Monday, 16 July 2012

Fun Artists' Tools

I thought this week I might show you two of my favourite artist's tools.   And show you how to use them....I have seen lists of tools on various blogs, with no explanation of how to use them, so I hope my demos will prove helpful if you have never tried either of these before.

The first little gadget I find very useful, particularly when drawing street scenes of any kind, is something to help "CHECK ANGLES".  There are times when perspective can be a bit of a ....let's be polite and say "challenge". Particularly if extending your lines to find eye level and vanishing point takes you right off your canvas, as so often happens.  Well, even if you know none of the rules of perspective, you can get things looking right in your picture if your angles are right. So, anything which helps is worth its weight in gold. 

 It's a FOLDING RULER.   Virtually weightlesss, very inexpensive, and extremely handy.  When folded shut, it is a good 6" ruler.

So - How to use it to check angles?

 It is always best to train yourself to work freehand, as it were, because it is like exercise, the more you do, the stronger your muscles become, and by working from your subject, and drawing what you see, using a bit of measuring to check proportions, the stronger will your eye become.  So begin your drawing FREEHAND, just eyeballing your subject.

My folding ruler (found in the kids' section in the stationery store) is see-through plastic, very helpful. Its central pivot is strong and stiff, so it stays nicely in place.    So...lets say I wanted to check angle a-b of this stone plinth. sorry, I cannot take you to the place I saw it, so you have to imagine this in real life.   I began with this drawing, freehand.

All I needed to do then was open my folding ruler, and hold it up to the scene, (use your imagination here)closing one eye,  I put one side "against" a vertical, and then I folded down the other side to echo the angle.  Then - the fun bit -  I placed my ruler on my drawing to check to see whether it was right or not!!  Simple!

Next, take a look at a very cheap and simple method of simplifying colours, to see the TONE VALUES IN A SCENE.   All you need is a sheet of RED ACETATE.  I bought three sheets on Ebay for next to nothing, they are so inexpensive.
Here is a scene, in full colour:

Colour often gets in the way of seeing the pattern of light and dark shapes.  Squinting helps, yes, but look what happens when you look at the same scene through a sheet of RED ACETATE:

It is BRILLIANT.  It simplifies the scene tonally for you instantly.  Weighs nothing.  Put a sheet into the back of your sketchbook, and carry it always.  In fact, carry a few sheets with you, different sizes.  Then, you can even place one down over your painting, to see how you are doing with the tones!

And the other useful thing you can do with it, if you wish, is to draw a grid on the acetate, then it becomes a most useful VIEWFINDER.    I use a grid which splits the scene into threes, on the basis that it almost always works to put the main focal point of a scene on one of the "eyes" of the rectangle, which are one third of the way in from left or right, or one third of the way down from top, or up from bottom.   So this grid I have created has 4 "eyes", they occur where the lines intersect.   (no need, if you copy this, to draw the eyes.........I was just amusing myself.....)

 The grid can serve a couple of useful check across and up and down, as you might with a regular grid, or plumb line,  to see where things "line up" - (the little transparent ruler above is also good for that ).  Taking the pic below, you can see that the edge of the long post's shadow and the second chimney virtually line up. So this little piece of acetate will HELP SORT OUT BOTH TONE VALUES AND COMPOSITION, AND WILL HELP TO CHECK PLACEMENT OF OBJECTS

Here is a scene - you have to imagine you are standing there, sorry,  with the acetate viewfinder in your hand,  held up to show a potentially good composition.

The house is sited now on the top left "eye of the rectangle", where the lines intersect.  The gate is almost on the bottom right "eye" and together with its shadows, it makes a nice secondary focal point.  The angles of the roof are nicely echoed by the angles of the shadows thrown by a low sun.  Could be a very nice image, and the tone values are all sorted out by the red acetate. 

You could carry a few of these, in different shapes and proportions for different shapes of canvas or paper.  Might be good too, if you cut a rectangle out of a piece of stiff card, and glue the red viewfinder into the shape, then you have a "frame" for your image, making it even easier to see if you like the composition you have selected.

I will talk about another couple of tools next week, or this blog page will be too long and indigestible.

Hope you enjoyed these two useful additions to your sketching kit.


  1. This is a great idea! and I do strongly agree that you draw with the eye first, to strengthen your ability to see, don't be measuring like an architect! but this is a cool way to check your results. I wish I had had this idea when I was teaching adults, who couldn't "see" that a roofline was angling up the wrong way, etc.

    And the acetate, well, brilliant. Thanks so much. You taught this ancient dog a couple of new useful tricks!

  2. David, when it says "no comments" it means there are none to read..........not "do not make comments".

    !! I can see the confusion. Please feel free to leave a comment if you wish.

  3. thanks everyone for the comments, I am glad a few people have found these tools helpful. Anything that helps to simplify perspective has gotta be a bonus, yes? And if you struggle a little with tones, then the red acetate is a cheap and cheerful way to help too. I do like helpers.

  4. NICELY done, Jackie! I've got a blue plastic thingie that does the same, and it really is helpful. With your permission, I'd like to share your blog post in my next newsletter, it's terrific.

  5. Great tools and a very clear explanation of how to use them!!! Nice! Thanks!!

  6. Thanks Kate and Joan. Kate, by all means publish in your next newsletter, I would be happy for you to do so.

  7. Thank you so much! I'm sure my readers will be delighted to see what you've done--perspective IS tricky!

  8. I have used the red acetate before, but adding the grid is inspired. How many times has everyone done a great drawing, immersed in getting it just right, only to discover that without intending to, you have put the focus dead center, which is such a no-no for good composition? Thanks!

  9. Dang! Where have this great tools been all this time. Thanks so much for the insight.

  10. Inspired! Insightful! How great it is to have this kind of feedback. Thanks everyone, most appreciated.


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