Drawing Techniques – Sighting

Learning to draw has been quite an interesting — and surprising — journey. From the first, I was astonished to realize that drawing ability is not something we have to be born with, but is, in fact, a skill that can be developed.

My earliest drawing lessons focused primarily on understanding the elements of art, seeing how simple lines could be used to create shapes and how those shapes could be turned into forms. Learning to draw involves a process of developing hand-and-eye coordination. Drawing is, after all, essentially looking at a specific object or scene and translating it into marks on our page. We’re advised, over and over again, to draw what we see. That’s excellent advice, of course.

Yet, there’s a little more to it, at least for artists like me who weren’t born with any natural gift when it comes to drawing. Maybe many artists have the inherent ability to look at an object and easily reproduce it with a pencil or pen, but some of us need to learn and use various drawing techniques in order to achieve accuracy.

One of those techniques is sighting — using an implement of some sort to measure and successfully copy proportions from an object onto our drawing paper. Like a lot of techniques, it makes sense, it sounds easy, and it does work… but it requires a bit of practice, I’ve found.

I’m not sure when I first learned the technique of sighting, but it’s only been in the last few months that I’ve been consistently trying to apply it. I find it especially useful when I’m doing portrait drawing, or when I’m doing a still life drawing exercise, such as this set of vases made during a recent episode of Gettin’ Sketchy.

Still Life (2)

Even with the sighting method, my proportions are a bit off, but it definitely is a helpful technique. With continued practice, I’m sure I’ll find it increasingly valuable.

Although I can’t remember when and where I first learned to use sighting, I do know that Matt Fussell, the “virtual instructor” is able to explain it clearly and concisely. He writes:

We can use “tools” to measure proportions of our subject in order to improve the accuracy of what we record in our drawings. We can use any tool that we wish, but a pencil works surprisingly well.

Here’s how it works. Begin by extending your arm out toward your subject with your pencil in hand. Be sure that your arm is extended completely without any bending at the elbow. Bring your line of sight down to your shoulder and close one eye. Use the end of your pencil (or the tip) and line it up with the top of the highest or widest point on the object. Use your thumb to mark the bottom.

You now have a measurement “unit” that you can use to compare and record the size of the object on your drawing surface. You can use this measurement to record the object on the drawing surface or simply make comparisons to what you have already drawn.

— Matt Fussell —

Once you have a “unit”, you can use it to make comparisons. In portrait-drawing, as an example, it’s common to measure the width of an eye and then use that as a point of reference for other facial features. You can also use a similar sighting technique to determine angles — something that I really need. Simply move your pencil or other sighting tool to the angle of the object and then carefully move your arm and tool to your drawing page to show the correct angle.

Small CaliphersAnother helpful measuring device is a pair of caliphers or a compass. From what I’ve read, the term calipher refers to a tool with curved legs whereas a compass has straight legsbut for the purposes of measuring in art, the words are used interchangeably.

Where sighting with a pencil is easily done when live drawing, the calipher-measuring technique works well if you’re using a photo reference.

Here’s a short video to show how it’s done: How Artists Use Caliphers for Measuring.

Again, the technique is fairly simple but might require a bit of practice. That’s how it’s been for me, at least.

These sighting and measuring techniques are valuable skills to learn if we want to improve our drawing. Even if we already have strong drawing skills, measuring and sighting can help us achieve even greater accuracy. If you haven’t done it, give it a try!

4 Comments

  1. I usually just draw roughly what I see, but when drawing live model I do use the measuring with the charcoal stick and thumb. My issue is that I some times end up measuring again and again same things as my squirrel brain already forgets what did I compare with what was the measurement ok 🤣 but it is interesting to notice that some times what you think you see does not really match with the measuring, as long as measured then correctly you can then get more correct forms by going with the measurement and not what you think you see but don’t really comprehend. Anyhow, nice interesting topic, thanks! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a helpful technique. I’m not good at using it yet, but the more I practice with it the more helpful it will be, I’m sure. I use it mostly when I’m doing portrait-drawing sessions. It can be very helpful with accurate placement of facial features.

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