The Sight-size Method

Sight-size portraiture

In using the sight-size method, the artist stands back from the easel so that the drawing or painting appears the same size as the subject when viewed together from a distance. Much more than a mere measuring device, sight size is rather a way of working from nature to the scale of life. First documented by Roger de Piles in 1708, it is primarily a portrait practice (Reynolds, Raeburn, Sargent), but because it facilitates a direct comparison between the artwork and nature, sight-size is the best way to train the eye.

Roger de Piles ‘The Principles of Painting’ 1743:

The portrait being now supposed to be as much finish’d as you are able, nothing remains, but, at some reasonable distance, to view both the picture and the sitter together, in order to determine with certainty, whether there is anything still wanting to perfect the work.

Lady Burlington on Reynolds:

… he took quite a quantity of exercise while he painted, for he continually walked backward and forward. His plan was to walk away several feet, then take a long look at me and the picture as we stood side by side, then rush up to the portrait and dash at it in a kind of fury. I sometimes thought he would make a mistake, and paint on me instead of the picture.

On Henry Raeburn:

… and then having placed me in a chair on a platform at the end of his painting-room, in the posture required, he set up his easel beside me with a canvas ready to receive the colour. When he saw all was right, he took his palette and his brush, retreated back step by step, with his face toward me, till he was nigh the other end of the room; he stood and studied for a minute more, then came up to the canvas, and, without looking at me, wrought upon it with colour for some time.

William Rothenstein on John Singer Sargent:

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.