There is great interest today in reviving traditional methods and techniques of painting. Much of this interest comes about from the loss or absence of these methods in the teaching curricula of many art schools and university art programs. We have informally surveyed numerous artists of our generation who went to school in the 1960s and 1970s and found similar stories of art curricula based on "free expression", unfettered by knowledge of the craft and techniques of painting. It was believed then that the Big Idea was paramount, and artists should choose the media to suit their big creative ideas on a case-by-case basis, as needed.
The knowledgeable application of that media, whether oil paint, chalk, watercolor, collage or something else, was considered to be of less importance, even irrelevant or out of fashion. In a sense, those instructors were accurate – museums are chock full of concept-driven artworks today. However, for we who were interested in painting and drawing as a means of expression, those teaching attitudes left us to spend decades rediscovering and slowly learning the skills and techniques we needed. Today, new ateliers and some of the finest artists are helping to directly pass along their hard-won traditional skills to a new generation hungry for this knowledge.
|Using sight-size method in the Adirondacks, NY.
Watercolor painting by John Hulsey.
One of the traditional techniques of drawing and painting experiencing a revival is called the sight-size method. It was developed to enable the artist to accurately measure and copy the model, still-life or landscape and transpose those measurements onto the paper or canvas. In its most technical form, the student would place their easel near to the subject and mark that position with tape on the floor. Stepping back a few paces, the student would establish a viewing position where by looking back and forth from subject to canvas, the two would appear to be the same size. That position would also be marked. These positions would never vary throughout the drawing or painting. Tools would be used – a plumb line for vertical and horizontal measurements, perhaps a mirror or a ruler as well could be employed for accuracy.
Sargent used a plumb bob to get the vertical line of his model's head, neck and torso. Many artists use the shaft of a brush held at arm's length to achieve a similar result. This is a very useful skill for developing the student's eye and probably should be taught in every first year art program.
However, accuracy is not art, it is only a craft, one of the many an artist must have in the toolbox. Once the skills and craft of art have been mastered, the artist is able to come full circle to create an expression, or idea of the subject before him – an artful blending of concept and skill. It is only at this point that accuracy can be altered, or even abandoned if the idea demands it. The master artist combines a powerful visual memory, imagination and technical skills to create an art which is at once both realistic, yet has never existed before. In our view, this is the very height of representational art.
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–John and Ann