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.

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.

Take the horizontal measurement.

Take 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.

Mark horizontal measurement on paper.

Mark 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.

Take the vertical measurement.

Take 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.

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 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.

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.

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.

Always 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.

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.

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.

More Measurements

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!



Here are the supplies you need for this whole series of lessons, plus two more pencil grades and another type of eraser that I added to make a complete kit. I appreciate it when you buy from my links! In any case though, do try to find these brands. They inexpensive, good quality, and will save you many headaches.

Derwent Graphic 2B
Derwent Graphic HB

Derwent Graphic 2H

(If one is out of stock, get the next softer grade.)
Canson Classic Cream Drawing Pad

Faber-Castell Kneaded Eraser

Alvin Vinyl Eraser

Kum Long Point Pencil Sharpener

Here they all are in one list.

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.
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