What Is Sight-Size?

Article by Darren Rousar.

Sight-Size is one-to-one.Sight-Size is simply one-to-one.

Arranging their drawing, painting, and even sculpture setups in Sight-Size is quite common in contemporary ateliers. And the practice is not limited to instruction, for many hobbyists and professional artists use Sight-Size in their work.

What is Sight-Size?

Sight-Size is simply an arrangement of the artist, subject and artwork that allows the artist to see their subject and artwork one-to-one. If you’ve arrived here via the site’s about page, you’ve read that before.

Sight-Size is an arrangement of the artist, their subject and their artwork that allows the artist to see the subject and artwork visually one-to-one.

Darren R. Rousar

Nevertheless, let’s break the definition down a little bit. On the site’s homepage I show the Elements of Sight-Size three-step diagram.
Here it is again, below.

1. Side-By-Side

Sight-Size Element 1 - Arrange your subject and artwork visually side-by-side.

Your subject and artwork must be visually side-by-side. The size of the drawing depends on the placement of your easel, relative to your subject and your vantage point.

2. Consistent Vantage Point

When your subject and artwork are visually side-by-side in Sight-Size, from the proper vantage point you can see both in one glance and in a one-to-one relationship.

3. Draw What You See

Sight-Size Element 3 - Draw what you see.

Consistent comparison between your subject and artwork through the one-to-one relationship of Sight-Size will help you achieve an accurate likeness of your subject.

The Elements of Sight-Size

1. A Visual Side-By-Side Arrangement

We’ve all done it – drawn something that looks nothing like our source. Often, the problem is that every time you look from your subject to your artwork you are forced to rely on your visual memory. The difficulty is compounded when your subject is somewhere out there in the distance and your artwork is in your lap.

This is a problem because the greater the visual distance between your subject and your source the more time elapses between your observation and recording that observation. While steps can and should be taken to improve your visual memory, the visual side-by-side arrangement of Sight-Size will make your task much easier.

Life size, Sight-SizeA life-size, Sight-Size setup for a cast drawing.
Notice that the drawing board is not only visually next to the cast, it is also physically aligned with it.
This setup was for a left-handed artist.

Notice how close the drawing board is to the subject. Visually, there is hardly any gap between the two.

As shown, Sight-Size is often done in life-size. This means that the artwork is the same literal size as the subject. Although not as common, Sight-Size can be done smaller or larger than life as well. Remember, the side-by-side requirement is merely visual. It does not have to be physical. You can read more about the size of your artwork when in Sight-Size in the article, Equal To, Larger Than, Smaller Than.

Also note that while side-by-side traditionally means horizontally aligned, nothing prevents a vertical or angled side-by-side setup. It’s simply that our brains register horizontal eye tracking more easily than up and down or at an angle.

2. A Consistent Vantage Point

A consistent vantage point is key to the Sight-Size arrangement. From the proper distance, your subject and artwork can be viewed in one glance and in a one-to-one relationship. That relationship is what allows you to draw what you see without needing to scale first.

So, what’s the proper distance? Tradition and optical physics say three-times the greatest dimension of the subject. It is only from that distance that your eye can take in both the entire scene and your artwork in one glance. That’s one reason I recommend a heroic distance.

Equally important is to always view your setup from the exact same vantage point. Small vantage point changes are easily dealt with by a trained artist but not so for those still learning how to draw what they see.

gammell-at-workR. H. Ives Gammell, critiquing a student’s pastel portrait in 1979. Gammell is standing at the student’s vantage point.
Special thanks to Allan R. Banks for this photograph.

The diagram below is from Harrington Mann’s book, The Technique of Portrait Painting (1933). It shows the first two elements of Sight-Size.

harrington-mann-diagramHarrington Mann’s diagram of the Sight-Size portraiture setup.

Once your side-by-side arrangement and consistent vantage point are assured, learning to see can begin in earnest.

3. Draw What You See

You were born with two eyes. As you grew your eyes learned to focus on what you touched and your mind learned to connect what it perceived with what your eyes saw. You learned to see.

And then, something changed.

Over time your sight became so bombarded with stimuli that your mind learned to take shortcuts. On the whole, this was a very good thing. But as those shortcuts piled up you forgot how to learn how to see. As a normally functioning person, you might not notice. As a budding artist you most certainly will.

Harold Speed: A, how a child might draw. B, What was actually seen.A: How a child might draw a person’s face. B: What was actually seen.
From Harold Speed’s book, The Practice and Science of Drawing.

Unlearning a lifetime of cognitive shortcuts and then learning accurate sight requires an objective and consistent standard. That standard is nature, your visual source. It is not your subjective feelings about it nor someone else’s shortcut version of it.

Rather, it is doing your best to accurately perceive what’s visually in front of you and then record that observation. Only after you can do that consistently can you make intentional, intelligent, and artistic choices about deviating from your source. You can also more easily scale because your eye is now trained to accurately see.

Remember 3 Things:

  1. Sight-Size is simply an arrangement of the artist, subject and artwork that allows the artist to see their subject and artwork one-to-one. When in Sight-Size, the size you see the subject is the size you draw, paint or sculpt it.
  2. Your vantage point must be far enough away for you to see both your subject and artwork in one glance.
  3. Due to the above, Sight-Size allows you to accurately represent a given subject in the same way your eye sees it.

Learning Sight-Size is not difficult. But like anything else worthwhile it takes time and concerted effort. It also takes direction from someone who knows what they’re doing, has a heart for it, and can teach it. With that in mind, why not begin your journey right now with a free guide?

What You Should Do Now

  1. Have you picked up your free guide yet?
  2. If you’ve not already done so, have a look at the about page.
  3. You can learn more about the history of Sight-Size.
  4. Want more? There are over 100 articles on the site.
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Learn Sight-Size cast drawing through the
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The Sight-Size Cast!

Learning how to accurately see, as well as draw, is best done through Sight-Size cast drawing. Ateliers exist worldwide to help you do that. But what if you cannot afford atelier training, or there is not an atelier nearby? Or, perhaps you are already in an atelier and would like to supplement that training?

You can learn how to see through Sight-Size, or enhance what you already know with Darren R. Rousar's book The Sight-Size Cast.