Line Drawing Part Three – Draw From Life Using Sight-Size

In this lesson you’ll learn how to draw from life using my version of the sight-size method, and it should come fairly easily to you since you’re going to use the skills you’ve already learned in the last two lessons.

Line Drawing Part One – How To Use A Viewfinder
Line Drawing Part Two – Draw From Life With A Viewfinder

I was taught the fundamentals of sight-size in college, but never as a strict set of rules. I’m sure there’s an original set of rules written down somewhere, but what I’m giving you is ‘sight-size’ at it works for me in practical use, and I when I draw from life, I always use this method. I think it’ll work for you too.

Here’s a video of me using sight-size.


You should probably try this in a quiet room the first time. Choose one object, or set up a small still life, and make sure you have good lighting.

The viewfinder made it easier for you to draw because it gave you boundaries and markers to measure from. To draw in classic freehand style, you visualize an imaginary frame around your work that does the same thing.

Make sure you can measure the largest part with the length of your pencil.


Situate yourself or the subject until the biggest part of it isn’t larger than the length of your pencil when your pencil is held at the end of your arm, as in this illustration.

Arrange your drawing paper so that it’s at an upward angle. If you don’t, the drawing distorts as you draw a parallel scene on a perpendicular surface, and you’ll get a drawing that only looks good when viewed from the same angle you drew it. Using the viewfinder saved you from this fate before, and ‘in theory’ this way of drawing should save you too, but it probably won’t.

Taking the horizontal measurement.

Horizontal Measurement

Now you’re going to make a frame on the paper that’s the same size of what you’re drawing.

Close one eye, stretch out your arm, and keep the pencil parallel to the subject – as if you were pressing it against a window.

Put the tip of the pencil on one edge of the object, and move your thumbnail across the pencil until it reaches the other edge.

Marking horizontal measurement on paper.

Mark this measurement on the paper. You can do that by making hatch marks with another pencil held in your other hand, or by making one mark with the pencil’s tip and then keeping your eye on the other spot as you move the pencil and mark it.

Taking the vertical measurement.

Vertical Measurement

Take the vertical measurement and mark it the same way.

Become really friendly with this simple measuring move, because it’s going to be your best buddy. Well, your best drawing buddy.

All you have to do is lift your arm to take a measurement, and this a grand, wonderful, beautiful thing! (You’ll see.)

It’ll seem awkward at first, and it’ll be challenging to be accurate at first too, but it’ll get easier with practice. I promise, you won’t regret learning how to do this.

Draw frame on paper.

Make A Frame

Now extend both horizontal and vertical marks until you’ve drawn a frame on the paper. You can do this by eye, or if you’re really bad at it like I am, use a square. The viewfinder from the last lesson makes a handy square.

Find the center of each side, and quarter the frame.

Find the center.

Find Center

Find the center of what you’re drawing first visually, and then check it by pencil measuring to make sure it’s right. You’re probably better at visually finding center than you think you are.

If you really are way off, don’t panic and don’t get out a ruler. Just find center by using your pencil. Next time, try finding it first by eye again, then check it by pencil measuring, rinse, and repeat. Eventually you’ll train your eye to find center, and you need to develop a good eye for these things.

If center isn’t a clear point, you’ll need to memorize where it is approximately. For example, the center in this still life was about one pencil width away from the candle horizontally, and just a ‘tad bit’ down from the point where the vase touches then candle vertically.

A ‘tad bit’ is a Hoosier measurement unit that means however much you need it to mean at the time and, oddly, I can always remember how much of a tad bit I mean. I’m not sure if this works for everyone, or just for Hoosiers, so proceed with caution.

Draw lines that touch edges of frame first.

Just Basic Outlines First

Draw basic outlines inside the box, just as you did when drawing with the viewfinder.

The easiest lines will be those that touch the edges of the box.

In my drawing, I knew the left side and the top of the vase touched those lines, so I drew them first and then added the inward curve.

Use pencil to visualize side of frame.

As I worked, I often held my pencil vertically so I could “see” the vase in its imaginary frame.

Close one eye, extend your arm, and measure with your thumb and pencil.

Take lots of measurements

Use simple shapes to block things in at the right size in this first stage. Placement and proportion are the most important things right now.

“If in doubt, measure it out.” is your new motto. I’m not kidding. Write it down.

Save the smallest and most challenging to place objects until last.

Smallest Last

Save the smallest and most challenging to place objects until last. Once you have the large landmarks in place, you’ll find it’s much easier to draw the smaller ones in the right place, and at the right size.

Look at negative space to shift your focus.

Reality Check

This is an illustration of negative space, and another example of how to use the pencil to see reality. If you hold it near an object, it can help you see the negative space next to is as just another shape to be drawn. Shifting your focus to the negative space might help you see how to better draw a curve or angle that’s resisting your advances.

I’ve written another blog post about ways to use a pencil to see things more clearly.

Taking More Measurements

The Frame Is There For Reference, Not To Confine You

The frame is there for you to measure against. It’s a friendly helper, not a mean master. At some point, you’ll let it fade into the background of your mind and you’ll start placing things by measuring over from something else. Sometimes, you’ll just eyeball things into place.

The beautiful thing about the frame is that it’s always there for reference. So when something is just not looking right, and you can’t figure out why, and when you’re about to redraw it for the 11th %&$#@ time, check the proportions against the frame. That’ll fix the problem, 99% of the time.

See now? Frames are your friend.

Will People Stare?

The work flow of sight-size looks something like this. You’ll take quite a few measurements at first to make sure the bones of the drawing are placed well and in proportion, then you’ll take a few more to check some challenging areas. You’ll take fewer and fewer as your engagement with the drawing switches to fleshing it out with texture and shading.

Mmmm, yes they will stare, but in a good way.

After a little while, you’ll feel natural reaching out into your visual field, measuring, and coming right back to the drawing, all in one uninterupted motion, and all while in the flow of creativity. Even if you’re seated, it feels a little like dancing and drawing becomes a whole body experience.

The greatest pleasure of sight-size though, is that you’ll be able to draw well without thinking about it much, and then you can concentrate on the fun stuff; the interpretation, the drinking in of the scene, the wine and cheese, the impressing of your friends and significant others!

Video of me using my version of the sight-size method of drawing.

You can see how I start a drawing with sight-size in this video. You’ll notice that I call it ‘thumb and pencil measuring,’ and that’s because I’m from Indiana and we talk real plain. Well, no. Actually, I’ve been drawing so long I’d forgotten it had a proper name. Heh! I kinda prefer calling it pencil and thumb measuring, though. It sounds friendlier <— now that IS my Hoosier upbringing coming out. :)

Next time we’ll eliminate the last obstacles between you and the sweet freedom of drawing liberation.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of the total freedom to go where you want and draw whatever you want. Oh sweet freedom, I can hear you calling now! But there are a couple of circumstances that could cramp your perfect artist’s bliss!

What if your objet du désir is huge and your paper is small, or vica versa! Sight-size doesn’t always make drawing easy in these circumstances. There’s a solution that’s not too complicated and doesn’t even include math. (Well, it kind of does, but I’ll try to avoid talking about it as much as I can.) I’ll show you how to do that the next time.

Until then, my dear pencil friends, keep those pencils moving, that’s right, reach on out there and measure things, oh yeah, it feels good!


Supplies for happy drawing:

Here are the supplies you need for this whole series of lessons, plus a few others I added to make your drawing life happier. I’m Blick affiliate and get some money when buy from my links, so thank you very much if you do.

Derwent Graphic 2B
Derwent Graphic HB

Derwent Graphic 2H

(If one is out of stock, get the next softer grade.) – Derwent Graphic Pencils are good inexpensive art-grade graphite pencils to start with.

Canson Classic Cream Drawing Pad
– This inexpensive Canson paper has a good tooth for graphite and it holds up to erasing fairly well too. It does dent, so don’t press too hard when you draw or you’ll ruin the grain.

Faber-Castell Kneaded Eraser
– This is the brand of kneaded eraser I use. It’s not too sticky or oily. It’s just right.

Alvin Vinyl Eraser
– The vinyl eraser is good to have for erasing marks the kneaded eraser won’t remove, and for general clean-up around the edges of the paper.

Helix Electric Cordless Eraser – A tapered ergonomic shape that stays out of your way and inexpensive. Sharpen it’s nib by spinning it on rough paper or sandpaper, then you can ‘draw’ extraordinarily delicate lines and textures in graphite gradations, along with dozens of other things that you’ll invent to do with it. You’ll go through a lot of nibs, so pick up extras.

Kum Long Point Pencil Sharpener –  The only pencil sharpener I use. Two holes: one hole sharpens the wood, and the other sharpens the graphite. Makes a very long sharp point and hardly ever breaks lead. There are extra blades in the back.

About Carol

I'm an artist, an accidental author, and lover of life. I grew up in Yorktown, Indiana, and I've been writing (and drawing) this website since 1999.
This entry was posted in Drawing From Life, Drawing Technique, Line Drawing. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Line Drawing Part Three – Draw From Life Using Sight-Size

  1. Beverly Mc Donough says:

    Thank you Carol for this tutorial. At 61 yrs old I’ve finally learned what I couldn’t understand before ( the thought process on how to start a new drawing). Your teaching style and explanations work for me! Be assured that I will tackle my new hobby with confidence. Thanks again.

    • Carol says:

      Hi Beverly, Thank you so much for writing, and I’m glad that you understood and enjoyed this lesson. Believe it or not, after a year and a half, I’m about to post the forth lesson in this series. Look for it in the next few days. I hope you’ll enjoy it too.

  2. k says:

    Yes, it all makes sense now. thanks

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