The Sight-Size method of drawing is an observational representationalist drawing or painting approach that is used to capture a seemingly accurate representation of a subject within a one-to-one scale ratio between source subject and the artist’s destination surface. From a pre-determined viewing location, or ‘viewpoint’, comparisons and contrasts are made. Common viewpoints within sight-size or sight size variant systems are 5 to 10 feet from the easel or destination surface.
Sight-size aficionado Darren RIchard Rousar defines the practice on his site (https://www.sightsize.com) as
simply “an arrangement of the artist, the easel, and the subject that allows the artist to see the subject and artwork visually one-to-one. As such it prioritizes direct, accurate comparison and the perception of the whole over piecemeal seeing.”
And while many find this manner of drawing to be highly effective, there are many that regard the process as a “lesser” means of representationalist drawing and painting (some going so far as to state that the process is nearly synonymous with “tracing.”) Furthermore, these detractors allege that the many of the claims of historical sight-size use are over-exaggerations at best—outright lies at worst.
So let’s look at one of the most recent essays written regarding the sight-size method and see how the arguments unfold:
The Sight-size Method, a Critical Overview
By Semyon Bilmes
ORIGINAL PDF: The Sight-size Method_ a Critical Overview_Semyon Bilmes.pdf (1022.9 KB)
“A lie repeated a hundred times becomes the truth” - Mao Zedong
After living in the United States for many years and becoming aware of the complete inability and incompetence of art college and university art departments to teach drawing and painting, I was greatly impressed when I first saw artwork produced by the faculty and students of small art schools which call themselves classical ateliers. Most of these schools were teaching a method of drawing and painting which they call sight-size.
Having been taught in the Russian academic system I had never heard of the sight-size method. I decided to hire a teacher, one of the best artists trained in this system, to teach this new, seemingly valuable method and possibly combine it with traditional methods taught in the art academy which I founded.
The first question this teacher asked me was, “Why do you want to offer the sight-size method?” I answered, “I think it can be helpful to our students.” He looked to the side with a cheerless expression and said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea.” I did not listen. To make a long story short, I talked him into teaching the sight-size method anyway, and went through the significant expenses of setting up the special stations, lights, and easels necessary for this method.
In time it became very clear to me that teaching the sight-size method was a bad idea; instead of being beneficial this method was harmful to the students. I found this method to be a mindless, mechanical transfer process, which retarded the development of the student’s artistic eye: development of which is based on seeing and recognizing proportions.
After abandoning this process, I wrote a short comment on our website about our opposition to this method. I have received numerous e-mails asking me questions about my comment and the sight-size method. Here are a few examples:
“Hello, [I] was interested in the fact that you dismiss the cast size method of drawing. I don’t live in the USA! (but planning to go there to study art).I thought (incorrectly it seems) that it was the classical method used by the old masters. So which alternative do you offer to it?"
“As I read the philosophy of Ashland Academy of Art, I saw that it overtly opposed sight-size method training. Why is this? This exercise only enforces discipline with nuances, which is a small part of having control and awareness of visual elements.”
I came across your website and I am admiring your efforts in bringing the knowledge of Russian art training into the [United States]. I did graduate from the Astrakhan Art College in Russia and studied 4 years in the Latvian State Academy of Fine Arts. I am teaching art privately in . . . . I am not familiar with the term you have used-- sight-size method, and cannot imagine what it could be. I will try to google it, but would like to know how you see it.”
“I have always been deeply interested in traditional realistic painting but it seems everywhere you turn, you run into the sight-size method. It really does seem like a cult, as you say. I know several people who have studied in Florence, Italy, at the schools there and almost all of them think that sight-size is a bad idea. Some hate it so much to the point of being angry about it. I suppose I caught the fever from them. Listening to them made me realize that it certainly is not like anything that could ever have been a part of the art training of the great masters of the past.”
“Dear Mr. Bilmes,
I was happy to read about your thoughts on the sight-size method (on your website). It is rare to see someone stand up and oppose a method that is so widespread and popular. I wanted to make you aware of a very thoughtful and scholarly essay on the web, opposing sight-size that does a wonderful job of analyzing the sight size method and objectively pointing out its limited positive aspects, and its numerous negative aspects. It also highlights the fact that the method is a recent invention…I simply thought you might find the article interesting, as I did, and maybe even encourag[ed] to know that not everyone is taken in by the sight-size mania that seems to be in so many schools teaching realism. It also may be something you can refer others to if they have more questions about why you consider the method bad.”
I checked out the article mentioned above, and found it to be very well written and informative.
It is called: “Concerning the Sight-size Method” written by Hans-Peter Szameit. This article can be found at:
These and similar e-mails prompted me to do a more in-depth investigation, the results of which I am sharing in this essay in hopes that it will be useful to aspiring artists and art students.
At the end of the nineteenth century, western European and American art academies and schools abandoned the traditional teaching of drawing and painting and became design and craft schools. Industrialization, emergence of photography, new ideologies, social reforms, and new theories in psychology and education all prompted this change. Deeper
analysis of this reform is beyond the scope of this paper. The purpose of this paper is to review the nature and growth of the modern phenomena - the sight-size method.
After a big blowout caused by the art education reform, the knowledge and skills that were developed, practiced, and taught for hundreds of years by the artists and art academies… vanished. The only exceptions were art academies of the Soviet Union, where those particular skills were used for the propaganda of socialism in what was called “Socialist Realism”.
However, within the last twenty years there has been a rise of small, private schools in America, that teach realism. These schools are in a constant search for any remaining pieces of traditional art education; they are called ateliers, or sometimes academies.
Boosted by the increasing interest in representational art, a new, alarmingly injurious system came to the existence and rapidly gained popularity, namely, the sight-size method.
The sight-size method, taught in those schools, is a mechanical point-by-point transfer from the model to paper or canvas, tracing the subject in the same size as it lines up with the surface.
This transfer works this way:
- Placing a paper or canvas side by side to the object or model, either next to it, or at a distance, regulating the size of the future picture by the distance.
- Using a string, construction level, or a ruler mechanically transferring the points of the object or model to the surface by horizontally connecting those points to the surface of the paper or canvas.
- Using the plumb line to vertically align the relevant points.
- Outlining the found flat shapes of shadows. Filling in the major shadow shapes with darker tones, and gradually rendering the rest according to the found shapes, and copying tones and colors.
All of this could be achieved only by standing at a distance of six feet or so and walking to the easel from the exact taped spot to make a mark, returning each time back to the taped spot.
Illustrations from Gerald Ackerman, “Charles Bargue. Drawing Course”. by Graydon Parrish
All of the massive research which has been done to find the origin of the sight-size
method points to the American painter R. H. Ives Gammell who has taught a number of students in his studio. One of Gammell’s students, Richard Lack, opened the Atelier Lack in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1969, had been shown the method by Gammell, but tailored it as a teaching system of drawing and painting.
Most of the founders and teachers of the sight-size ateliers come from the original atelier which was started by Richard Lack. The rest of the teachers are their students and students of their students. On page 7 of Juliette Aristides’s book, Classical Drawing Ateliers, Aristides says, “The proliferation of ateliers in this day is, in large part, a result of people either having studied directly with Gammel, Lack, or one of Lack’s students.”
Most all of these ateliers are in the United States, but few migrated abroad.
In Florence, the cradle of Italian Renaissance, there are three schools which are currently teaching the sight-size method (although they are not Italian). Two of these schools are owned and operated by Americans and one by a Canadian. All three of them have studied under Richard Lack or Gammell.
Among other quotations, found in abundance on the internet and showing complete ignorance of art history, this one is appropriate to mention (while the old Florentine artists turn in their graves):
“On the question of technique, Clayton believes that there is no longer a British art school that places any premium on the rigors of the once dominant sight-size approach of drawing natural form. Only in Italy did he find such teaching, and he aims to import it as part of the new academy.” (www.secondspring.co.uk/articles/clayton.htm)
There is a massive attempt to legitimize the sight-size method. A number of articles have been written on this method containing unsubstantiated historical claims. Phrases and
slogans have been created such as “…in the sight-size tradition”…or “…the old masters sight-size technique…” , or “ sight-size classical, academic method…” to create an impression that sight-size is a long-time proven system of drawing and painting, and that it has been taught in the academies or ateliers of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The sight-size method is not classical. In classical art the proportions of the models were changed to fit the classical cannons of beauty; old masters were always modifying proportions. Also, classical drawing was based on the geometral approach, studying form through geometry and perspective, and not copying shapes of lights and shadows.
The sight-size method is not traditional because there never was a tradition of drawing or painting sight-size in Europe, America, or anywhere else. Exceptions are possible; however, exception is an antonym of tradition.
Finally, the sight-size method is not academic: it has never been taught in any academy or school before Lack’s invention!
Below is a quote from Charles Bargue: Drawing Course by Gerald Ackerman (Ackerman 318). This book is very popular in sight-size based schools. In this book Ackerman, reprinted the plates produced by the artist Charles Bargue for drawing exercises. To his credit, Ackerman, a sight-size method enthusiast, states the following:
“There is endless debate among the practitioners about how old the technique is and about who practiced it. Some adherents have attempted to resurrect an ennobling lineage of artists who used the method, much like Renaissance dukes and popes extending their family trees back to Hercules. As a methodical studio practice it seems to be a late nineteen century development. Although there are many instances where one unself-consciously uses it not as a method but as a natural approach – say, in portraiture or capturing figures at a distance – it is best as an atelier practice. The examination of many etchings, drawings, paintings, and photographs of early ateliers in session – some as far back as the Renaissance – depicts none of the upright easels necessary for the practice of sight-size. In many other depictions of older ateliers, one constantly sees younger students seated on the ground, with their drawing boards in their laps.”
I must add that examination of all available photographs, drawings and paintings of late nineteenth century academies, ateliers, or studios, depicts none of the sight-size methods in practice.
Ecole des Beaux-Arts American academy, women’s Drawing Class
Paintings and photographs above are examples of traditional teaching ateliers.
The difference between traditional approach and sight-size method is very important. In order to draw, the student needs to develop the ability to measure proportions visually: every part must have the same relationship to other parts in size as it is on the model. For example, the vase is so much bigger than the cup, or the head is so much smaller than the ribcage, etc. The ability to see each part in relationship to the whole and therefore keep all of the parts in the same scale, is not easy to attain and takes years of constant practice. After years of practice, one can draw or paint in any scale they like. This is the essential aspect of drawing, and is the biggest reason why academies had exams and would not accept students who did not develop this ability. Some professors at the nineteenth century Russian academy demonstrated the level of virtuosity by drawing, for example, the statue of Laocoon starting from the small toe all the way to the head in perfect proportions; or drawing parts of the model on separate pieces of paper, mentally keeping them in the same scale, and then, when they put them together, all of the parts fit together perfectly to the astonishment of the students.
The sight-size tracing method bypasses the need for proportional measurement and directly traces the points from the model to the surface, evading a serious and lengthy study of proportion and form. If the student does not quit this practice fast enough, he or she will end up lacking proportional measurement skills and with a severe dependency on this mechanical method.
The other problem with the sight-size tracing method is that it is extremely limiting in size. The rate of reduction in size from the model to the picture plane is very fast. That is why produced drawings and paintings are tiny. If practitioners want to make it bigger, they must stand exactly on a marked point, six feet or so away from their drawing each time when they are looking at the model, which means that they have to walk forward and back each time to make a mark. It is a very limiting and burdening process and impossible for drawing or painting sitting down. Height of the artist’s shoe soles makes a BIG deference, because the eye must be in exactly the same spot. Another limitation is that since this method requires the objects or model to be lined up with the surface of the paper or canvas, it makes it impossible to draw or paint anything bellow or above the eye level. This process is also extremely long.
Darren R. Rousar, author of Cast Drawing Using the Sight-Size Approach, and creator of the website Sight-size.com, has a special section on his website called Sight-Size Misconceptions. In this section, Rousar portrays all intuitive and factual arguments criticizing the sight-size method as “misconceptions.” For example, under Misconception #2, he lists the fact that: “Sight-size is based upon and defined by mechanical measuring”. He continues:
“The word ‘measuring’, as used here, means determining exact widths and heights using additional tools besides one’s own eyes. On the surface, this misconception seems difficult to refute due to how sight-size is commonly taught. Most ateliers that teach sight-size do so by incorporating measuring into the approach. My book, Cast Drawing Using the Sight-Size Approach, is no exception”
Of course it is “difficult to refute” and of course his book is no exception! It is not that “Most ateliers that teach sight-size do so by incorporating measuring into the approach”, but that ALL ateliers that teach sight-size incorporate mechanical measuring into the approach. It is not “…how sight-size is commonly taught”, it is the ONLY way it is taught!
Ben Rathbone in the article named “Drawing with the Sight-Size Method” states the following:
“Once the subject and drawing are seen as being the same size, it becomes possible to mechanically measure and compare the proportions of the subject to the drawing and judge the drawing’s accuracy.”
In the “Tools Needed” section of the article he lists the tools for this mechanical process: “The tools needed are a long ruler or T-square, string, easel, drawing paper, and whatever drawing medium is desired… To make specific comparisons, I used (and still use) a drafting compass.” (http://www.480bc.com/sight_size/sightsize.htm )
Using mechanical tools such as a “long ruler or T-square, string” or a “drafting compass” certainly fits the misconception # 2 listed above: “Sight-size is based upon and defined by mechanical measuring”.
Under Misconception #7, Rousar suggests why the sight-size method is not tracing:
“Tracing is variously defined in numerous entries on Dictionary.com as, ‘a drawing created by superimposing a semitransparent sheet of paper on the original image and copying on it the lines of the original image…’ Training one’s eye using sight-size is a long and involved process. By contrast, tracing needs no instruction beyond how it is done. All that is required is an elementary ability to control the pencil. Either the traced lines match the image beneath or they don’t.”*
This definition was conveniently selected, but there are certainly many more definitions of the word “trace” on Dictionary.com including:
- The intersection of two planes or of a plane and a surface.
- The point at which a line, or the curve in which a surface intersects a coordinate plane.
- The intersection of a plane of projection, or an original plane, with a coordinate plane.
- To follow, make out, or determine the course or line of […].
- A line drawn by a recording instrument, such as a cardiograph.
Rousar’s comment, “either the traced lines match the image beneath or they don’t”, describes perfectly the process of sight-size with a difference that “traced lines match the image” not beneath, but to the side.
The term sight-size cannot be found in any dictionary (Dictionary.com says: “No results found for sight-size”). There have been various conflicting attempts to define the sight- size method by the sight-size proponents. Mr. Rousar tries to resolve confusion by quoting a former Gammell student:
“Finally, Robert Douglas Hunter, also a former Gammell student, was asked to define sight-size in an interview in the December 1970 issue of American Artist magazine, page 48. He says, ‘Basically, it is a method of viewing the model and your painting simultaneously from a selected position so that both images appear the same size.”
In the Charles Bargue: Drawing Course, Gerald Ackerman states that any painter: “…unself-consciously uses it not as a method but as a natural approach”.
But in the article Drawing with the Sight-Size Method, Ben Rathbone says:
“The Sight Size Method is a method of constructing realistic drawings with great accuracy… It is a method by which anyone with any amount of drawing experience can set up and execute a realistic drawing….”
It becomes more and more apparent that there are two distinctly different concepts. One concept is defined as “viewing the model and your painting simultaneously from a selected position so that both images appear the same size”, and the other concept suggests to “mechanically measure and compare the proportions of the subject to the drawing.”
To stop confusion, clear definitions are needed. I shall refer to these concepts as sight- size viewing and sight-size tracing, respectively.
Viewing the picture and the model in the same size, or close to it, is a useful observational tool to spot the difference among various methods traditionally used by artists to help them see. These methods include: looking from the distance at both the model and the drawing or painting; looking through the mirror turning back to both picture and model; looking through the mirror upside down; using a black mirror, squinting, head-cocking, blurring vision; and using a concaved lens. Sight-size viewing is used and has been used by many artists throughout history, but sight-size tracing is practiced only and exclusively by the modern day sight-size ateliers.
The statement by Ben Rathbone that sight-size is a method by which “anyone with any amount of drawing experience can set up and execute a realistic drawing” (bold letter emphasis is mine), raises a question of any need for drawing experience or learning.
In David Hockney’s book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, Hockney claims that old masters just traced images on canvases using Camera Obscura and Camera Lucida and did not know how to draw or paint without the help of mechanical means.
In Ann James Massey’s review of Hockney’s Secret Knowledge, Massey suggests that “Hockney is doing an enormous disservice to many of the artists of the past; to living artists who draw without computers, projecting, or tracing; and to future artists who will believe learning to draw is unnecessary since mechanical means will be good enough”. http://www.artrenewal.org/articles/2004/Massey/hockney1.asp
Mechanical means certainly include the sight-size tracing method described by Ben Rathbone as “… to mechanically measure and compare the proportions”.
An additional “misconception” from sight-size.com (misconception #3) is that “sight size breeds dependence upon the model.” Rousar suggests that “This misconception is misleading since the premise behind sight-size is comparing your work to your subject.”
In Charles Bargue Drawing Course, Peter Bougie, teacher and author of a number of articles on sight-size, answered Gerald Ackerman’s question by stating:
“You are right about the shortcomings of sight-size – it is strictly for working in controlled situations, and it does breed a dependence on the model” (Bougie 325).
Inaccurate historical claims about the sight-size method
In this section I will examine the inaccurate claims that the sight-size tracing method is traditional, classical, academic, and was used by old masters.
Because there is no historical reference to support any claim that the sight-size tracing method was ever taught in academies or ateliers, it has been a common practice among sight-size ideologists to refer to, and quote each other.
On his website, in response to the first “misconception” (that sight- sizing was invented by Richard Lack), Mr. Rousar says:
“Most sight-size detractors and some adherents credit R. H. Ives Gammell, his teacher William McGregor Paxton, or Gammell’s student Richard F. Lack with inventing sight-size”. …“I have also asked Lack if he knew who was the first to use the term ‘sight-size’. He replied that Gammell told him the term came down from the Boston School of painters and most probably from Edmund Tarbell….”
[Edmund C. Tarbell at work on 'Girl Putting on Her Hat], 1907 / R. D. McDonough, photographer. http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/searchimages/images/item_6128.htm
Above is an example of Tarbell’s painting being placed next to the model, but as you can see the painting is much higher than the model; this placement would not allow sight-size tracing. Moreover if he would place it on the same level to use sight-size tracing, he would have to crawl forward and back! This photograph shows that the size of the painted model is also smaller then life size.
If Edmund C. Tarbell used a term sight-size, he may have meant just sighting picture and model in approximately the same size.
Historically, all processes have been given names. If sight-size tracing method had been used before, especially if it was “European”, “traditional” or “academic” practitioners would give it a name: above all French! The French had a name for every possible variation of method, system, or style. Just the word “sketch” in French has five different terms describing different types of sketching: esquisse, etude, croquis, ebauche, and modele.
There is no French name for sight-size, of course it can be made up, but it cannot be found in any historical art related literature or manuals.
Mr. Rousar continues:
“During phone and in-person conversations I have had with Lack, he has denied inventing it and claims Gammell denied inventing it as well….
Until further evidence comes to light we can conclude two things. Neither Paxton, Gammell nor Lack invented sight-size or coined the term and that it was believed by them to have been used by some artists, professionally and as a teaching method, prior to the 20th century.” (Bold letter emphasis is mine).
But, if we can only ‘conclude’ that ‘it was believed by them’ that the sight-size method ‘has been used by some artists…’ it becomes obvious that neither Gammell nor Lack knew, nor could name any artist which used sight-size tracing “professionally and as a teaching method” prior to the 20th century.
It is not clear where Gammell picked up the sight-size tracing method. It is possible that he invented it himself. The fact that “… Lack… has denied inventing it and claims Gammell denied inventing it as well” does not explain the fact that all of the leads tracing the origin of the sight-size method point directly to them. Gammell’s teacher, William McGregor Paxton, taught drawing at the Boston Museum School for seven years (1906- 1913). None of his students, besides Gammel have been known to use, or teach the sight- size method. There is no data reporting Paxton’s use of the sight-size method.
Photograph of Paxton painting a model shows nothing in common with the sight-size method.
Paxton painting a portrait of a model. Image courtesy of the William McGregor Paxton papers,
1886-1971 at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Sight-size advocates keep repeating the mantra that the sight-size method is traditional and classical:
“The sight size method has been utilized for centuries by countless great painters and is still widely used today.” danalevin.com/site_size.html
Any historical references to the artist’s moving back from the canvas and comparing the picture and the object from the distance by placing the picture next to the model, using upstanding easels, or even using brushes with long handles are labeled as practicing the sight-size method.
In “The Sight-Size Portrait Tradition” Nicolas Beer writes:
Palomino de Castro Y Valasco reports that when painting the portrait of Admiral Pulido Pareja in 1639, Velazquez … painted with long brushes….”
But Matisse also painted sometimes with very long brushes, which does not make him a “sightsizer”.
Matisse painting with the six foot brush.
Here is an example of how, using any mention of a distance between the artist and the model by Old Masters, Darren R. Rousar creates “historical evidence” of using sight-size on the spot, and turns Leonardo and Alberti into sightsizers:
“We at Sight-Size.com believe in the sight-size approach and also see historical evidence for its use in the past. Rather than present our opinions of the following artist’s writings we’ll let them speak for themselves so that the reader can come to their own conclusions:
‘When you draw from nature, stand three times as far away as the object you are drawing.’ -Leonardo da Vinci
‘Know that a painted thing can never appear truthful where there is not a definite distance for seeing it’ -Leon Battista Alberti “
The conclusion is obvious; neither da Vinci nor Alberti described the sight-size method.
Even Wikipedia has been used to spread the same disinformation. Under “Atelier Method” it quotes Charles H. Cecil, founder of Charles H. Cecil Studios, an atelier located in Florence, Italy saying the following:
“The method was used by many of the finest painters in oil since the seventeenth century, including Reynolds, Lawrence and Sargent. In reviving the atelier tradition, R. H. Ives Gammell (1893-1981) adopted sight-size as the basis of his teaching method. He founded his studio on the precedent of private ateliers, such as those of Carolus-Duran and Léon Bonnat. These French masters were accomplished sight-size portraitists who conveyed to their pupils a devotion to the art of Velázquez. It should be noted that Sargent was trained by both painters and that, in turn, his use of sight-size had a major influence in Great Britain and America.”
There is also no support to the claim that Reynolds, Lawrence or Sargent used the sight- size tracing method. Nor is there any evidence that Carolus-Duran or Léon Bonnat were “accomplished sight-size portraitists”, ever used the method, or that they even heard of the sight-size method. Mentioning Velázquez in the same sentence may imply that he was actually using this method. The evidence is contrary to all of these claims.