Cesare Tallone working Sight-Size in 1911.
This photograph is a brilliant example of full-figure, Sight-Size portraiture as well as one of smaller-than-life Sight-Size.
The camera, though a little higher than Tallone, was placed exactly where he would have stood when he wanted to view the painting and model at the same time.
When Sight-Sizing, the Viewing Position is Paramount
Where you stand when creating your artwork 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.
Although 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.
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. -Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
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.
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!
Sir Henry Raeburn, Portrait of Sir Duncan Campbell, 1815 (detail)
Skipping ahead a few centuries, you can see in descriptions of how Henry Raeburn (1756-1823) painted, a more fully fleshed-out understanding of Sight-Size. The following quote is from one of his sitters.
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. -from Edward Pinnington’s Sir Henry Raeburn, R.A. (1904)
Anyone who has ever seen students working in almost any atelier stemming from R.H. Ives Gammell (1893-1981) will immediately recognize Sight-Size in the quote above.
Sargent painting Mrs. Fiske Warren (Gretchen Osgood) and Her Daughter Rachel (1903)
Perhaps the most famous Sight-Size artist was John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). Sitters, as will as the photo 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. -Julie Heyneman, commenting on a painting demonstration given by Sargent.
Sight-Size Training, Then and Now
As seen in most of the quotes on this site, Sight-Size was primarily used as an approach to portraiture.* Among others, R.A.M. Stevenson, a fellow student with Sargent at Carolus-Duran’s atelier, writes about Duran’s portrait teaching, comparing it to the way in which Velazquez worked. He goes on to describe that approach as what we call Sight-Size.
David Erickson and Jeffrey Larson painting a portrait in Sight-Size at Atelier Lack in the early 1980s.
Photo courtesy of Gary Christensen, author of the forthcoming, Richard F. Lack Catalogue Raisonné.
Many present-day ateliers and classically based academies teach their students, at least in part, using Sight-Size. The reason is clear, Sight-Size is the most 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.
There is much more to the story, some of which you can find out in my articles about Sight-Size artists of the past, as well as in a book by a colleague of mine, Nicholas Beer, called Sight-Size Portraiture.
The following quote, from an artist-acquaintance of Sargent’s sums Sight-Size up quite nicely.
The 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. Painters often deplore the loss of tradition, and speak with regret of the days when artists ground their own colours; but knowledge of the visual methods of the older painters, rather than of their technical practices, seems to me of equal, if not greater importance. The methods of Velazquez and Hals were not unlike Sargent’s. – Sir William Rothenstein (1931)
*That is not to say that Sight-Size was, historically, used only for portraiture. Take a look at the way in which Lord Leighton suggested one ought to draw from the nude figure, here.