Now and then I get e-mails from people who are asking for more Sight-Size background information. Occasionally some also have opinions about Sight-Size that they would like my perspective on. This document is a compilation of my answers.

Sight-Size Misconceptions | ©2008 Darren R. Rousar

Misconception #1
-Sight-Size was invented by Richard Lack

Most Sight-Size detractors and some adherents credit R. H. Ives Gammell, his teacher William McGregor Paxton or Gammell's student Richard F. Lack with inventing Sight-Size. Since Gammell died in 1981 we can only look to Gammell's living students* for the most accurate and direct clarification. Of these former students I personally know four. Two of them, Richard F. Lack and Charles H. Cecil, were two of my former teachers.

During phone and in person conversations I have had with Lack, he has denied inventing it** and claims Gammell denied inventing it as well. I have also asked Lack if he knew who was the first to use the term 'Sight-Size'. He replied that Gammell told him the term came down from the Boston School of painters and most probably from Edmund Tarbell rather than Paxton, Gammell's former teacher.

Regarding Gammell's connection to Sight-Size, Charles H. Cecil, on his atelier's website says, "In reviving the atelier tradition, R. H. Ives Gammell (1893-1981) adopted sight-size as the basis of his teaching method. He founded his studio on the precedent of private ateliers, such as those of Carolus-Duran and Léon Bonnat. These French masters were accomplished sight-size portraitists who conveyed to their pupils a devotion to the art of Velazquez. It should be noted that Sargent was trained by both painters and that, in turn, his use of sight-size had a major influence in Great Britain and America."

Until further evidence comes to light we can conclude two things. Neither Paxton, Gammell nor Lack invented Sight-Size or coined the term and that it was believed by them to have been used by some artists, professionally and as a teaching method, prior to the 20th century.


*Richard Lack passed away in the Fall of 2009.
**Richard Lack did invent the term 'Classical Realism' as is shown here.


Misconception #2
-Sight-Size is based upon and defined by mechanical measuring

The word 'measuring', as used here, means determining exact widths and heights using additional tools besides one's own eyes.

On the surface, this misconception seems difficult to refute due to how Sight-Size is commonly taught. Most ateliers that teach Sight-Size do so by incorporating measuring into the approach. My book, Cast Drawing Using the Sight-Size Approach, is no exception. However, when I asked Lack if Sight-Size is defined by measuring, he replied, "No. Measuring can be a part of Sight-Size but it is not its definition." He then repeated back to me my own analogy, using a violin metaphor rather than the piano as I had, "Measuring is to Sight-Size as scales are to a violinist. Playing the violin is not defined by practicing scales, neither is Sight-Size defined by measuring."

In response to the same question, another Gammell student, Richard Whitney, agreed. He says, "Sight-size is the visual placement of the canvas, subject and artist only. Gammell was adament about that. Measuring (though very helpful) has nothing to do with sight-size."

Cecil, on the same page sited earlier, clearly agrees. "When properly understood, sight-size is not a mere measuring technique, but a philosophy of seeing."

Finally, Robert Douglas Hunter, also a former Gammell student, was asked to define Sight-Size in an interview in the December 1970 issue of American Artist magazine, page 48 (reprinted here). He says, "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 he paints."

Based upon the evidence supplied by Gammell's aforementioned students, it is a red herring to connect measuring to Sight-Size in its definition. Again quoting Whitney, "Sight-Size is the visual placement of the canvas, subject and artist only." Measuring is finding a dimension whether done using Sight-Size, Comparative Measurement or Proportional Drawing. As mentioned elsewhere on the site, a fully trained artist who uses Sight-Size might never use a plumb line or even consciously think about literal measuring. He or she will strive toward achieving the same retinal impression in the painting as is seen in nature.

That said, measuring is very important for training the student's eye and, as mentioned earlier, Sight-Size is usually taught to students in a way that incorporates measuring. According to Lack in his booklet, On The Training Of Painters, the student should make use of every available measuring device during cast drawing exercises. The student soon learns however that measuring can only take them so far because the size of the measuring device (pencil, charcoal, brush, plumb line, etc) often gets in the way. As has been mentioned elsewhere, many trained artists who use Sight-Size rarely if ever literally measure.

With this in mind I usually have my cast painting students shed all measuring implements except their plumb line and the ideas of angles and triangulation. Due to the number of cast drawings completed by this time in their training, their eye will be, in large part, trained for shape and value. Literal measuring is then a way to check for errors when their eye does not correct itself.

As an aside, I believe that it is possible to train a student to see using Sight-Size but without literal measuring. Some of my older students have had problems switching their focus between near (the measuring device be it pencil, charcoal, brush, etc) and far (their subject and the drawing or painting). These students do not measure in the traditional sense although they do compare angles. For this way to succeed however, it would likely necessitate a fully trained teacher* who's trained eye would be able to correct the student's work. Over time and after constant correction the student would eventually develop their eye. This way is perhaps more pure but it would take longer for the student to succeed.


*Learning to see using Sight-Size, with or without measuring, usually requires input from a trained teacher. While I believe it is possible to learn on one's own, it would be harder, take longer and the self taught student may not be aware of their errors.

Misconception #3
-Sight-Size breeds dependance upon the model

This misconception is misleading since the premise behind Sight-Size is comparing your work to your subject. It is certainly true that one does not learn how to draw from one's imagination by using Sight-Size. Drawing from one's imagination is a very valid goal but it is not now nor ever was the point of the approach. While Sight-Size training does not include imaginative or conceptual drawing, neither does it prevent the student from learning those methods.

Misconception #4
-Sight-Size artists pursue accuracy over artistry

We must not fail to separate the goal of the student from the goal of the artist.

The student's first concern is to train their eye to see and their hand to record. This training, when using Sight-Size, is focused on accuracy. The student who deviates from nature (what they see) is usually making a mistake and this is due to their lack of training. This may also be the case even if the deviation is intentional for how can the student know where to deviate if they do not first know where they are deviating from. Once trained however, the artist is not bound to what their eye is showing them. Any deviation is done by choice rather than ignorance.


Misconception #5
-Sight-Size has nothing to do with value, color or edges

For the cast drawing student and teacher the appeal of Sight-Size is largely related to size comparisons (whether literally measured or compared through the unaided eye). But comparing through Sight-Size is as useful for value, color and edge. Until recently this was a given and well known, at least in ateliers based upon the principles that Gammell chose to follow.

In the American Artist magazine article previously cited, Hunter goes on to describe how the artist uses Sight-Size. "The painter then, with paint on brush, walks up to the canvas to apply the color note. He then returns to (the) observation point for further comparison of the arrangement in relationship to the canvas in order to decide the next color note that should be painted." This is a perfect example of how a Sight-Size artist works.


Misconception #6
-Sight-Size was not used nor taught by artists of the past

Some did (see Nick Beer's essay). Of course one must be willing to accept what was understood, until recently, as the definition of Sight-Size in order to agree with this statement. Still, it is not my intent to outline the history of its use since Nick has done that already.

Regarding it's instruction, R.A.M. Stevenson, a fellow student with Sargent at Carolus-Duran's atelier, provides written descriptions of the atelier that a modern day atelier student would recognize as Sight-Size. Again I direct the interested reader to Nick Beer's essay. This is no way negates the fact that most traditional schools in France and elsewhere had their students draw with their drawing boards in their lap or tilted on the easel in front of them and therefore not using Sight-Size. Then again one must remember that historically Sight-Size was primarily a portrait painting technique. Most early academy and atelier images show figure sessions.


Misconception #7
-Sight-Size is tracing

Tracing is variously defined in numerous entries on Dictionary.com as, "a drawing created by superimposing a semitransparent sheet of paper on the original image and copying on it the lines of the original image."

Training one's eye using Sight-Size is a long and involved process. It is not always clear to the student when a mistake is made as the brain seems to believe that whatever is drawn is automatically correct. No one merely has its principles explained to them and then instantly succeeds.

By contrast, tracing needs no instruction beyond how it is done. All that is required is an elementary ability to control the pencil. Either the traced lines match the image beneath or they don't.



Images (top down):
Charles Wellington Furse, ARA (1868-1904) -photographic scan courtesy Jeffrey Mims
Philip Alexius de László (1869-1937)
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