Sight-Size Drawing and Painting

I've written a number of articles on artists who use the sight-size approach to painting, but the method became clearer to me while I was writing an article on Paul DeLorenzo for the spring 2010 issue of Workshop. The procedure is to stand a measured distance away from both the easel and the subject being painted so that both appear to be exactly the same. That is, from 10 or 12 feet away from a painting, the image appears to be exactly the same size as the person or object being painted.

Steve Smith's photograph of Paul DeLorenzo
(center) teaching a workshop at the Long
Island Academy of Fine Art.

There are two principle reasons to use the sight-size approach. One is to train artists to draw and paint what they actually see rather than what they know about a subject; and the second is to impart "certain aesthetic and technical attributes to a painting, notably the broad handling that comes into focus when seen at the proper viewing distance," according to artist Nicholas Beer. In other words, the goal of the sight-size approach is to increase an artist's skill to a level at which he or she is able to eliminate unintended distortions in drawing or painting, and to create convincing illusions of reality on a two-dimensional surface.

DeLorenzo showing a student how to stand
a measured distance from her easel so
both the model and the image on the
canvas appear to be the same size.

Beer points out that great artists of the past (Titian, Hals, and Sargent to name a few) used a variation of the sight-size method in that they all walked back and forth from their easels to judge how to paint a portrait subject exactly as he or she appeared when the canvas and sitter were in view. He quotes one contemporary account of Sargent's methods that says that he "placed his canvas on a level with the model, walked back until the canvas and sitter where equal before his eye, and was thus able to estimate the construction and values of his representation."

A student squinting and holding a brush in
front of her eyes while she makes decisions
from a measured distance about the
development of her painting.

Darren R. Rousar has written a book that provides specific details about the approach (Cast Painting Using the Sight-Size Approach, Velatura Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota), and he maintains two websites on the subject (www.Sight-Size.com and www.christianchurchart.com). Rousar includes diagrams of how to position the model, easel, and lights, and also recommends ways of progressing through a drawing or painting.

What I believe is valuable about considering this approach is that it can lead to the development of new ways of looking objectively at one's drawings and paintings–something we all struggle with as we try to determine ways of improving our artwork.

M. Stephen Doherty
Editor-in-chief

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M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

2 thoughts on “Sight-Size Drawing and Painting

  1. Stephen, thank you for this article. It has very useful and interesting information. I was somewhat familiar with this method, but this makes it a little clearer and give helpful information to follow up.

  2. Thank you for this article, it does make things clearer.
    I was reflecting lately on how observing my paintings is almost as imporatnt as the process of painting itself. It creates an attachment to my work that keeps me motivated, and helps me to judge it in an objective way.

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