M. Stephen Doherty

M. Stephen Doherty
The editor of Plein Air magazine at work

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Drawing & Painting Sight-Size

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

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.

A student measuring each part of the model's head using a brush held horizontally. Note that he is trying to paint the head exactly as it appears from a measured distance away from the easel.

Another 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.
I've written a number of articles on artists who use the sight-size approach to painting, but the method became more clear to me while I was writing an article on Paul DeLorenzo for the spring, 2010 issue of Workshop magazine (www.artistdaily.com). I explain that 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.
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 (www.sarumstudio.com). 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 ale to eliminate unintended distortions in drawing or painting, and to create convincing illusions of reality on a two-dimensional surface.
Beer points out that great artists of the past (Titian, Hals, Reynolds, Raeburn, 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 which points out 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."
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 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 he recommends ways of progressing through a drawing or painting.
What I believe will be valuable about considering this approach is that one can adapt various 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.


  1. Sight-size approach I have never attempted. I generally work from photographs. It will be interesting to learn the differences when using this art technique. The information you provided has stirred the desire with more earnest for creating artworks as you mentioned that are convincing illusions of reality. Thank you for sharing your art knowledge so that others may enjoy and advance in their artworks.