Someone may have given you one as a gift or you picked one up out of curiosity – a viewfinder. Or you were shown the neat trick of using your hands as a viewfinder, reminiscent of movie directors in comedies about movie directors. (The hand thing really is a good tool which should be used more often, better composition would be the result.) Be honest now, how often is your viewfinder in your kit? Even more honest, could you find where it is hiding if you needed it?
So I am here to encourage you to dig it out and reconsider its value. Van Gogh had a special one made, it was quite heavy, yet he lugged it all over, and his art significantly improved when he started using it.
DaVinci was a fan as well, along with many others. Here are three uses that might make a pocket viewfinder a regular part of your kit.
Find the focus of your sketch
The first way to improve your sketches is to slow down, just leave the pen or brush on the table for a bit longer and gaze at the scene in front of you. What is it about the place that makes you want to sketch it? Why have you paused to even considering sketching it?
When the scene before us is a grand panorama, or a jumble of buildings, trees, people my experience is that trying to capture it all frequently ends in a bland, frustrating sketch. This happens because of our peripheral vision. When we stand on the edge of a valley and peer into the valley our mind says wow, it takes all of the inputs from our eyes and forms a non-specific perception. Moved by it all we grab a pencil and sketchpad and start sketching.
We need some focus. So ask, “what and why” while looking through a viewfinder. You block out the peripheral vision and start seeing details – maybe a barn stands out in the distance, a river that winds its way, a bridge, an interesting stand of trees. Why is this street scene different from others? is it a doorway, a tower, the people?
Ask, what is it about this scene that I want to capture, that will remind me most about this place when I look at my sketches in six months? What is it that tells a story about the time and place?
If you start your sketch with a clear focus in mind you will do better.
One tip, that even casual photographers learn, is to look all the way around the edge of the viewfinder right before they snap the shutter, you catch things that will distract or weaken the photo. The same technique works well for us sketchers. It also helps define the limits of what we are planning to include in the sketch, and what we want to leave out.
The simplest technique for good composition is the Rule of Thirds – dividing the scene in thirds from top to bottom and side to side. The four intersection points are where the focus object should be placed. Some viewfinders actually have gridlines on them, but even a viewfinder without the lines makes it easier to visualize the intersections. Or you could put marks on the edges of your viewfinder to help.
The old boilers at Gasworks Park, in Seattle, WA are the focal point for the sketch
Visualizing the sketch through the viewfinder helps you see how the scene will translate onto the paper or sketchpad. The relationships of spaces and objects start to come together. When you begin to sketch it will come together easier.
Get the shapes and perspective right
We want the buildings to look like buildings, or the rows of vines look like rows of vines. True, we are sketching not doing praise architectural renderings, but if we get too far off in perspective it does not work well. Much has been written about perspective, far more scholarly than I want to delve into, not that I could.
What I do know is that if you get the shapes you see close to correct, get the lines going in generally the right directions, the perspective will works itself out. Again the viewfinder comes alongside to help.
One reason we struggle with perspective is our overly helpful brains. We see lines, that in two-dimension look like they are totally off, but our brain translates for us. The problem comes when we try to draw what we think we see instead of what is actually there.
By holding up the viewfinder, then using our pen to match the edge of the building, or row of the vineyard, on the viewfinder, then drawing it the same angle on our paper we get it right. There are many times my brain says, “NO!, that line is too steep,” yet if I overcome that and draw it as measured, it always works.
Holding it as I am in the photo keeps the viewfinder in the same plane as the sketchpad, and acts as a support for the pen. Then I simply slide the pen down onto the paper maintaining the angle.
This is the secret that Van Gough used. His perspective was not good in his earlier sketches and paintings, they tended to be flat. When he implemented his viewfinder, they immediately improved. If it is good enough for some of the most famous artists, its smart for me to use.
Give it a go, let me know how it works, or any other tricks you discover.