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Sight-Size A Method of Painting | © December 1970 American Artist
An Interview with Robert Douglas Hunter by Richard Goetz

The Paintings of Robert Douglas Hunter typify the great traditions of past Boston artists who have contributed so much to American culture. Hunter paints with the sight-size method, a technique that goes far back into the history of art but is practically unknown today among the younger painters. With this method, and a great technical facility. Hunter has won numerous prizes and sold paintings to museums and private collections. In Boston he is active in art organizations and instructs at the Vesper George School of Art, but his summer studio is in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where the following interview was held.

Robert's work may be seen here as well as on various other websites.

G: Bob, will you first give a brief explanation of sight-size painting?
H: Basically, it is a method of viewing the model and your painting simultaneously from a selected position so that both images appear the same size. The artist is afforded a much clearer comparison of the subject to the painting, which eliminates transposing the visual image to a different size on the canvas as be paints. This allows the painting to be life size or under life size, because the size is determined by the relative position of the model, the easel, and the place you stand when viewing the subject, which I refer to as the "viewing point." If you want your painting to be life size, the canvas is placed next to the subject; if it is to be under life size, the easel is moved nearer to the viewing point. That distance determines how much under life size the painting is to be.

For example, if the artist wishes to paint a portrait bust two-thirds life size, the viewing point would be about 14 feet away, with the easel placed approximately midway between the viewing point and the model. From the viewing point, the painting would appear to be the same size as the subject. If the canvas is brought nearer to the viewing point, the image on the canvas becomes smaller.

G: What determines the distance you stand from the model?
H: That depends on the size of the study; the larger it is, the farther back I stand. The artist should be far enough away to see clearly at a glance all he plans to include in the painting. I do not want to be so close I have to turn my head from side to side to see all the subject, nor do I want to be so far back that I see more than the subject.

G: What is an average distance you stand from the still-life or portrait model?
H: From 12 to 16 feet. This point is where all the observation of the model must be made. You must not look at the model when you are at the canvas. Observe the model and mix your paint at the viewing point, then walk up to the canvas, retaining in your memory what you wish to execute. Apply the paint and then walk back to the viewing point for your next observation.

Now I would like to go back to where we were talking about sight size, life size, and how far back you stand. Sight size does not mean your canvas must be life size. If you will take your easel with the canvas on it and draw it up, say, halfway between where you are standing and nature, you can make it sight size, but if you want to make it under life size, the closer the easel comes or the canvas comes to you, the smaller will be the image. Is that clear? In other words, if you now had your canvas midway between yourself and nature, or the setup, and you were to take and mark off parallels, you would suddenly see that the sight size of the setup is considerably under life size. If the canvas were so close that it was at arm's length, then you would find that the shapes are very small; how small is determined by how close the canvas comes to you. It can be illustrated very easily in the diagram.

A: Still-life arrangement.
B: Painter in position of observation at paint table.
C1: Canvas on easel, placed for painting almost life size.
C2: Canvas on easel, placed for painting somewhat under life size.
C3: Canvas on easel, placed for painting very much under life size.

The sight-size method of painting requires the painter to stand sufficiently far from the arrangement to be able to see the entire arrangement at one glance, The canvas and easel are placed somewhere between the painter and the arrangement so that the painter can easily scan the arrangement and the canvas side by side.

All of the observation of the arrangement is done from point B. where the palette is kept on the paint table.

The painter then, with paint on brush, walks up to the canvas to apply the color note. He then returns to observation point B for further comparison of the arrangement in relationship to the canvas in order to decide the next color note that should be painted. All decisions on what next should be worked on are based on what seems least correct about the painting in relationship to the arrangement.

This procedure is continued until the canvas is completed, which may take from 1 to 30 days, depending on the degree of refinement desired.

G: What formal preparation did you have for your career as an artist?
H: My formal training began at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, from age 13 to 16. While attending high school, I also studied with Carl Adams, a well-known watercolorist. At the Museum I had two courses that dealt in abstract painting which helped me to observe shapes as abstract elements first, and hence to achieve greater unity of design.

After graduating from high school, I was in the Marine Corps for two years, and then I enrolled in Vesper George Art School, where I completed the prescribed course in three years and remained for a year of post-graduate work. During this period, I spent much time in the Museum of Fine Arts copying the great works of art.

G: After you finished at Vesper George, I believe you then studied at Provincetown?
H: Yes, I saw Henry Hensche give a painting demonstration and was impressed with the way he dealt with color and mass. It was a new exposure for me because my training had been so linear. So the following summer I went to Provincetown for studies with Mr. Hensche. It was the first time, literally, I bad ever gone out of doors with paints and painted the effect of outdoor light directly on a landscape. When one is working out of doors instead of inside, the big shapes of nature are simplified, even on a gray day. And the thing that intrigued me particularly about Mr. Hensche as a teacher is that he urged his students to use a palette knife-a blunt, rather crude instrument that forces you to capture big shapes and try to interrelate them.

While in Provincetown, I met R. H. Ives Gammell and spent the next five years studying with him in a small atelier class, rather than under the apprenticeship system. Gammell had from three to five students and furnished each with a studio, model, and materials.

The art schools and universities today emphasize an artistic experience, often ignoring sound technical knowledge. Such a background should be based on the student's ability to see impressionistically. That is what Mr. Gammell did for his students: he taught us the craft of painting.

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