A Heroic Distance

Portrait of the Artist Standing Before His Easel - Hugh Ramsay (1900-1901).Portrait of the Artist Standing Before His Easel, Hugh Ramsay (1900-1901).

As a student of Charles H. Cecil’s, one of the directions you would regularly hear was to stand back a “heroic distance.” In my mind, along with the command, I see Charles walking forward towards the student’s setup and at the same time swinging his arm back behind him. That gesture was meant to push the student back while Charles pointed out something on their artwork or on the model. Memories aside, the distant viewing position, especially when in Sight-Size, has an interesting history.

Before delving into this topic it will be helpful to define Sight-Size once again. Sight-Size is a way of accurately comparing your subject to your artwork, based upon the relative positions of the artist, the easel, and the model. When correctly set up, it is the only arrangement which allows you to do this comparison directly because it provides you with a one-to-one visual comparison. With this in mind, the easel and the subject are always arranged visually next to each other and you would always stand back to compare.

Leon Battista Alberti, in 1435, seems to have been the first to point us in the right direction regarding standing back. He noticed that for a painting to look real, it needed to be seen from a specific viewing position. “Know that a painted thing can never appear truthful where there is not a definite distance for seeing it.”1 A little over one hundred years later, Leonardo da Vinci clarified and expandend on Alberti’s assertion. “When you draw from Nature, you must be at the distance of three times the height of the object . . .”2 Taken together, Alberti and Leonardo’s comments have as their basis a newly developed understanding of two-point perspective. The artist’s viewpoint, prescribed as it is when doing a perspective drawing, is also a similar requirement for Sight-Size.

Alberti's cone of vision.Alberti’s cone of vision.

The image above, taken from a posthumous edition of Alberti’s books, helps to explain why Leonardo suggested a specific distance. Broadly speaking, when looking ahead with both eyes your perception is contained within a large, horizontal oval. This oval is variously called the cone of vision and the field of view. The base of this cone is an oval because of the anatomy of our eye sockets. The areas of our skull which make up the sockets block some of our peripheral view. Due to the suborbital margin (eyebrows) and zygomatic bone (cheekbones), more of the view is blocked above and below than it is from side-to-side. Our total perception oval is roughly 210 degrees wide by 135 degrees tall.

Standing back a heroic distance.Standing back a heroic distance while doing a cast drawing in Sight-Size.

That oval describes the boundary of what our eyes can generally perceive. Nearing the extremes all we see is movement, contrasting value, and fuzzy shapes. Relative to drawing and painting, those perceptions are mostly useless information. Around 40 to 60 degrees in from the center, things become clearer. This area is called the central angle of view and it describes the limits of what we can specifically perceive without needing to move our eyes or our head. Within this boundary we can perceive values, colors and distinct shapes.

Although we can pretty well make out what we see at 40 degrees from the center, nothing gets really sharp until the center. That is where our vision is 20/20. The falloff from that center is quite dramatic. At just 20 degrees from the center we lose 90% acuity (sharpness).

When viewing your subject from a distant position, it better fits into your central angle of view and therefore allows your eye to perceive your subject as a whole and in once glance. This results in your ability to:

  • visually relate all parts of the subject to all of the other parts.
  • visually relate all parts of the subject to the whole.

Those relationships include not only shape, but value, edge, and color as well.

What’s more, if you are set up in Sight-Size, from the proper distance you can see both your subject and your artwork in one glance. This allows you to better make exact comparisons between the two.

There are many references to an artist standing back when drawing or painting (some more heroically than others). A fine example is from a sitter to Sir Henry Raeburn in the late 1700s: “He spoke a few words to me in his usual brief and kindly way, evidently to put me into an agreeable mood, and then, having placed me in a chair on a platform at the end of his painting-room, in the posture required, set up his easel beside me with the canvas ready to receive the colour. 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.”3

There are many more, some of which can be read here. For now I will leave you with the words of Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951):
Don’t make it look right near to — make it look right twenty feet away.

1 Leon Battista Alberti, De Pictura (On Painting), Trans. by John R. Spencer, Yale University Press, Revised Edition, 1966, page 57.
2 Leonardo da Vinci, A Treatise on Painting, Chapter XIX, 1540.
3 An unidentified sitter to Raeburn, as quoted in Allan Cunningham, The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters and Sculptors, Volume 2, 1879, pages 268-269.

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