The Sight-Size Portrait

Article by Darren Rousar. Most recently updated in April of 2020.

sargent-osgood-times-2John Singer Sargent painting Mrs. Fiske Warren (Gretchen Osgood) and Her Daughter Rachel (1903).

Sight-size is mainly considered a portrait painting technique and its use was quite common during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some of the evidence for this is in photographic form, while other evidence has been handed down to us in books and manuscripts. In fact, the Sight-Size portrait has more of a recorded history than does that for Sight-Size cast drawing and Sight-Size still life.

For those newly dropping by, 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. You’ll see numerous examples of this arrangement in this article. If you want a longer explanation, head over to the What is Sight-Size page.

The Beauty of the Approach

When you’re trained to see accurately, subject does not matter much to the process. Why? Because regardless of what you’re looking at, your subject is simply seen as a specific mixture of shapes, values, edges, and color notes. All together those entities visually define a cast, a flower, or a head.

The difficulty comes when your subject is in motion. And when it comes to portraits from life, motion is constant.

Emma NessiEmma Nessi painting a portrait of a standing model.

One of the benefits of doing portraits in Sight-Size is that when your model moves, getting them back into pose is fairly straightforward. You simply have them readjust until their pose matches your artwork. Of course, this is also done when using comparative measurement. But in that case you’re forced to pay attention to scale as well.

In fact, when working from life there’s no reason not to do so in Sight-Size. Why add the additional issue of scaling your observations by comparative measurement to all the other problems of creating a convincing likeness?

No Monkey Heads

Speaking of scale, if your sitter expects the painting to look like them, and what sitter doesn’t, then size is a factor. With few exceptions, a smaller-than-life monkey head* just won’t do.

On the whole society has lost the ability to experience a painting. Part of the problem is size. One cannot properly see a painting on a digital monitor, much less on a cellphone screen. There is no context in those environments and no sense of scale. But when viewing a real painting magic has a chance to happen. If done convincingly enough the painting can almost seem to come to life.

All the more when it actually is the size of life.

Allan R. Banks being critiqued by Gammell. Allan R. Banks being critiqued by Mr. Gammell in 1976.

Above, Below, or Eye-Level?

Your task as a painter of portraits is more than simply capturing your sitter’s visual likeness. In the best portraits it is also an attempt to show a unique personality. Is the sitter regal? Gentle? Imposing? Whatever that quality is, always strive to give the viewer something more than just a snapshot.

One common approach to achieving something more was to raise the sitter slightly above the artist’s eye-level. It’s not so much that the sitter was seen to look down on the viewer. Rather, the goal was to require that the viewer look up a bit. Yes the difference is quite subtle, but the difference in elevation gave the sitter some prominence.

Philip de László painting a portrait.Philip de László painting a portrait.

That said, some do paint from above now and then.

Leopold Seyffert painting Dr. William Jacob Holland (1925)Leopold Seyffert painting Dr. William Jacob Holland (1925).

Stand or Sit

Many artists who paint portraits in Sight-Size prefer to stand. There are good reasons for this, some of which I discuss in the article A Heroic Distance. Harrington Mann provides us with the most important: taking in the whole of the canvas.

Your portrait ought, however, to be ‘right’, no matter from what distance you look at it, but the best working distance is about nine to twelve feet. A portrait ought to be seen at a sufficient distance to enable you to take in with your eye the entire canvas. Therefore the larger the canvas the further you must stand from it.

Harrington Mann

But standing is not a requirement. Some do prefer to sit.

Gari Melchers painting dutch model jan karels for the painting, Old and Young (1890)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.

The angle of view you intend to show in your painting often determines whether you stand or sit. Above you see Melchers working on a painting of a seated old man. Perhaps the model was too old to safely climb up on a platform?

Below you can see Paxton working on a painting of a seated model. His point of view is looking down. However, given the tilt of his canvas, I wonder if he actually did the painting while sitting so that his angle of view was perpendicular to the canvas.

wmp-stWilliam McGregor Paxton, In the Studio (1905).

Of the numerous reasons for doing portraits in Sight-Size what matters most to many artists is that it is simply more enjoyable than doing them in any other way. When in Sight-Size they get into the flow far faster and deeper. Sight-Size lets them completely concentrate on the sitter, rather than on the math of scaling or overcoming photo-induced errors.

There are many more examples of Sight-Size portraiture on the site, especially here.

* Mr. Gammell, as well as all of my teachers, called smaller-than-life portrait heads, monkey heads. As beautiful as a small head can be, even one by the master of monkey heads, Moroni, their small size hinders the impression of life.

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Learn Sight-Size cast drawing through the
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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.