Sight-Size Portraiture

Sargent painted portraits using a technique called sight-size. Here is how William Rothenstein describes the method:  “Sargent, when he painted the size of life, placed his canvas on a level with the model, walked back until canvas and sitter were equal before his eye, and was thus able to estimate the construction and values of his representation. He drew with his brush, beginning with the shadows and gradually evolving his figure from the background by means of large loose volumes of shadow, half tone, and light. . .”

While sight-size allows for precise comparison, it is more than a measuring technique. In his book Sight-Size Portraiture, Nicholas Beer emphasizes the humanistic nature of the technique. He traces the use of sight-size from 17th century masters such as Velazquez and Van Dyck through the British School to 19th century Paris and finally to the atelier of R. H. Ives Gammell. Gammell taught sight-size for portraiture, still life, and figure studies. Through two of his students, the tradition of sight-size moved to Florence, where Golden Gate Atelier teachers were trained.

Whistler’s most talented student, Walter Sickert, argues that sight-size, when truly understood, is essential to traditional painting: “Now, in painting a life-sized realistic study from nature, the practice of the greatest masters has been to put canvas and model side by side, to view them both from a certain distance, to take certain observations, and then, walking up to the canvas, to place these observations, from memory, on the canvas, and to repeat this operation until the picture is finished . . . To quote no more than three instances . . . Whistler, Millais, and Raeburn, to all of whom there is evidence that my description of method applies, are enough to show that the method is not confined to any particular school but is made necessary by optical laws which are common to humanity.”

Still Life and Landscape Painting »