Pompeo Batoni, Joseph II and his brother Leopold, Grand Duke of Tuscany (1769).
There are many ways to categorize artists. One of the most useful divisions describes the ways in which they tended to view their subjects. Although the specifics sometimes vary, there are essentially two: seeing the whole, and piecemeal seeing. This article explains the latter, using a painting by the eighteenth-century Italian master Pompeo Batoni.
Batoni was primarily a portrait painter, most notably of wealthy English sitters on their ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe. For that he was very well respected. He also painted altarpieces, myths, and allegories.
Piecemeal seeing is rendering each area of your subject with little or no relationship to the others or to the whole. A specific example would be beginning with an eye, and then taking it to finish before considering other areas of the drawing or painting. More generally, you are piecemeal seeing anytime you mentally (and visually) focus in on one area of your work to the exclusion of others.
As mentioned, Batoni was a master at it.
Batoni painted part after part. In his portraits he completely finished one feature before he proceeded to another. The consequence was, as might be expected; the countenance was never well expressed; and, as the painters say, the whole was not well put together.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourse XIV (1788)
If you look at the entire painting shown above you can see the usual results of this kind of approach – all parts of the painting are in the same, hyperfocus. The effect is quite pronounced when viewing the actual painting.
Where am I Supposed to Look?
As beautiful as the painting is, especially the details, when seen in person I found it a bit disconcerting to look at. In fact, when standing back my eyes had trouble finding focus precisely because all was uniformly in focus. Moving closer helped. However, at a comfortable viewing distance I could no longer see the whole painting at once due to its size.
Initially we might look at the Emperor’s face. Given his central position I think we would do that regardless of how the painting was painted.
Next, our eyes move to the Grand Duke. He’s staring at us and his head is light against dark.
Then we move to the Emperor’s left hand, and so on.
This path of seeing is not universal, however, as some look at the Grand Duke first. What did Batoni intend for us to look at first? We’ll never know for sure. The Emperor is central, but he’s looking at the Grand Duke. Due to that, we want to look at him too.
Does it Matter?
It likely did not to Batoni, nor to the countless other artists who painted piece by piece. Or, was it ignorance of the concept of ‘the whole is greater than the parts’? We’ll never know for sure.
One thing is certain. These two heads are not well put together, as Reynolds said. While there is a sense of depth, in the parts, the whole of each head does not resonate as lifelike. To me they have a slight caricature quality about them.
If we ignore the focus aspects, the parts are masterfully painted and it is clear that Batoni understood paint as well as he understood drawing. Hands always show when an artist is deficient in their drawing skills. Batoni did a fine job on all four.
Seeing the Whole
Opposite of piecemeal seeing is seeing the whole. I discuss that kind of seeing in numerous articles on this site but the short explanation is that seeing the whole is seeing everything in relation to everything else in the scene.
In my book, The Sight-Size Cast, I contrast a Batoni portrait painting with one by Reynolds (author of the quote above). They are of a similar pose and coloring, hence they make for a good comparison.
The two are shown side-by-side, below. The Batoni represents piecemeal seeing and the Reynolds represents seeing the whole. Note that I cropped the Reynolds painting down to more closely approximate Batoni’s composition. As an aside I think that Batoni’s painting itself may have been literally cut down at some point. The nearness of both hands to the edge of the canvas is unusually composed.
Anyway, take a look.
On the left, Pompeo Batoni’s portrait of William Fermor.
On the right, Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Sir William Fawcett (cropped).
Below is some of what I wrote about these paintings in The Sight-Size Cast.
First up, the Batoni.
Notice that every aspect of Batoni’s painting is in the same, sharply defined focus. That your initial look was likely at the sitter’s eyes is only because he was looking directly at the artist (and at you). This is generally the way one paints when seeing piecemeal. The head, hands, cuffs, fur and everything else are in an equal focus and level of render. As the viewer, once you leave the sitter’s gaze you have no idea at what you are supposed to look at next. Were you actually in front of this painting, at some point in your observation it would pull you forward, right up to it in order for you to see the details more closely. At that close distance, you would see what artists call a tight painting. Each specific section of what is represented in the painting would be recognizable, even when seen in isolation.
And now to the Reynolds.
Here again, your first look was likely into the sitter’s eyes, but from there the similarity with Batoni’s painting ends. Reynolds’ painting is of a different kind, not necessarily better, but different. He most often painted directly from life, using no preparatory drawings (unlike Batoni who combined carefully wrought studies in chalk, gridded transfer, and nature). Detail in his painting is always subordinate to the whole and to a singular focus. In person, the painting seems to determine a distant viewing position for you, although you would likely be unaware of it at the time. Up close, you would see paint and at times have a slim chance of fully comprehending what the paint was meant to represent. But from the painting’s intended distance, all would resolve.
Which is Better?
If you’ve spent any time on this website you know my preference (it’s the Reynolds). Nevertheless, that does not negate the skill and success of the Batoni. In some ways the answer is personal to each of us.
However, consider this.
What do you want your viewer to do when he or she looks at your painting? Do you want them to be enamored with your skill at rendering detail? If so, go piece-by-piece like Batoni. But if you want to intentionally direct their eye through your painting, visually telling them where to look and in what order, then avoid piecemeal seeing at all costs.
Sight-Size and Piecemeal Seeing
Most ateliers who base their instruction on Gammell’s teach seeing the whole while using Sight-Size. That tradition deems it vitally important, so much so that beginning students are introduced to it on their very first cast drawing.
Yes, you can certainly see, draw, and paint in a piecemeal fashion while in Sight-Size. But in those aforementioned ateliers much of the student’s initial struggle is learning not to. Why? Because piecemeal seeing is more natural to us than not. I’m sure you’ve noticed that as you go through the day you habitually focus on whatever your attention is drawn to. That’s all the more pronounced when you’re trying to draw something.
However, two of the three elements of Sight-Size give you an advantage when trying to avoid piecemeal seeing. The side-by-side arrangement combined with the distant vantage point better allows you to actually see and render the whole.