Using Viewfinders

August 22, 2014


Left: See details about these various viewfinders below.

While teaching the recently concluded session of “Sketchbook Skool—Beginnings” in which I have a class on “Beginning Animal Drawing from Life” a student asked me whether it was OK to use a viewfinder. 

It just so happened that I had a photograph of a bunch of viewfinders, so I thought I’d write a post about this. 

First there is absolutely nothing wrong with using a viewfinder. In fact it might be just what you need to push yourself to another level of accuracy or another level of thoughtful composition. 

Viewfinders come in many shapes and sizes. Often you may receive free viewfinders when you make an art-related purchase. (I got all those labeled North Light Book Club in my photo when I joined the company’s book club years ago. I haven’t purchased books that way in a long, long time, but I still have these viewfinders! The Liquitex comes from buying acrylic paint.)

Some viewers have a predetermined viewing rectangle that can’t be changed, like Dan Raskin’s at the center bottom. You can simply use a piece of paper to cover part of the rectangle to change the aspect ratio (the proportional relationship between the rectangle’s height and width).

Other viewfinders have a value chart you can hold up to view your subject and match the value. (The small circles and squares cut into  two of these cards are for that purpose.)

Still other viewfinders have a printed grid on their surface like the “Scale Finder” stacked on the bottom or the red plastic grid at the top. (Its grid lines are useful for locating compositional focus points, making sure you keep level those subjects you want to appear level, and for use as extra plumb and guide lines to align with if you like to work with a grid on your paper as well.

To do this you draw rectangles on your paper with the same aspect ratio as those on the viewing grid, but you can enlarge or reduce those rectangles to control the final size of your composition. Once your grid is in place on your paper you look through your viewfinder and draw everything within a given rectangle within its corresponding rectangle on your paper. You need to maintain a consistent viewing distance from eye to hand so that your critical points of your drawing maintain their relationship to the grid.

I find that the small plastic viewfinder that looks like a slide holder is the most useful. It’s called “The View Catcher.” (It’s widely available, simply Google.)

I don’t normally use a viewfinder but if I’m going to use one it will be when I go out to sketch a landscape and that means I want the least amount of gear to carry. I also like this viewfinder because the aspect ratio is changeable: simply push in or pull out the little sliding card.

When I am working in the studio I find the red viewfinder useful for looking at my painting and my subject to check that I’m getting my values right. (The red filter provides the same benefit that squinting does—it removes the color information.) Not all red filters are created equal and some people find even good filters darken some values too much—but I’ve had good experience with the Compose It Grid Pocket Red.

That company also makes a variety of clear viewfinders for people who want to avoid dealing with the red filter. At some point you’re going to have to learn to squint so maybe you should just do that today and go with clear viewfinders? You decide.

Of course if you’re only looking for a viewfinder to help you with composition you can simply bring two “Ls” of mat board (left over from cutting matts for framing) into the field or studio with you. Or create cropped “windows” out of cardstock in the aspect ratios you use most frequently.

Alternately, if you find yourself out and about without any of your tools and want a viewfinder you can make “Ls” out of your thumbs and corresponding index fingers—moving the “Ls” in and out to get the desired composition and cropping.

When using a viewfinder you want to be sure to always hold it at the same distance from your eyes (and same height). How you hold the viewer will depend on the size of the viewer’s window and the distance you are from your subject and the desired size of your finished painting. Be sure to hold it in the same position each time you pick it up, once you’ve decided on a cropping. I always decide on my cropping and then mentally note something that lines up with two of the corners of the finder on my subject so that I can get it back to the same viewing spot when I want to.

If you start using a viewfinder you’ll find a comfortable way to interact with it. And don’t worry about using one. It isn’t “cheating.” It’s just a tool to help you quickly sort out your options and make the most of your drawing and painting time.

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