Putting to one side all the brilliant paintings that have been made with no reference to any kind of measurement at all (and there are many) and bearing in mind that many artists are quite happy to draw completely intuitively, there are certain kinds of drawings and paintings made when the artist wishes to make some kind of ‘accurate rendering’ of what is in front of them. This could be in a life drawing class or out painting a landscape or cityscape, doing a still life or a portrait, in fact drawing or painting almost anything ‘out there’ in a more or less accurate way.
Put simply the challenge here is to draw things the right shape and put them in the right place.
In the past many different solutions have been sought, from the camera obscurer to the gridded viewfinder and squared paper. Even today, artists can be found in life drawing classes squinting past their pencils, held upright at arm’s length, trying to judge the various proportions of the model and making their measurements in ‘heads’.
My eureka moment came at three in the morning after I had spent several fruitless days trying to make some kind of gizmo that could scale up (or down) any ‘seen measurement’ into a ‘drawn measurement’ that could be used on the paper. and hitting on the idea of using a Perspex ruler which can be held at a fixed distance from the eye with the help of a simple adjustable loop of string.
Here is how it works…
Imagine you are in a Life Drawing class with a standing model. Make a judgement on how tall you want the figure to be and let us suppose that on the particular paper you are using 18 inches would look just right. You place the loop of string around your neck and adjust its length so that when the string is taut and the ruler is upright, the end of the ruler is seen to be just at the top of the model’s head and the 9 is seen to be just below the model’s feet. Job done. Now every measurement you make of the model, with the ruler, is simply doubled when transferred to the paper because 18 is clearly 9 doubled. Once you’ve done this no more adjustment needs to be made for this particular drawing.
You don’t have to stick with these particular numbers; all you have to do is establish a simple and easy relationship between the ‘seen measurement’ and the ‘drawn measurement’. For example when I go out landscape painting I often use watercolour paper that is 22 inches wide, so where it is feasible, I will adjust the length of the string so the ‘seen distance’ between the extreme left and right hand side of the desired scene is 11 inches, so that every measurement I make will be scaled up by a factor of 2 on the paper
Having used this scaling ruler for a few months now I am aware that it is quite tricky to both adjust the string and hold the ruler in the right place at the same time, so it is helpful to move the clamping toggle and make the string as long as possible so that the ruler can be moved backwards and forwards without hindrance and once the right placement has been found it might take 3 or 4 attempts at fine tuning, until exactly the correct string length has been established.
Although I cannot guarantee that using this scaling ruler will produce brilliant pictures, it will allow you to get your basic shapes and positioning solid and accurate and you can consign to history all those poorly proportioned misshapen figures and misjudged wonky landscapes. Try it out and you will save yourself all those wasted hours correcting poor initial drawing.