color notes relationally depends upon determining the extremes of warm and cool.

This means that each note is compared to the others. And while each is a specific color, your perception of that specific color is affected by its surroundings.

Color notes.Although their values are different, when seen in isolation all the deep reds in this photograph are the same hue.
When seen relationally, they are perceived as being different.

You solve this problem by comparing the color note in question to all similar ones.

  • What is the warmest color note, based upon your intended focus point?
  • How about the coolest color note, again based upon your intended focus point?
  • All color notes must be compared to those extremes.

Relational Seeing

As you’ve now seen, seeing relationally is exactly what it says.

Sight-Size neither requires nor negates relational seeing (nor piecemeal seeing, for that matter). However, seeing relationally when out of Sight-Size brings with it the problems of scale.

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