After finishing Chapter 1 of Keys to Drawing, I thoughtI needed a respite. I completed a bastardized version of the first exercise from Bargue’s Drawing Course.

I was wrong, this was not fun of a break.

The Bargue and Gérôme Cours de dessin was a series of three sets of lithographs published in the late 1800’s and designed to be copied at ateliers (artist studios) for training in commercial and fine arts. The idea was that through exact copying these sketches of classical sculptures, fine artwork, and live models, one would train the eye to see correctly while intuiting “proper” classical aesthetics.

The method used at the time was sight-sizing whereupon the subject was placed side-by-side with the canvas in such a way that when viewed from a certain vantage point, the two exhibit a 1:1 sizing.

Obviously this wouldn’t do for me digitally for a number of reasons: my iPad is much smaller than the A3 (16″x11″) of the original lithographs; digital drawings resize dynamically; one does not want nor need to digitally draw on an easel; and I don’t have access to the exact same media and materials of the drawings. Finally, I wasn’t going to spend $72 on a paperback book that would need to be digitized anyway when there was a distinct likelihood of failure.

Fortunately, since this is an 19th century text that predates Mickey Mouse, many people have uploaded high resolution version of the plates for digital download. With access to them, I only needed to figure out how to modify the method to fit my peculiar workflow. (The plates themselves come with no instruction as they were meant to be taught in an workshop with a master artist looking over your shoulder giving instruction.)

The first thing I did was to create an A3 canvas in Procreate. On my iPad this meant reducing the resolution to 240ppi in order to get 4 layers. The larger iPad Pro would have handled 300ppi easily.

I then imported the plate into program and resized it so I could trace out the guidelines on a new layer using the Snap Line tool. After this, I deleted the plate layer so I wouldn’t be tempted to use it to trace out the correct proportions. Why trace out the guidelines? Having identical guidelines would be the only way to ensure the correct 1:1 sizing when both the plate and the drawing canvas can be sized dynamically. Putting the guidelines in its own layer meant it was easy to erase improper sketch marks. Finally I could remove the redundant guidelines vis-a-vis the final “comparison and critique” underlay (see below).

I then went into the Photos app to pull up the plate while I used Slide Over to bring in Procreate’s canvas. This still creates a “cheat” in that I didn’t have to stand in a certain place in order to get proper sight-sizing, all I had to do was zoom and rotate my canvas properly. I addition, I could use modern methods like “drawing blind” which are near impossible to execute along with sight-sizing and discouraged in the atelier.

Digital Bargue
Apple Photos and Procreate using Slide Over
Screenshot on iPad Pro 9.7″

Notice how I aligned the guidelines before copying.

I’ve read that art schools use Nitram charcoal to copy Bargue plates. From my research, Nitram is just a commercial brand of charcoal that has been modified to not break or produce as much dust. To emulate this, I used the compressed charcoal brushes in Procreate—first sketching the lines with a 1-5% thickness 2B before going over the finalized lines in a 6B sized to what seemed closer to the actual lines given my way of holding the Apple Pencil. I did a pre-sketch once using a pencil brush, but I found, while a bit quicker and cleaner, the final copy turned out the least accurate of the bunch, so I returned the small 2B compressed charcoal brush for sketching.

Besides not worrying about dust and having undo as an eraser, a huge advantage I found out with digital sight-sizing was the ability to selectively resize or rotate my sketch lines when I sighting something better. These mass corrections, while frustrating to actually execute given the finicky nature of the tool in Procreate, were very satisfying when done.

When I finished, I could tell which areas were off from the originals, but I couldn’t see exactly how that happened. To learn why, I took the original plate into Photoshop and used an inverted mask to paint the black lines red. I then underlayed this plate into my drawing in Procreate. It took like 20 minutes and a lot of cursing to try to size that layer correctly, and even then it was still off on the bottom right of the page.

The superposition showed what was going on: as I copied successive lines outward from the intersection of the plumb and horizon lines, I was accumulating small sighting errors. The errors were mostly due to sighting angles improperly followed by not judging the contribution of line widths in my thin sketch lines[/commnetary]. When I could sight relative to the ends of the guidelines, I got much more accurate, but would sometimes adjust them back to error because I could sight negative spaces between those outer lines and the improperly drawn inner lines. In other instances, I would compromise the difference by adjusting the angle of the lines so it would hit certain sighted marks, and yet be properly linked to the the inner line positions.

Finally, the faster I worked (which happened as I copied more), the less accurate my lines would be. This meant that I didn’t actually get better as I did more of them, but my accuracy became a function of my energy and patience at the moment.

I don’t know how much I gave up by doing this digitally without proper instruction, but here is what I learned while doing this exercise:

  • Small differences, even a fraction of a line width in error, make a huge difference in the correct look and proportions.
  • Vertical sight sizing is easier for me then horizontal (though this could be related to the subject being mostly horizontal lines crossing the plumb line).
  • The easiest way for me to get the proper shapes near the intersection was for me to sight the shapes cut by each quadrant around the intersection. (My worst errors at the origin are in scale, not shape.)
  • The best way for me to digitally sight-size was to hold my iPad at arms length away and squint. At that point, errors in my copy to “pop” out of at me. However, even if I could see the error, I sometimes didn’t know how to fix it!
  • Errors accumulate outward from any properly sighted point. (Related: improperly sighted points are devastating.)
  • Angles are hard to sight properly and the easiest to compromise on. (Note for the future: consider sighting two points correctly and then drawing the line between them.)

Most importantly, I learned that I need to be much more detail-oriented and much more patient that I had previously thought when seeing and drawing. Accuracy is the reward for both diligence and patience.

Bargue Plate I.1
Drawing Course, Section I, Plate 1

Procreate on iPad Pro 9.7″

Even with my modifications, this exercise had the distinct “unfun feeling” and “impartial critical feedback” that is the hallmark of any deliberate practice. I can see why this method of learning drawing still survives unchanged 150 years later.

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