Valentin Serov working on a portrait of Isaac Levitan in Levitan’s Moscow studio (1892-1893).
Sight-Size is normally done while standing because standing back lets you have a distant viewing position. Oftentimes, it is this distance which allows you to see both your subject and artwork in one glance. But standing is not the only way to get into a proper Sight-Size viewing position. You might also sit.
Before I go on, I should mention that I am not in favor of sitting. I dislike sitting in general, as well as when I am drawing or painting. Beyond my personal preference, it is now known that there are health issues related to sitting for long periods. On the other hand, health and age issues may themselves also prevent some from standing – hence the reason for this article.
Why might you set up a seated Sight-Size arrangement? Besides health and age, you may need a particular view of your subject. It is quite common to place your model on a pedestal as a means of elevating them above your eye level. The resulting drawing or painting would have the sitter looking slightly down at the viewer. Rather than sitting, Léon Bonnat achieved this by backing up to a distant viewing position and then getting down on one knee.
Gari Melchers, however, sometimes sat. You can see this for yourself in the photograph below.
Gari Melchers working on the painting Old and Young in 1890. Image courtesy of the Archives, Gari Melchers Home and Studio, University of Mary Washington.
There are two ways of arranging your viewing position when seated in Sight-Size. The first way is to place your easel and chair back from your subject at whatever distance provides you with the intended visual size of the drawing or painting. You would then position your chair so that you could sit comfortably at arm’s length from your easel. Drawing, then, is simply a matter of looking back and forth between your subject and paper. Since your viewing position is close to your easel, you might keep your pencil or charcoal on the paper most of the time. This arrangement is almost identical to the one used for pencil figure drawing in many ateliers. However, in those sessions the students would normally stand.
Valentin Serov painting an outdoor portrait of Olga Tomara (1892).
The other way to sit when in Sight-Size is similar to the first. The only difference is that you would place your chair far enough away from the easel that you would need to lean forward to reach it. Conversely, you might sit on the edge of your chair, and then lean aways back in order to lock in your viewing position. In both cases, the benefit of the lean is that you gain a more distant view of both your subject and your artwork while still sitting.
Ilya Repin painting a portrait of M. K. Tenisheva (1888).
You will notice that most of the images in this article are of Russian painters. While I think it unlikely that Repin normally worked in Sight-Size, I used the photograph above because it shows his brushes. They appear to be three feet long! That length would have allowed him to sit farther back than arm’s length, thereby giving him a better view of the whole, or the big-look. As it is, if his seated position as shown was also his viewing position, the canvas would only have needed to have been three inches higher for him to lock in Sight-Size. Why he would not have done that is a mystery to me.
By the way, long brushes where not uncommon in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sargent, Boldini, and Sorolla are known to have used them. It is also widely believed that Velazquez did as well.
Unlike the photograph of Repin, the two photographs of Valentin Serov in this article appear to show more direct evidence of seated Sight-Size. His angle of view, as well as the relationship between the sitters’ head and the image on the canvas bear this out. Recently I spoke with Oksana Pivniouk, who wrote her Master’s Thesis on the teaching methods of one of Serov’s principle teachers, Pavel Chistyakov.* In response to my question about this she said, “It is a common rule in Russian academic art schools that an artist should sit, or even better, stand, in front of his canvas at the distance of a stretched hand or further. The common practice is that an artist adds a few strokes and moves away from the canvas to observe, and so on and so on.”
That, of course, is not definitive proof of a Serov – seated Sight-Size connection. Nevertheless, these and other photographs are strong evidence.
If you possibly can, stand. For most, it will be better for your health. But if you cannot stand, don’t let sitting prevent you from Sight-Sizing.
*Teaching Methods and Pedagogical Ideas of Pavel Petrovich Chistyakov – A Talented Russian Artist and Exceptional Art Educator (2013), a Master’s thesis by Oksana Pivniouk.