The Process of a Master Copy Drawing

Yesterday I completed my first Bargue Drawing for the online classical art course I’m currently taking. Here’s the finished drawing:

Bargue Drawing by Dan Johnson
Completed Bargue Drawing

I could continue to work on this drawing, capturing more of the subtleties, but for the purposes of studying proportion, value and relationships, there’s no need to take it any further.

The Value of Master Copy Drawings

I recently posted over at Right Brain Rockstar about the role of master copy drawings in artistic training. Copying the work of great artists gives us a valuable insight into the way they worked and by using the same techniques as they used, we can build a solid foundation of skills that we will utilise in the rest of our artistic careers.

The Method

The Bargue drawing (named after the artists, Charles Bargue, whose drawings we are copying), is completed using the sight-size approach. This means that we make our drawing the exact same size as the reference picture, so that we can accurately check our measurements without having to scale them up or down.

In this method we set up our drawing board with the reference picture on the left, and a blank sheet of paper on the right. A piece of thread is taped down the centre of the reference picture, and a corresponding line is drawn lightly on the blank paper. Then marks are made to indicate the top and bottom of the drawing.

Blocking In

The first stage after setup is to very roughly block in the outline of the drawing. The purpose of this stage is to get an accurate framework for the large structure of the drawing.

(Note: I have increased the contrast of the drawing in these initial stages, so you can clearly see the pencil lines, as they are very light in reality.)

Bargue Block-in
Blocking in a Bargue Drawing

There is no detail at this point. All the features of the face are simplified into large angular shapes. We draw a line, then use a piece of thread to measure it against the reference. If it is out, we draw the line where it should be, erase the original line, and measure again.

This process is repeated until the whole drawing is blocked in accurately. It is worth spending a long time on this stage to ensure our proportions, angles and relationships are all correct before proceeding. This will save us a lot of time later.

Refining the Block-In

The next stage is to refine the block-in with more detail.

Refining the Blockin
Refining the Block-in

We go around the whole drawing, adding more detail, but still keeping things angular and simplified. Don’t be tempted to start drawing detailed curves or shading at this stage.

We are still constantly checking our measurements to ensure an accurate drawing, but we always measure with the eye first, and only then check with the thread. This helps train the eye to measure more accurately.

Adding Tone

Once we have a fairly detailed and accurate block-in, we can add a layer of consistent tone to the shadow areas.

Adding Tone
Adding Tone to the Bargue Drawing

This stage adds some depth to the drawing, and makes it easier to see any drawing errors we may have made in the previous stages.

Spend plenty of time on this stage, making the tone consistent and smooth. This will give us a good basis for finishing off the drawing in the final stage.

Finishing the Drawing

The final stage involves accurately matching value relationships, and refining the edges between the light and shadow areas.

Finishing the Bargue Drawing
Finishing the Bargue Drawing

This stage can take a very long time, so we need to exercise patience and make sure we spend the time getting everything just right.

Value Relationships

One thing I learned from this Bargue drawing is the importance of capturing accurate value relationships, as opposed to exact value matching.

Depending on what medium you use, you may not be able to match the values in your drawing exactly. For example, I used an HB pencil for the drawing above, which cannot match the darkest darks in the reference picture.

But we can still get an accurate drawing provided we match the value relationships. So even if the darkest dark in our drawing is a fair bit lighter than the reference, as long as its relationship to the surrounding values is consistent, then the drawing will still work.

So if your darkest dark is lighter than the reference, then all your other values will need to be lightened accordingly, so that the relationship between all of the values is consistent.

Next steps

My next assignment in the course is another Bargue drawing, and I’m also currently working on a self-portrait and finishing off my oil painting colour charts. I’ll share finished assignments here, but if you want to see the stages as I complete them, you can follow me on Facebook, where I will post more regular updates.

If you have any questions about the Bargue drawing process, please let me know in the comments below.






  1. kaya casper Avatar

    glad to see i’m not the only person doing bargue drawings. i posted one on my site so far: (3rd of the 3). i’m working on shading – i picked up a few tips from this post. thanks!

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