Exactly when the first artist decided to place their artwork visually next to their subject and draw it one-to-one is impossible to determine. Nevertheless, we can follow the history of Sight-Size back in time.
Sight-Size likely began relative to the grid system of drawing. A grid allows the artist to draw what they see by sectioning their subject into smaller units which correspond to similar units on their artwork. Many Renaissance artists mentioned using a grid as a means to achieve an accurate drawing – which is also the goal of learning to draw in Sight-Size – and some even diagrammed the process.
Albrecht Durer’s grid, from 1525.
Albrecht Durer diagrammed many types of drawing grids. The one shown above was meant to be used for accurate scaling. It was also a bit different from the norm at the time in that he specified a consistent vantage point (shown by the rod coming up towards the artist’s eye). Leonardo da Vinci wrote about the same idea when he described his own drawing grid.1
There is more about using grids to draw in the article Alberti’s Veil.
You will recall that a consistent vantage point is element number two of the Elements of Sight-Size.
Tracing on a Pane of Glass
Closer to our purpose is something else Leonardo da Vinci recommended: tracing your subject onto a superimposed piece of glass.
“Take a glass as large as your paper, fasten it well between your eye and the object you mean to draw, and fixing your head in a frame (in such a manner as not to be able to move it) at the distance of two feet from the glass; shut one eye, and draw with a pencil accurately upon the glass all that you see through it. After that, trace upon paper what you have drawn on the glass, which tracing you may paint at pleasure, observing the aerial perspective.” 2
-Leonardo da Vinci (late 1400s)
Later, a number of artists wrote specifically about the Sight-Size approach and some used Leonardo’s glass idea to help explain it. Walter Sickert, friend of Lord Leighton, connects the dots for us.
“If we draw normally, we must draw on the scale on which we should trace, if our sheet of paper were a sheet of glass held up, and if, instead of pencil, we traced with a diamond on this interposed pane. . . On this scale the comparison is direct and not proportional.” 3
-Walter Sickert (1910)
As with Durer’s grid and Leonardo’s sheet of glass, your vantage point is critical when Sight-Sizing. If you have thoughtfully done your work, that will also be the position to where the viewer will naturally go when viewing your artwork.
Clearly not exclusive to Sight-Size, the proper viewing distance for an artwork is something which has been known for centuries. Alberti, in the quote below, focuses his direction on the viewer.
“Know that a painted thing can never appear truthful where there is not a definite distance for seeing it.” 4
-Leon Battista Alberti (1435)
Leonardo da Vinci, however, speaks directly to the artist:
“When you draw from nature, stand three times as far away as the object you are drawing.”5
-Leonardo da Vinci (late 1400s)
His prescription, stand three times as far away, is a classic Sight-Size viewing distance. Translated, it means that you should stand back from your subject three times its greatest length. So, if the subject is a standing, 6 foot tall person, you should stand 18 feet back. If you think of a plaster drawing cast and its background, you’ll likely end up at least 6 feet back.
You might even view your setup from a heroic distance!
Why? Because that is the distance from where your eye is capable of taking in the whole of the subject without turning your head or shifting your gaze. The larger the subject or scene, the farther back you must get!
Abraham Bosse, from Practical Geometry and Perspective (1665).
From Grid To Glass To Sight-Size
Taken together it’s not difficult to see how the accuracy benefits of a grid and those of the glass might be combined into what we call Sight-Size. A step in that direction is shown above, from 1665.
Notice how Bosse shows a static vantage point and has converted a grid into a series of vertical plumb lines. For the horizontal relationships he is using comparative measurement.
Sight-Size In Situ
Skipping ahead a couple of centuries you can see a more fully fleshed-out understanding of Sight-Size in descriptions of how Henry Raeburn painted. The following quote is from one of his sitters.
“When he saw all was right, he took his palette and his brush, retreated back step by step, with his face towards me, till he was nigh the other end of the room; he stood and studied for a minute more, then came up to the canvas, and, without looking at me, wrought upon it with colour for some time. Having done this, he retreated in the same manner, studied my looks at that distance for about another minute, then came hastily up to the canvas and painted a few minutes more.” 6
-a sitter to Sir Henry Raeburn (late 1700s)
Sir Henry Raeburn, Portrait of Sir Duncan Campbell, 1815 (detail).
A student of Sir Joshua Reynolds quotes his teacher who painted in much the same fashion as did Raeburn.
“Paint at the greatest distance possible from your sitter, and place the picture near to the sitter, or sometimes under him, so as to see both together.” 7
–Sir Joshua Reynolds (late 1700s)
Anyone who has ever seen students working in almost any atelier stemming from R.H. Ives Gammell will immediately recognize Sight-Size in the quotes above.
Sargent painting Mrs. Fiske Warren (Gretchen Osgood) and Her Daughter Rachel (1903).
Perhaps the most famous Sight-Size artist was John Singer Sargent. Sitters, as will as the photos above, describe Sargent’s process of painting which is identical to Raeburn’s. Here again you can see classic Sight-Size.
“Every stage was a revelation. For one thing he put his easel directly next to the sitter so that when he walked back from it he saw the canvas and the original in the same light, at the same distance, at the same angle of vision.” 8
-Julie Heyneman, commenting on a painting demonstration given by Sargent.
“Sargent, when he painted the size of life, placed his canvas on a level with the model, walked back until canvas and sitter were equal before his eye, and was thus able to estimate the construction and values of his representation. [T]he placing of the canvas near to, or at a given distance from, the subject, so that the sitter and image can be compared together, is an essential factor of representative painting.” 9
-William Rothenstein (1931)
Sight-Size Training in 1900s Paris
Most nineteenth-century art students set their sights on Paris’ École des Beaux Arts. Relative to Sight-Size, all images of classes at the École and the ateliers show what appear to be comparative measuring methods. That is not surprising because space and the number of students in attendance made Sight-Size impossible.11
“In the crowded ateliers in Paris of course all this [the Sight-Size arrangement] was impossible. We had to sit or stand close by the easel. If you stepped back you would crash into the next student. We always carried a little pocket mirror to help to overcome this difficulty.” 12
-Harrington Mann (1933)
And yet somehow students like Sargent were taught the approach in the ateliers. A clue comes to us through two of Bonnat’s students.
In the following note-to-self, Thomas Eakins describes the arrangement Bonnat used when painting life size.
“When I work at life size I will always put my canvas as close to the model as possible.” 13
-Thomas Eakins (1860s)
Bonnat, painting Alfred Roll in 1918.
E.H. Blashfield (1848-1936), one of America’s great muralists, was also a student of Bonnat. He writes much the same thing as Eakins had when describing Bonnat’s painting approach.
“Instead of sitting or standing before his canvas with his model at a distance, he placed the latter close beside the canvas, and then went away from his subject to the very end of his studio. There dropping upon one knee to bring the point of sight to the proper level, and half closing his eyes, he carefully compared the model and picture, then going quickly to his easel painted a few strokes and repeated his journey.” 14
-E.H. Blashfield (1860s)
Other Bonnat students, as well as those who studied with Carolus-Duran, made similar statements.
Sight-Size Training in America
Prior to Sargent, America’s most famous artist was Gilbert Stuart. He lived and worked around the time of the Revolutionary War and spent the last third of his life in Boston. One of Stuart’s students wrote of his training under the master and in doing so explains Sight-Size.
“The advantage of having the easel before the sitter is that by so doing you are enabled to embrace both at once. The eye, from practice, passes from one to the other with great rapidity. . . One should set a good way from his easel and early accustom themselves to look at the subject and not at the features. . .” 15
-Matthew Jouett (1816)
One hundred years later, and also in Boston, R. H. Ives Gammell learned Sight-Size via his training under William McGregor Paxton. Paxton had studied with Jean-Léon Gérôme in Paris.
Paxton agreed to take Gammell on as a student, sometime in 1915. They met on a weekly basis and his studies were done primarily in Sight-Size. This was a practice which Gammell was to follow in his own work and teaching. A number of Gammell’s students have told me that the use of Sight-Size in his atelier was a given. They felt that it was simply how drawing and painting from life was done.
Many present-day ateliers teach their students, at least in part, using Sight-Size. The reason is clear, Sight-Size is the most effective and direct way of training the student’s eye for accuracy. It also allows the teacher to see exactly what the student is seeing and therefore makes areas where corrections are needed that much more obvious.
1 “If you want to acquire a practice of good and correct attitudes for your figures, make a square frame or net, and square it out with thread; place this between your eye and the nude model you are drawing, and draw these same squares on the paper on which you mean to draw the figure, but very delicately. Then place a pellet of wax on a spot of the net which will serve as a fixed point, which, whenever you look at your model, must cover the pit of the throat. . .” -Leonardo da Vinci, Notebooks, translated by Jean Paul Richter, 1888, Section 523.
2 Leonardo da Vinci, ibid.
3 Walter Sickert, The Study of Drawing, from The New Age Magazine, June 16, 1910.
4 Leon Battista Alberti On Painting, [First appeared 1435-36] Translated with Introduction and Notes by John R. Spencer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970, Page 57.
5 Leonardo da Vinci, op cit, Section 540.
6 Sir Henry Raeburn, R.A. by Edward Pinnington, 1904, pages 122-126.
7 Sir Joshua Reynolds, as quoted in James Northcote, The Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Volume II, 1819, page 58.
8Julie Heyneman, an American student at the Royal Academy, as quoted in Evan Charteris, John Sargent, Charles Scribner, and Sons, 1927, page 182.
9 William Rothenstein, Men and Memories, Coward McCann, 1931, pages 192-193.
10 That is not to say that Sight-Size was used only for portraiture. Take a look at the way in which Lord Leighton suggested one ought to draw from the nude figure, here.
11 Sight-Size figure work is definitely possible with a large enough room and a limited number of students. In fact, that’s how many present-day ateliers teach it.
12 Harrington Mann, The Technique of Portrait Painting: A Complete & Detailed Guide to the Handling Composition & Lighting of Portraits in Oils With a Comprehensive Survey of the Methods of Portrait Painters of Today & of the Past, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1933.
13 Thomas Eakins, as quoted in Kathleen Foster, Thomas Eakins Rediscovered, Yale University Press, 1997, page 44.
14 E. H. Blashfield in John C. van Dyck, Modern French Masters, The Century Co., 1896, page 51.
15 Matthew Jouett, Notes Taken by M. H. Jouett while in Boston from conversations on painting with Gilbert Stuart, Esquire, 1816.