Before going to Florence, it was only occasionally that I did some charcoal drawings, mainly as a quick preparation for an oil painting. Upon entering The Florence Art Studio, I really had to rethink this notion of “quick”.

The drawing of Saint Jerome above took me 2 weeks, which supposedly was fast… Then again, the classical “sight size” method (which refers to drawing or painting a model or an object in the exact same size as you see it next to your easel) asks for a lot of precision. You have to mark the place of your model, your easel and your viewpoint with masking tape and you’d better avoid changing shoes – because if your heel hight changes, all of your measurements will be off…

Basically, you step back to your viewpoint, take a measurement on the model between your thumbs on a triangle (or ruler or tight string) held with your arms stretched out straight, check the same on your paper,  try to remember it, step forward, put a mark on the paper and hope for the best. Just like in real life, the best is not necessarily what happens…

Once you have a certain number of reference points (top, bottom, left, right), you start to figure out in which angle certain points relate to each other and are supposed to construct the image with nothing but straight lines to begin with.

This method not only takes a lot of time, but also asks for various tools. You will need charcoal in various gradations (in Florence, most of the schools use Nitram charcoals), a translucent triangle for the measurements and for checking the angles, plumb lines (screw-nuts attached to a string work just fine), sandpaper or a sandpaper covered piece of wood for sharpening the charcoal, a kneaded eraser, eventually some pen shaped erasers as well, a chamois (soft piece of leather cloth) and optionally some charcoal holders.

All this is fine and well, but the fairest tool of all is … the mirror, and especially the black one. This “magical” piece of equipment reduces the tonal values, allowing you to see them a bit in the way you do when squinting your eyes. As a side effect, it unfortunately makes your mistakes pop out…

You can find the most beautiful thick black mirror (specchio nero) at Zecchi Belle Arti and slimmer, but larger ones in a wooden box can be found at Kremer Pigmente. However, the same effect can be obtained by looking into the black screen of a smartphone or by spray painting the back of a piece of glass black.

At the studio, we used both the black and a regular mirror in a lot of different ways: holding it up over your eyes to look at your drawing upside down, turning around and look at the reflected drawing backwards, holding it upright along the side of your nose and trying to look both into the mirror and on your drawing in order to obtain a sort of “butterfly image” of both the cast and the drawing. (The latter technique took me over a week to understand...)

Upon returning from Florence, I needed to reflect a bit about if & how I would be able to integrate the newly learned method of “sight size” into “real life studio practice” (i.e. taking up twice as much space in our living room while still staying flexible for actual “living”…).

First, I needed to find a small piece of furniture high enough to be at the same hight as my working surface (paper, canvas…) when standing and solid enough to bear either a cast or a still life composition. After searching around a bit, I opted for a sculpture stand by Mabef, which I find rather beautiful and not to big nor too heavy.

For the time being, I must admit that without the ideal surrounding & steady lightning and especially without the never ending patience and support from studio director Gary Adcock, my first attempts were of course less convincing. Then again, since I essentially want to move back to painting, I was only willing to give this little study in black and white chalk on blue paper of a bust of Giuliano de Medici (plaster cast after Michelangelo found at Decorarconarte in Spain) a few hours of my time. And yes, I did rush through the “strait line phase” again;)…