Why and how artists sight off a pencil


Illustration by Kay Sluterbeck

   When an artist is shown in a cartoon, he or she is often shown with their arm stuck straight out, holding a pencil straight up and looking at it.  Just about everyone knows that this pose means “artist,” but not everyone knows that this really is a handy thing to know.

     We know that objects look larger when they are closer to us, and they look progressively smaller the further away they are.  Artists sight on their thumb and a pencil to measure and compare relative sizes.  Sometimes when you compare relative sizes using this method, the difference in size can be surprising.

     Once I was sitting beside a small lake, drawing a picture of a large house on the other side.  Right in front of me was a rosebush, which I was including in the picture.   When I sighted on the rose closest to me, I found that it was so close that its diameter appeared to be about one and a half times the height of the whole house in the background.   This seemingly amazing change in scale is what gave the feeling of space within the painting.  Without it, it wasn’t possible to judge distances because there were no roads, fences or lawns to guide the eye.

     To try the pencil method of comparing the size of one object with another, sit in a room and take a pencil in your hand and stretch your arm out in front of you.  It is very important to keep your arm fully stretched out and your elbow straight while doing this technique.  If you bend your arm at all, the distance between your eye and the pencil will change and your measurements won’t be consistent. 

     Bend your hand up at the wrist so the pencil is held vertically with the eraser end pointing up.  The eraser end should be at about eye level. Choose an object to measure; for example, a mug on a table.  Close one eye so you can focus on the pencil and the mug at the same time.  Line up the top of the pencil with the top of the mug.  Slide your thumb down the pencil until its tip is at the bottom of the mug.  You now have a measurement that you can compare with anything else in the room. 

     Keeping your arm outstretched and your thumb in position on the pencil swing your hand across the room and line the pencil it up with another object either closer to you or further away.  Now you can see how big the mug appears from your position in comparison with other objects.  That’s what I did to compare the rose with the house.  I made small dots on my paper to show where the top and bottom of the rose should be, then went on to “dot” the height of the house compared with the flower. 

     Once I knew the height of the house, I moved my thumb to the house-height position on the pencil so I could compare it with things other than the flower and measure not only vertically but horizontally.  For instance, to see how long the house was compared with its height, I kept my arm stretched out and the pencil in position, but turned my wrist 90 degrees so the eraser was pointing to my left.  By moving the pencil across the house I could see that the height of the house fit into the length four times, and I could make indicator ticks on the paper to show this. 

     Once the relative sizes were indicated, I could go ahead and sketch everything in without any guesswork as to how big the rosebush appeared compared to the house in the distance, the relative size of the part of the lake I could see, etc. 

     This is a very useful method for comparing sizes and getting the proportions of your picture right.  You can map out an entire drawing in this way.  Once you have the dots located to show proportions, it’s just a matter of drawing the shapes correctly because the proportions of each object are already set down on your drawing.

cc Source: Art-to-Art Palette Journal print edition 

Published by on January 2012. Filed under Art-to-Art Palette Journal, HowDoit PB dept, Paint Box Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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