Many people have heard of “The Drawing Course” by Charles Bargue. The wonderful book above, by Gerald M Ackerman, is something you can purchase by clicking on the cover (you’ll end up at Barnes & Noble). It’s about $72.00.
If you plan to do the Bargue Drawing Course, you need to buy the book. It explains pretty much the right way to do the course. There’s a lot of good information there that you won’t find anywhere else and even ateliers or schools that teach sight-size workshops or classes.
Often people don’t teach it correctly or even understand the reasons behind the course. For instance, unless your ultimate goal in art is small, tight pastel, pencil, charcoal, or pen-and-ink drawings, or small, tight watercolors, doing the course in pencil, using the small plates in the book, on an angled easel or drawing board is not going to give you maximum bang for buck.
Doing the course as intended, using vine charcoal, a full-size plate, and a vertical easel (or wall), prepares you for working in oil, acrylics, and pastel. Your forced to get over your fear of big, loose, flowing arm movements, even while expressing refined and controlled outcomes. So, word to the wise. Do it the right way and the jump to painting in black and white (and then color) is a breeze.
All that said, most students of art don’t do the full-size plates for one reason only, the expense. If you take the Ackerman book to a copy shop with a laser printer and ask them to blow up one book plate to its actual size (which is 18″ x 24″ for plates in Part 1 & 2 or 28″x 36″ for plates in Part 3) and then print that one plate in full color, you’ll end up paying $28 just to print it off. They might even charge you more for enlarging it.
Since Part 1 has 70 plates, Part 2 has 70 plates, and Part 3 has 60 plates, it wasn’t reasonable to expect any art student to shell out, $70 for the book and another $6,000 to create the plates to do the course. In fact, it was totally absurd. I decided I was going to do the course, but it had to be for under $100 bucks (book price excluded).
I bought the book. After that,
- I scanned each plate in 300 DPI, greyscale. Just so you know, some plates in the book do have either colored drawing paper or use colored chalk/conte pencil. It didn’t really matter to me because I wasn’t interested in the color, I was interested in the drawing.
- I then busted out the Photoshop and straightened then enlarge each plate to its actual size plate size (18″ x 24″) (for Pt 1 and Pt 3 that was 250% enlargement, for Pt 2, that’s was 625% enlargement, for Part 3 that was 300% enlargement).
- Some plates needed some tweaking because they were too dark or not dark enough. Some needed to be cleaned up to be usable. The thing they don’t really tell you in the Ackerman book, but which you can plainly see, is that some of the plates aren’t actual plates. They are incredibly perfect copies of plates student artists did of them — back in the 1880s.
- After that stage, I had to dissect the full-size plates into sections that would fit on standard US paper sizes: Letter, Legal, and Tabloid aka Ledger (8.5 x 11 or 8.5 x 14 or 11 x 17). The margins are generally 1/8th inch, which is what most printers tolerate.
- Finally, I had to create a PDFs for each size of paper, rather than each plate, so that the printer could run them off easily.
All this took about 2 weeks, which is why I’m posting the PDFs. I don’t think anyone else should have to reinvent the wheel. Just run it off and be blessed.
I chose to run my plates off in black and white, Pt 1 cost me $28. Pt 2 $26. Pt 3 $28. I had the folks at Staples print them off. They wanted to see the legal proof, which I showed them in the front of the book, but after that it was all fine. So, total cost, under $100.
I was really happy with the black and white. I looked at a couple prints in color. They were lighter overall, but had nice gradation. If you have the money, take a look at one plate printed both ways and then decide. Printing the whole course in color would have cost more, a lot more. I estimate about $400.
If you plan to just “try out” the Bargue Drawing Course or start and see how it goes, you could just print 10 plates off a time, in color, and probably pay less than $20. That would be a really good option too. Not everyone wants to do the full course.
If you have a laser printer at home, you should be able to run these off yourself with no problem. If you have a color laser printer, it’s basically the cost of ink and paper.
After that, all you have to do is tape them together, and voila, you have your full-size plate to copy. It’s super easy to do, but it does help to have the book. I didn’t bother capturing all the plate stamps or empty space. I went for the image. So, to get plates in the right order, the book order, you might want to get the book or borrow it from you local library (and save yourself $70).
I basically stuck an 18″ x 24″ sheet on the wall, stuck my Bargue Drawing Course image to it, and used that as my “plate.” I found butcher’s paper to be way cheaper than charcoal paper for doing the Part 1 work. Let’s face it, it’s all practice. Do you really want to pull out more charcoal paper to get a line drawing of an eye correct? With butcher paper, I’d draw it till it was right, then just wipe if off with a terry cloth towel. It certainly made correcting mistakes a breeze. Save your charcoal paper for more finished drawings later on.
In Part 3, I sometimes had a tiny section left and was too cheap to put it onto another page. In those cases, I took the final section and pasted it into an empty part of the main drawing plate to get it all on. I didn’t do it a lot, but there is a tiny bit of cut and paste work you’ll need to do in Part 3.
The course was designed to build upon itself, and take about a year for each part. In plate 1 you start with eyes, then plate 2 goes on to noses and mouths, and by plate 3 you’re combining that basic knowledge to make profiles. It’s quite brilliant progression that really sticks with you and enables you to increase your skills rapidly — if you do it right.
If you are starting with even reasonably good drawing skills, you can progress even more quickly. I’ve found Part 1 really helpful. Part 2 is more about applying what you’ve learned to actual faces. Part 3 can be challenging because you have to get the gestural drawing right and then fill in the blanks. If you can do that, you’re amazing.
Some people talk about spending 50 hours getting one drawing right. I’m a little concerned by that. To be honest, if you are doing the course correctly, and in the way it was intended, going step-by-step through the lessons, building your skills, by the time you hit a drawing, a true drawing, you shouldn’t find yourself in the weeds. A finished drawing should take maybe 5 to 10 hours of work.
Some people are going to be upset by what I’ve just said. I get that. However, if you were taking this course back in the day, say 1881, you’d be at your school or atelier spending 2 mornings a week doing drawing after casts, 2 afternoons a week painting from live models, and your “free” time taking a course at the Ecole Beaux Arts in perspective drawing or anatomy, as well as copying paintings in museums, doing countless drawings in charcoal and pen and fried drumsticks on a napkin if you had to, visiting museums, begging people to sit for you, managing a studio on the side, selling some copies of museum paintings you’d made, or even doing some work as an assistant to another artist with a paid commission for a ceiling mural to make some extra cash.
The flat truth is, the Bargue Drawing Course wasn’t intended to be your whole artistic life all day, every day, for a year. It wasn’t even an art course for artists as we know it. It was a design course, for designers!
If a full scale charcoal rendering takes 50 hours, it takes 50 hours. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, the course was created to make drawing easy, effortless, and natural. Blocking out a cast of Psyche should take 5 minutes or less, and getting the values right another 30 to 60 minutes — if you mastered all the steps leading up to doing it. You have to master the basics. You can visit my page on Tips & Tools if you’re just starting out.
You can’t sell these plates or any of the images created from them, but you can use them in your atelier or studio for educational purposes. See the Legally Yours page if you’re overly concerned.
For those of you ready to get started, be aware that some of these files are quite large: