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Measuring Tools - Are they a crutch?

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Measuring Tools - Are they a crutch?

Postby Becky Syroka » Sat Dec 19, 2009 10:11 pm

In the world of portrait painting there is room for all different styles and techniques and teachers. Each of us has her own preferred style and each of us eventually settles on her own individual preferences, which is exactly as it should be. We are fortunate indeed when we are presented with a variety of options so we can choose whatever method works best for us as individuals. Do whatever pleases you personally.

If you know me and have ever followed along with my portrait lessons, you know that my personal passion is attempting to capture a likeness, and the style I personally prefer and the goal I work to achieve is photo realistic. This is my GOAL. But I have always stated up front and repeatedly that I have never achieved a perfect likeness (in fact, I’m the first person to point out my own flaws for the world to see...and I post my works-in-progress begging for others to help critique for my mistakes). I firmly believe that it will forever be impossible to achieve a perfect likeness. I believe that God alone holds the copyright on a perfect likeness. Nevertheless, that pursuit is my passion and whenever I have found a method that has helped me personally, I try to share that information within my lessons.

Those of you who have ever read my lessons online or have ever taken seminar with me have heard me outline and stress 3 necessary elements for pursuing a portrait likeness. All three elements are vital. The order is important because each element builds on the previous to complete the portrait.
!. Accuracy of definite lines and spaces (the foundation).
2. Accuracy of shapes of shadows and highlights (to create accurate form / contours).
3. Accuracy of values (perspective).

I believe in the benefits of measuring and I teach students how to use calipers and how to use grids. Calipers and grids have proven invaluable to me and have helped me progress over the past 3 years I’ve been learning to paint portraits. They are tools which are particularly useful in the beginning stages of a portrait (Element #1), as they help me confirm an accurate foundation on which to build the rest of my portrait. They also are a huge help to me at any point in the portrait when my “eye” discerns I’ve strayed off likeness. Calipers and grids will help me find the precise problem areas and will guide me in making strategic corrections.

Calipers and grids are valuable tools for even the most experienced artists. Jane Marcks sells and recommends the use of calipers when painting portraits. They are not “crutches” merely for the inexperienced or the beginner. Please consider the following:

Is an experienced homebuilder to be criticized for confirming the accuracy of his new foundation prior to erecting the walls on top of that foundation? Doesn’t he check for level / plumb / square / as well as take measurements to ensure his new foundation is accurate to the architectural drawings? Does the experienced homebuilder rely only on his trained eye or does he make use of valuable tools to verify accuracy?

Using calipers or a grid is exactly the same. They are tools that help confirm the foundation of your portrait before you fire it.... so you can build on the most accurate foundation possible. Realistically, despite the most careful measurements...no foundation is perfect.... no portrait is perfect. I am an imperfect human and will never achieve a perfect likeness, but why not use available tools to help me do my best?

If when hanging a door in the new house, the carpenter noticed with his trained eye that the door isn’t hanging exactly right should the carpenter be criticized for placing a level (a tool) against the jamb to determine precisely where the jamb is off plumb so as to correct precisely? Again, calipers and/or a grid are valuable tools, which help me find my way out of a problem when my “eye in training” senses something is off.

Will using measuring tools such as calipers and grids stunt your artistic growth? Will it hinder your ability to train your artistic “eye”? Who develops more of a trained and keen eye? The machinist or draftsperson who is accustomed to seeing and measuring very tight tolerances or the person who never measures and perhaps has never learned how to read a ruler? It has been my experience (and that of my students in seminar) that using a grid or calipers actually enhances the training of your "eye" because you start to discern even the tiniest variations whereas before perhaps you never even noticed such tiny variances.

Unquestionably, developing the skill of freehand drawing is a HUGE asset to an artist and the importance of practicing and enhancing drawing skills cannot be overemphasized. Likewise, an understanding of human anatomy is essential. Nevertheless, should I presume that an artist possesses no drawing skills just because she chooses to also make use of measuring tools? To do so is comparable to presuming that an architectural draftsman possesses no drawing skill because he uses measuring tools while drawing up his blueprints.

Are not plate dividers a measuring tool? Is not the color wheel a form of a “tool”? Are these also to be viewed as a “crutch” to be discarded once an artist develops experience? Will using either of these tools stunt the development of an art student’s discerning eye?

I fully respect the right of individual choice and preference. If other artists prefer never to measure and prefer to use other methods entirely different than mine, that is perfectly fine with me. Other styles of portraits (impressionistic, modern, caracature, etc.) are absolutely just as valid and just as beautiful and creative and artistic and I realize that other styles of portraits might not require the accuracy needed when painting a portrait of your daughter (when you want it to look like your daughter). This commentary is ONLY my own opinion and written to defend my record of advocating measuring devices and my reasons why.

Becky Syroka
Becky Syroka
Portraits on Porcelain
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Re: Measuring Tools - Are they a crutch?

Postby marcib » Sat Dec 19, 2009 11:02 pm

HI Becky ,
Well, Im with you on this... You said ( re: calipers and grids) :" They are tools which are particularly useful in the beginning stages of a portrait (Element #1), as they help me confirm an accurate foundation on which to build the rest of my portrait. They also are a huge help to me at any point in the portrait when my “eye” discerns I’ve strayed off likeness."

That' s exactly right. They are a tool , like any other tool ... and are especially useful in chinapainting since you have to be accurate in the first fire or youre out of luck...

In any other medium , even watercolor, you can remove or correct flaws at any point ... but once something is fired in with chinapaints, you are stuck with it, so you have to try to be as accurate as possible in the early stages...Calipers and grids can help to double check vital measurements before they are fired in when it can be difficult to judge things properly because all of the shadows are not yet placed or the values not up to where they should be yet .

It also can give students confidence and allows them more independence in checking their own work .

No one's work is perfect... and Becky , I know that you dont claim that yours is. To the contrary , you put your mistakes out there for the world to see so that students can learn .

I agree that measuring for accuracy is a great way to train the eye... I, for one ,have been able to sketch faces since I was young and was able to get a decent ( I guess) likeness ( at least it was possible to recognize who I was sketching even though the features were obviously off and crooked ) but I was frustrated because I knew something was off and couldnt tell what .

One of my biggest AHA moments was after I did a pencil sketch and then asked rex to critique it . He has an excellent eye and when he was younger, his dad made him practice perspective drawing etc , so his eye is very good. He said:" The eyes are crooked and the mouth is too wide" ....and I handed him the pencil and asked him to correct it.. He erased my lines and put the lines back in exactly where I had them ... or so I thought... He kept saying :" LOOK closer" ...

And it was a HUGE eye opener for me when I realized that the difference between sorta looking like the person and having a good ( if not perfect ) likeness is VERY small measurements...

It's wonderful that there are some artists out there who can get perfect likenesses without measuring... Im not one of the m ...I admit that my eye is not as highly trained as many other artists. I still struggle to achieve what I want to achieve... but calipers are a very useful tool in my arsenal . They can help me verify what my eyes see and set me on the right path when I goof up ....

I say , use what works for you .. and dont worry about what other people think..
Marci >^..^< (x 8 )
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Re: Measuring Tools - Are they a crutch?

Postby Reney » Sun Dec 20, 2009 9:54 am

Well said Becky, I'm with you on this one, we use whatever tool will do the job just like the carpenter or architect. ;clap; ;clap; Merry Christmas! Irene
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Re: Measuring Tools - Are they a crutch?

Postby Sol Labos Brien » Mon Dec 21, 2009 12:10 am

You could not have said it better Becky!

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