From Frederic Whitaker’s Book Whitaker on Watercolor


Many students feel that a painter does not need a knowledge of drawing.  It may be true that in nonobjective art there is little call for expert draftsmanship, although the leading exponents in that field are usually well equipped with all the academic skills, including that of drawing.  In representational or figurative painting, however, some knowledge of drawing is indispensable.  In fact, lack of drawing ability is the number one hindrance to painting progress.  For general landscape painting a student need not be a consummate draftsman, but at least he must know the fundamentals – and the more he knows the easier he will find the building of pictures. Drawing must be learned.  There is no such thing as natural ability to draw accurately, though some have such a natural interest in the subject that they grasp the principles quickly.  It is mostly a matter of calculation conscious calculation at first, instinctive later.  But one must calculate. 

The study of drawing demands some mental effort.  It may seem boring at first to those who seek a magic formula for easy success.  Drawing can be as great an art as painting.  You will find it most enjoyable as soon as you achieve a little confidence. 


There are two kinds of drawing: factual and esthetic.  Factual drawing is the accurate delineation of an object or scene.  Accurate in this case means that all visual measurements are in correct relationship to each other.  It is not enough to make a reasonable likeness of the model.  Even a small child can draw a simple object  so that its identity is unmistakable.  Factual drawing must be exact.  It is largely mechanical or mathematical process which requires only limited imagination, but it does call for a studious approach.  It is not concerned with style or technique. 

Esthetic drawing is the creative delineation of an object or scene.  In this case the artist draws what he wants to depict rather than what he sees.  He molds the facts to suit his purpose or creates a composition from his imagination.

The success of an esthetic drawing depends on the artists imagination, taste, and skill.  It is based on a sound knowledge of factual drawing.  The creative artist may take great liberties with his subject matter, but before he can interpret the rules, he must be familiar with them.  No artist can go far with esthetic drawing  until he has so mastered factual drawing that it functions for him almost automatically, with little deliberate calculation.  As Michelangelo said: “Drawing constitutes the fountainhead and substance of painting and sculpture and architecture and is the root of all sciences.” 

In the following pages the emphasis is on factual drawing.  Esthetic drawing will evolve later, of it’s own accord.


The principle underlying factual drawing is very simple and embraces little more than a single factor: placement. Placement is the correct positioning of points upon the paper.  When these points are connected with lines, an accurate skeleton of the scene or subject is registered. Placement depends upon two subordinate factors: measurement and direction.  By direction is meant the slant or angle of lines that do, or could, connect the various points in a picture.

The rules governing placement are always the same, regardless of the scene being drawn, whether a simple prism or a Gothic cathedral.  In the more complicated subjects, once the basic measurements have been registered, on simply has to divide and subdivide the areas and apply to each division the rules that were first applied to the total mass.

The novice starting to draw simply looks at his subject and begins making marks on the paper to correspond with what he thinks he sees. But what he thinks he sees is not always accurate.  For instance a foreshortened circle that is drawn as an ellipse almost invariably seems wider through its waist than a photograph would reveal it to be. Knowing the foreshortened circle measures as much one way as the other, the beginner tends to exaggerate the narrow dimension of the ellipse that represents it.  In fact, he is prone to give too much length, in drawing, to anything foreshortened, whether it is a circle or other shape.  Again, a cone or pyramid creates an optical illusion that leads him to exaggerate its height.
    The experienced artist, on the other hand, is aware of the many illusions to which the human eye is subject when translating a three-dimensional subject to a two-dimensional paper.  He doesn’t trust his eye alone, but uses his knowledge and his reason and with them checks against his vision as he works.  No matter how quickly a veteran artist may sketch, his mind calculates the correct position for each point, mark, or stroke before it is set down.  This process may not be apparent to the bystanding observer, but it functions nevertheless.
    How does the artist know the right spot at which to make his point or start a line?  By calculation––by measurement and angulation.  Every mark made is calculated in relation to other marks and points.  The method he uses is exactly that described below, but, having been refined by long usage, it operates almost automatically, without mechanical aids.

    Without leaving your viewing point, you can measure the objects before you almost as accurately as if you were using a tape measure.  Many artists, without reference to a ruler, can mark on paper with amazing accuracy a quarter-inch, an inch, a foot, or any other measurement.  But in picture-making, instead of using feet and inches, you measure everything proportionately: the relation of the height of an object to its width, the size of a haystack as compared with that of the barn behind it, the width of a certain building in relation to the one beside it, and so forth.  The experienced draftsman is continually measuring, measuring, measuring.
    How is this measuring done while you remain in your painting position?  As already stated, the measuring is proportional rather than actual.  Drawing a house, for instance, you set down two points or lines to mark its base line and peak.  You now want to know the exact width in relation to the height.  To measure this you use a pencil or thin stack.  Holding the stick horizontally between thumb and fingers, at arm’s length and at a right angle to your line of vision, squint across it with one eye, moving the stick until its left end is in exact line with the left side of the house, as shown in Figure 31.  Then move your thumb and fingers along the stick to a point that coincides precisely with the house’s right side.  The exposed portion of the stick then represents the house’s width.  Maintaining your thumb in position, turn you hand so the stick is vertical and, still holding it at arm’s length and squinting with one eye, move it to ascertain how many house widths are contained in the height.  Let us say the answer is one and one half.  Now, turning to your paper, where the house height is already indicated, multiply that by one and one half, using the stick and your thumbs as measuring instruments.  You now know the exact pictorial width of the house.  Using this system, you can measure and register on paper other subdivisions of the house and other objects in the scene.  With the measurements thus accurately shown on paper, it is a simple matter to draw the various parts within their pencilled limitations.

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    Relative measurement, just described, is one of the two factors that insure correct placement.  The other factor is direction, or angulation––the accurate reproduction on paper of the apparent angle of any line in the subject before you.  Take the angle of a roof, for instance.  Holding the pencil or stick between thumb and fingers, at arm’s length, twist the wrist until the slant of the pencil coincides exactly with that of the roof.  Now, retaining the arm’s length position and without allowing the hand or pencil to twist, lower the hand until the side of the pencil rests on the paper in the right pictorial spot.  Mark the angle on the paper.  With a little practice you will be able to register slanted lines on the paper with astonishing accuracy.

    If you know the length of the base of a triangle and the degree of the angles at its ends, a simple calculation will give you the exact location of the apex, or third corner.  Assume, for example, that you are viewing the front of a barn fifty feet wide and that the angles from the bottom corners to the peak measure sixty degrees.  You can then prove that the height of the barn is just over forty-three feet.
    But without studying trigonometry, you can make valuable use of its principles.  In drawing the bard, you simply mark a base line on the paper to indicate its width, then visually measure the angles mentioned with a pencil or stick, as shown in Figure 32.  Next pencil their directions on the paper.  You can correctly register the height of the barn for you picture by placing the apex at the point where the two projected lines cross each other.  See Figure 33.
    Using the same method of triangulation, you can accurately find any other points on the barn––the eaves, or the windows, for instance––or you can locate the positions of other objects adjacent to the barn.
    It is not necessary that there be an actual straight line in the scene when you measure such angles.  Dotted lines A, B and C will never be marked on barns for your convenience, but you can easily imagine them running from point to point, and you can measure their angle or slant accordingly.  This principle of angulation can and must be used in relation to anything you draw.


    You have learned how to measure distance and also how to triangulate.  In practical drawing we combine both measurement and angulation, constantly checking one against the other.  When our measurements and angles agree, we have photographically correct placements.  Any desired point in a picture can be located quickly if we can determine its distance from the bottom and from the side; or any point can be found by triangulation.

Because of the importance of size and layout, it is advisable when drawing a likeness of anything to work from the outside to the interior.  Start with your given limitations, the points or lines that indicate the top, bottom, left and right boundaries of the subject.  Then proceed inward, dividing and subdividing the areas into spaces that will exactly contain the subordinate details.
    In principle, the drawing of a complicated subject follows exactly the same procedure as that used for a simple object.  Simply divide and subdivide accurately, and then draw the secondary parts as you did the whole.  Drawing a Gothic cathedral, you would first mark the containing lines within which the major outlines would be registered.  Then you would measure and indicate exactly the location of such divisions as the towers and steeple, the rose windows and the immense portals, drawing them all with simple definite lines.  Then you would divide those parts into their components, and continue the reduction down to the smallest details.
    That is the system to follow when you draw the specific thing before you.  An idea developed on paper from the mind is drawn from the inside out, however.  That would be an esthetic drawing.

    While measurements and directions constitute the foundation on which accurate drawing is based, not all measurement and angulation is achieved with a measuring stick.  At the start you must use a pencil or stick, for only by repeated practice with it can you fully grasp the principles involved and build up an instinctive feeling for measurement and angulation.  After sufficient practice, however, most of the mechanical procedure can be dropped.  By then, accurate calculations can usually be made with the eye alone, although even the most experienced artist occasionally resorts to stick measuring to establish fundamental lines and to make exact computations.

    Between periods of factual drawing the student should practice making quick sketches, taking only ten minutes or five minutes or even two minutes for each sketch.  This allows no time for mechanical measuring and stimulates visual and mental calculation.  These sketches can be of any subject, but many artists find it especially helpful to do quick sketches of the human figure from live models.
    Perhaps this discussion of semi-mechanical means of drawing will draw criticism from those who profess that easel art and mathematical systems cannot mix.  However, some system of visual calculation and measurement is invaluable in drawing.  Architecture, the mother of all arts, is based largely on mathematics.  Illustrators avail themselves of every possible mechanical aid, and sculptors, mural painter and others who work in large scale would be helpless without them.

    As mentioned previously, one seldom finds a landscape subject that can be reproduced without considerable revision.  But suppose you have before you a scene which is almost fully satisfactory and which you want to copy almost literally.  Your problem is to decide just how much of the scene to accept and then to make that part fit the paper exactly.  Using Figure 34 as an example, this is how you proceed.
After careful observation and calculation, you resolve that the expanse bounded by the dotted lines has the makings of a perfect composition.  First you fix the boundaries definitely in mind.  You cannot erect a visible rectangle on the scene itself, but you can erect an imaginary rectangle.  Remember that the right-hand border runs vertically between two pointed trees at the right.  Don’t let that fact escape you at any time during the whole painting operation.  You see that the left-hand border runs upward just a little to the left of the peak of that house, and you fix that fact in mind also.  The top border runs through a point just below the top of the big tree, and the bottom line runs below that stone at the right of the road.  If your imagination is good you can definitely see the rectangle in place.  We call this “boxing the subject.”
    In this picture the position of the horizon line is an important factor, so, with a measuring stick, measure the vertical distance from the bottom of the rock to the top of the distant hills.  Then, moving the thumb and pencil upward, you find that line is one third of the way up to the top of the picture, so you run a horizontal line across the paper one third way up from the bottom.  This is your horizon line, and it is accurately placed.
    Now, in similar manner, measure from the left-hand side of the imaginary rectangle to the trunk of the large tree.  That distance, multiplied two and one half times, reaches to the right side of the paper or canvas.  Draw a vertical line accordingly and that becomes the centerline of your tree.
    Make similar measurements all over the scene.  After filling in the details at or within the measured points, you will have accurately translated the scene to paper.  Remember that in erecting imaginary borderlines you must either select an area that has approximately the same proportions as the paper you want to fill, or choose a paper of the same proportions as the landscape area.


    A common mistake in drawing landscapes is that of overestimating the pictorial height of a foreground, especially if it includes a forward-moving directional element such as a road or brook.  Realizing the great forward expanse of the ground, the artist feels that to show it he must run it high into the picture.  Forewarned, one can be prepared to avoid such an error.  See Figure 35, A and B.
    The cure for this tendency has already been frequently stressed.  When laying out a scene on paper, one must first set down the fundamental components accurately.  In a scene of this type, the horizon line represents the most important division of the picture.  If it is properly placed at the outset, the error of the over-extended road will not occur.

    When a watercolor painting has been finished over a definitely pencilled layout, very little of the pencil plan will remain visible, and what does show after wet brushing often enhances the freehand aspect of the work.
    Only in the white or nearly white spaces may it be necessary to erase the lead.  This can be done through a very thin wash of color, but a heavier wash acts as a fixative so in case of doubt the erasing of the light areas should be executed during early painting stages.  Be sure the paper is thoroughly dry or the surface of the paper will be damaged.
    There are several ways to enlarge a composition from a small, carefully calculated pattern study to a full-sized picture.  It can, of course, be done by freehand drawing, but sometimes other means are advisable.  When one has developed a perfectly balanced composition, there is no point in taking a chance on inaccurate magnification.  Regardless of the method to be used, first make sure that the small sketch and the large paper have the same proportions.  You cannot enlarge a square to fit an oblong with distorting the picture.
    A simple method of checking the proportions of sketch and paper are shown in Figure 36.  All the rectangles are proportionately the same, because the same diagonal runs through all the opposite corners.  Fit your small sketch to a corner of the large paper.  Then with a straightedge draw a line through the lower left and upper right corners of the sketch, extending the line until it reaches the upper right side of the large paper.  The point of contact there shows the size of the large paper must be to correspond with the small one.  If the two papers do not correspond, either the sketch or the paper must be changed until they do.  See Figure 37.


    A common method of enlarging is to divide the large paper into squares, with lines, let us say, an inch apart.  Next, divide the sketch into the same number of squares.  It is then easy to reproduce the detail of each small square in each of the large corresponding squares.  This is the method traditionally followed by mural painters who see only a small sections of a wall at one time.
    Another method, which I prefer, is the “latitude and longitude system.”  The artist notes certain key points in the composition sketch and then translates them to the paper in their relatively correct positions.  With these key points established, it is not difficult to draw in the intervening areas.  If the large paper is five times the size of the sketch, pick out a definite point on the sketch, measure its distance from the left edge, multiply the distance by five on the large paper, and make a short vertical pencil line there.  Then measure the distance between the same point and the bottom edge.  Again multiply it by five on the large paper, and make a short vertical pencil lime there.  Then measure the distance between the same point and bottom edge.  Again multiply it by five on the large paper, and mark with a short horizontal line.  The point should lie where the two lines cross.  Other key points can be established the same way.  With draftsmen’s dividers I can locate key points very quickly.  If the sketch and the paper cannot be divided or multiplied evenly, a simple scale can be made in a few moments.  With it and a foot rule, proportionate measurements can be easily effected.
    To make a scale, take a strip of paper, say on inch wide and a little longer than the sketch is (a perfect straightedge can be achieved by folding a creasing a paper and using the folded edge).  This paper is to be the scale, or scale rule, as shown in Figure 38.  Lay the strip on the sketch and mark two pencil dots to show its exact length.  Now measure the large paper.  If it is, say, thirty inches long, divide the distance already indicated on the paper scale into thirty equal parts and number the points from 0 to 30.  Each small space now represents an inch.  Add another “inch” space to the left of the 0 and divide it into four or eight equal parts.  These divisions represent fourths or eights of an inch.  Now use the paper scale to measure the sketch, and the regular foot rule to translate the measurements to the large paper.Some artists, particularly commercial artists, use a balopticon or similar projector to enlarge their sketches.  The sketch is projected directly onto the large paper at the exact size desired and all the lines are marked with a pencil.

    When watercolors are framed, about one-half inch all around the border is covered by the mat.  In a half-sheet picture (15 x 22 inches), more than ten percent of the entire painting is lost.  In carefully designed composition, this can alter the pattern considerably.
    To avoid this problem, you can draw a light pencil line around the four sides of your paper, one-half inch from the edge, and keep the composition within that line.  Erase the line before laying the color, and then paint out to the extreme edge.  When the picture is matted, the composition that you originally planned will be completely visible even though the mat covers part of the painting.

Page 71-74:

LOBSTER BOAT. 13¼” X 19¼”

CALIFORNIA COAST. 21” X 29”. Courtesy Anna Hyatt Huntington, N.A.



FRUIT STILL LIFE. 13 ⅞” X 20”. Eileen Monaghan, A.N.A.

THE BLUE DOOR. 21” X 28 ¾”. Eileen Monaghan, A.N.A.



Page 76:

Figure 31.

Figure 32.

Figure 33.

Page 79:

Figure 34.

Figure 35.
Page 81:

Figure 36. Enlarging a Rectangle. The heavy lines indicate the original rectangle. To enlarge or diminish it, draw a straight line diagonally through two corners. Parallel rectangles constructed anywhere on that diagonal (shown by dotted lines) will have the same proportions as the original.

Figure 37. Enlarging a Drawing. Often it is necessary to enlarge a small sketch onto a large paper of different proportions.  The rectangles A-B-C-D represent the large paper. In one corner of the large paper mark the dimensions of the small sketch (represented here by the small, lower lefthand rectangles). Project a straight line through A-E until it strikes the top or side of the large paper. From point F draw the line F-G. The rectangles A-D-F-G have the same proportions as the small rectangles. The shaded areas can be discarded.

Figure 38. A handmade scale rule can be helpful in enlarging a drawing from a small sketch. If the six-inch measurement duplicates the exact length of the small sketch and the 24 divisions or “inches” represent the length of the large paper, you can make measurements on the small sketch with the paper scale and corresponding measurements on the large paper with a standard rule. Both small sketch and large paper should have the same proportions.