Tools Of The Trade

Article by Darren Rousar.


Learning how to accurately see is at once a simple process and a complicated endeavor. The process is simple because all you’re really doing is aligning your eye to a visual standard. But complexities arise because your eye tends to believe itself far too easily. Therefore, over the centuries artists have devised numerous tools of the trade to help overcome this.

What follows below is a hierarchy of sorts, presented in the order of importance. Many of the tools have articles of their own.

The Eye Has It
The best tool you will ever have is your own eye. So if you are serious about training your eye to see, then you must actually train it. What do I mean? Well, using mechanics to measure before attempting a guess with your naked eye prolongs the process of learning to see. Always follow the guess and check. Remember, you are trying to align your eye to nature rather than to rely on an external tool.

Plumb It
For mechanically checking a guess, a plumb line is hard to beat. I wrote extensively about this in the article The Only Cure For Measuring.

Of course, as with all mechanical tools, the tool itself introduces one or more variables. In this case, the width of the line affects its accuracy. What’s more, the proportional variance of that width visually increases the farther away you are from your subject.

All is not lost, however, as the variance is slight. Additionally the width of the line is seen on both your subject and your artwork. In other words, since the plumb line’s width affects both views, you’ll err consistently. No, that’s not necessarily good, but once you perceive the variance you can more accurately compensate for it.

Mirror, Mirror, On The Wall (or in your hand)
Mentioned elsewhere on the site, the mirror is the master of painters. Short of enlisting the help of another, nothing beats the mirror for giving you a fresh eye. The mirror will help mitigate a whole host of problems, and not only for shape errors. Value, color, and edge issues become more apparent in the mirror’s reflection.

Furthermore, as you age your eye’s ability to concurrently focus on near (the mechanical measuring tool) and far (the subject) diminishes. Thankfully, your eye focuses on the reflected image in the mirror much as is does on the subject itself.

Use your mirror and use it often.

Give It Some Stick
Your pencil, charcoal, or paintbrush provides a measuring tool that can supplement your eye. Like the plumb line it may induce an error, though to a greater degree. This is especially true of charcoal sticks which are not often straight.

Perhaps for that reason many use a knitting needle or skewer. They are machined straight, and therefore can help you to be quite accurate. Despite that, I am not a fan. Yes, it might seem that I’m being a bit inconsistent here and perhaps I am. My only defense is that when you finally get to painting, holding a needle in your hand, in addition to the brush, gets a little unwieldy.

Another’s Eye
Hopefully, your teacher’s eye far surpasses the accuracy of your own. If not, or if you have no teacher available to you, a friend might be able to help you out. Oftentimes, a teacher will even draw or paint on your work. Although I rarely do it on my student’s work myself, it can push your eye further along.

Do not, however, blindly follow an untrained friends critique! Make sure you see the error they point out before you adjust to it.

Other Tools
Many swear by their black mirror. But a black mirror is more useful for value perception than shape. As such, I prefer the normal mirror.

A reducing glass can also help by giving you some apparent distance. However, we have now introduced a lens into the equation. Can anyone say, “distortion!” Physical distance would be better, but if your space is such that you cannot manage it, a reducing glass can lead you in the correct direction.

Two Final Thoughts

  1. Once again, rely on your own eye before you resort to mechanics. Train it, don’t enable it to be lazy.
  2. Recheck every measurement (even of your teacher’s) with your own eye. Remember, mechanical tools are not error-free and can even create a perception error. As for your teacher, yes, mistakes happen, but what I am interested in for my students is that they see what I see. To that end, guess, check (with a tool, or a teacher), then see.
Drawing with confidence.

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