Sight-Size Drawing and Painting

8 Feb 2010

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 ( and 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

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Margo5 wrote
on 8 Feb 2010 8:41 AM

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.

Muna Shabab wrote
on 9 Feb 2010 8:56 AM

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.