Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Setting up a Sight-Size Portrait

In this photo, an unidentified artist has set up a life-size portrait.

The canvas is approximately on the same plane as the model, so that when the artist backs up from both, he can compare the painting and the subject side by side in the same light. Note the planks of wood to protect the lawn from wear when the artist backs up from the painting or steps over to his taboret. Sight-size is good exercise.

The sight-size method, which is in common practice in many ateliers, is one practical way to achieve accuracy, and it makes sense when you want your painting to be the same size as the subject. That works for portraits and still life studies.

Sometimes people apply the term "sight-size" to landscape in the sense of matching the apparent visual size of the scene to the image on the canvas (link to video by Marc Dalessio).

It's worth pointing out that the method isn't strictly an "observational" method. When done with figure painting, it requires a good deal of short-term memory practice, and some of the leaders of the sight-size movement have written books about drawing from memory.

I'm not going to get into all the pros and cons of the sight-size method, because I don't practice the exact same method that's taught in the ateliers, but I should point out that various art teachers have criticized the way the sight-size method is held up as the only method that was taught in the 19th-century academies. Here's one free online pamphlet by Semyon Bilmes that addresses the issue.

And not all ateliers use the sight-size method in its absolute form. The Swedish Academy promote a comparative method, which they explain on their website.

What's your experience with sight-size method? Has anyone attempted a life-size outdoor portrait? If you use sight size, how has it helped you—or limited you—as an artist? Is the method oversold in modern ateliers, or is it presented as just one tool among many?
More info at
Books: Cast Drawing Using the Sight-Size Approach
Memory Drawing: Perceptual Training and Recall
The Sight-Size Method, a Critical Overview By Semyon Bilmes


arturoquimico said...

Although the reviewer makes an excellent case on who did or did not do what with which and to whom in the ateliers regarding the sight size method, I think he missed the point… some of us needed sight size training in order to draw. If I might make an analogy… the gifted musician possesses technique, emotion and perfect pitch but few have all three. As I have learned in life, you can get good at something and make money at it if you work hard and develop a skill set. I was good at music and chemistry but NEVER thought I had any talent as an artist until I took a drawing class at the Junior college and learned to sight size, map and plumb as well as use calipers and threaded weights. It has taken me 15 years but I am actually pleased with about 10% of all drawings or paintings I do these days; compared to zero the first 55 years of my existence. Learning to sight size and measure, measure, measure helped me immensely.

Kevin Mizner said...

For myself, when I draw or paint from life I find I can only do sight-size no matter how hard I may try not to. Yet, when I use photos, I can make the drawing any size I want.

Daroo said...

I have adapted my outdoor plein air rig to work pseudo sight-size, a la Marc Dalessio and it has really helped me with proportional relationships and scale ( and value relationships too). While it takes longer to get the tripod and panel in the right position to achieve a good composition, the rest of the painting goes quicker and more accurately than when I just used comparative measuring only.

James Gurney said...

Daroo, My experience is like yours. I find that an awareness of sight-size helps me set up my easel in a really commonsense way:
1) Vertical work surface adjacent to view,
2) Drawing is same size as subject or close to it,
3) Illumination is the same or close to it.

Kevin, I think the beauty of sight-size is that it helps with the translation of 3D to 2D. Working with photos is much easier.

Arturo, yes, sight size is a basic skill that every art student should learn, but it's just one skill, and there are many others, including:
caricature and exaggeration, drawing from memory, understanding structure, tonal organization, etc.

Susan Sorger said...

This is a very timely post because I have really been grappling with this.
The way we do it at my academy is just not a viable working method for any kind of long term career. I spend about 3 times as much time walking back and forth and measuring as I do drawing.
It might be a good memory exercise for a few drawings/paintings, but not the 9 that we do. It is a good way to keep us at our studies much longer than need be.
In terms of training the eye, I question how measuring and transferring the measure really does the training. It makes more sense to me to draw by eye first, then check the output with the measure after. Am I consistently off by 1/4 " inch bigger? Smaller? Erratic? That I can learn from. In fact, I have seen the work of many graduates who turned out exquisite and accurate work at the academy, who still don't really know how to draw on their own once they graduate.
It is far more efficient to do a sight size drawing that will be smaller than the actual object. That way you can sit in one spot, view the object, or landscape, and flick your eyes back and forth as often as needed to gather info. No tedious and time consuming walking back and forth. This can cut down on the amount of measuring as well.
If I want to draw something that is below my eye level, sight size doesn't help. Comparative measure is better.
I can't imagine that the French Academy actually used the sight size method the way that we do it my Academy. It should be a 'check and balance' not a methodology for starting and finishing a drawing.

Susan Sorger said...

PS, forgot to mention that we use comparative measure for figure drawing and painting. ( sight size with a class full of people is not practical) As experience is gained, less and less measurement is required and it is only used as a check: as it should be.

Thomas Denmark said...

I took a couple of workshops at an Atelier in San Francisco. The sight-size technique is pretty incredible and gets amazing results. Even a novice can get up and running quickly with some very high-level looking figure drawings. Ultimately for me though I enjoy graphic design and imaginative illustration and was trained as a young artist with a very different approach and it was hard to change my ways. Though I do occasionally use the technique when I do long figure drawings from life because it is really good for training your eye to see.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, everybody, for sharing your experiences. Of course sight-size training is not the only set of skills taught at most ateliers. In fairness, some ateliers are offering training in a lot of other skills, including color theory, imaginative composition, and quick sketching.

Garrett said...

I went to the New York Academy of art and while they teach 19th century methods, they tended to frown on the sight-size method... I was intimidated in the first drawing class where the teacher drew two lines on your paper (near the top and bottom), and said "fit the figure to these lines." We still used a 2D "envelope" method, but we learned the flexibility that comparative measurement can provide. The ability to make a drawing any size you want from any vantage point is powerful.

At the same academy I took a drawing class from a sculptor who HATED any 2D/envelope method of copying shapes since they were bound to move and mislead (this was for figure drawing). He had us do more conceptual figure construction, so I wound up with a bit of a hybrid approach. That can be super helpful for drawing from imagination. I've seen so many people who are amazing from reference or life, but when forced to work without a model (or one who couldn't hold an exact pose)... kinda fall apart. Sharpen all your tools!

Rich said...

I found it to be a great training tool. But I also think that all training tools serve a purpose and can be (somewhat) transcended over time. Then problem is that our eyes play tricks on us and measuring never hurts accuracy. When drawing sight-size you are engaged in an intensive "seeing"-- constantly comparing and walking back and forth and making endless corrections; learning more and more how and what to see than learning to draw (though that comes too). You will spend more time erasing than drawing! I found this seeing-mode invaluable especially while training at home. It is a great way to spot errors and make corrections without an instructor (though there are other ways too like using overlays to check work). To really amp up the accuracy, get the drawing in front of an instructor as well. This is great eye training. Sight-size is about accuracy and realism/observational drawing and painting. If you want to learn this method you should seriously seek out Darren Rouser. Darren has written a great text on the subject, owns the site James references and has an online atelier as well. It is well worth doing for a year or more to sharpen your observational and technical skills if you are into observational drawing. I don't think sight-size vs comparative drawing is a realistic argument. If you are an art student I think learning to draw is as vital as reading, writing and arithmetic is to a business major. Both comparative and sight-size drawing should be learned and studied not oppose each other. Both are musts.

Hans-Peter said...

Thank you, James Gurney, for posting a link to my essay on the comparative method in your blog post! One of the frustrations of any discussion about the sight-size method is the lack of any consistent and agreed upon definition of what the sight-size method is, as I explain in my essay, and which is even evident in your blog post and the comments it inspired. Thanks for raising the discussion and presenting perspectives by both those who support the method, as well as those, like myself, who do not. Love your work and your amazing blog!

Unknown said...

I attended and graduated from an atelier that teaches sight-size (the Texas Academy of Figurative Art) and now I’m one of the instructors there. I definitely believe that sight-size is a good working method, and especially a good training method. I think it helps beginners catch their own mistakes more easily which in turn helps train the eye. Prior to attending TAFA myself I had spent years trying to draw and paint realistically just by eyeballing it. As soon as I was introduced to sight-size methods my drawing took a big leap forward.

At TAFA we use the term sight-size in the second sense you mention - that is, the subject is rendered at the size that it appears to be from a given vantage point. The ultimate size of the drawing will be determined by the relationship between your subject, your eye and your working surface. You can work this out mathematically beforehand, if you want your work to be a specific size, although most people in practice just place their easel where it seems intuitively comfortable.

That said I definitely think a well rounded artist should have more than one tool in their toolkit. Sight-size as a method is one useful tool, but I always encourage students to familiarize themselves with other approaches. Nevertheless I have a great belief in sight-size and I don’t understand why there so much skepticism or hostility in some quarters.

Norman said...

Thanks James for these links. Perhaps I am biassed because I really dislike the style of painting known as 'Classical Realism' - which is the result of an intensive and lengthy effort to render an almost photographic likeness of the model - so this includes the output of the many students who go through the modern 'atelier' schools (sorry!). For me Gérôme's work is repulsive, Bouguereau very unpleasant (but Delacroix's is wonderful). The modern version as the minutely rendered model on a dark brown background...

Of course it is possible to paint in a Classical Realist style using any method - by eye, comparative, or sight-size (with or without measuring tools), but the problem I have with sight-size + measuring tools is in its subverting of the necessary training to see well (and the same objection applies to copying photographs), and the shackling of the artist to a closely realist style - with a corresponding reduction in confidence in improvisation.

In my opinion a beginner needs to steer well clear of both the sight-size method and copying photos - in order to retain whatever spark of originality one might have, and to retain the pure pleasure of reacting to the scene without the routine drudgery of a fixed method.

The core problem seems to me that many beginners take as a goal the production of a 'nice', 'pretty' 'accurate' or polished piece of work and as a result iron out the particularities of that model, that day's light, that mood etc. I think that vigour in representational art comes from the (impossible) struggle of on-the-spot improvisation.

Many of the world's most loved pictures are not tidy - they are messy, shot through with 'inaccuracies' etc, but how magnificently expressive! Ruskin: To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality

I am not arguing the one shouldn't learn to draw well. I would say that a beginner would do well to just use a comparative method - be patient and work hard to draw what they see. Working from the 3D world. This is a training in looking and a stimulus to imagination - so 'learning to draw' is really vital (didn't Ruskin say something like 'draw in order to see better, not to look to try the make better drawings' - horribly paraphrased from memory!). Beyond a certain point though the pursuit of photographic accuracy dependent on a model will become counter-productive - and what is needed is the really difficult thing - the thing that one may in the end unfortunately not have - and perhaps cannot be taught - dependent on one's personality, philosophy, view of the world, access to one's own mind, awareness of history, an acute perception of others' state of mind, empathy for others. something to say...: use of imagination, distortion & the combining of whatever is needed to make expressive work.

For those of us who may never get that far - the pure pleasure of drawing unencumbered by cumbersome 'methods' still remains: worthwhile in itself and good for one's own development!

Lynnwood said...

Very well said,Norman!For my own two cents worth,since my eloquence is in inverse proportion to how are worked up I am,I will just offer some quotes from "The Art Spirit" by Robert Henri."The line in a great drawing is not a slave to anatomical arrests and beginnings.There is a line that runs right through the pointing arm and off from the finger tip.into space.This is the line which the artist draws and makes you follow "" The real study of an art student is generally missed in the pursuit of a copying technique."With motive the artist becomes clairvoyant of means!'..and from "The Natural Way to Draw" Learning to draw is really a matter of learning to see-to see correctly-and that means a good deal more than merely looking with the eye.The sort of 'seeing' I mean is an observation that utilizes as many of the five senses as can reach through the eye at one time. " - Kimon Nicholaides. Sometimes I see a highly rendered drawing and am just blown away....fora minute...but thn there is no more left to see.But I can look at a portrait by Van Gogh,or Rembrandt or El Greco a thousand times and its always new.

James Gurney said...

Thanks everyone, especially Lynnwood and Norman, for your passionate and well argued points. Not to dodge the issue, but my feeling about sight size or any other drawing technique is that it”s woth learning every skill you can, and have it ready in the event you need it to solve a pictorial problem. Skills and methods are just tools, and they might be useful or not depending on what you want to accomplish.

Norman said...

Lynnwood - glad you mentioned 'The Art Spirit' by Robert Henri. This is a magnificent book - an encouragement to do the best work you are capable of - and continue to develop. It never tries to box the artist into a stylistic corner. This is the diametric opposite to the many 'Learn to draw/paint an X in 5min' books! I keep coming back to this book for another dose of his wisdom.