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How to use the Classical Method of Sight Size for Modern Portraiture

Posted on Tue 06 May 2014

At Charles Cecil Studios, where I trained, the lessons of long-dead artists trump all, for classical training in anything will claim longevity as a keystone. Even the camera has left an amazingly modest imprint on the sight-size method – one might have thought that portraiture would never be the same again after that great invention – but unlike many others, the classical schools of sight-size merely proceeded as before. I don’t think of my training as exclusive but it must be admitted that a great deal of trending phenomena passed us by. Sight size is rather more evolution than epiphany


The sight-size method was used in the 17th century and, arguably earlier, by Leonardo. We have a bounty of anecdotal evidence of painters’ techniques – I remember being told on authority of Velasquez’s use of brushes as long as brooms to gain enough perspective from the canvas – but it’s clear to see from the paintings themselves that sight-size style qualities were at work, without such colourful tales.

The artists in question generally stood to paint, with a canvas mounted vertically in front of them and often retreated a distance from the painting and sitter to gain a shallow perspective and accuracy of proportion.  Today it is generally assumed by all practitioners that Rubens, his pupil Van Dyck and Velasquez were all what we would describe today as sight-size painters. Of course, the method is not responsible for their genius, but rather it might have acted as an ally to their love of nature, and a desire to paint directly from it. Sir Joshua Reynolds advised his pupils to adopt the method, and so it continued through the 19th century, where it picked up a name to describe a basic technique that had remained unbranded for 200 years.

Sight size has been at home in many cities: London, Florence, Paris and Boston to name some. Each atelier may have their own hierarchy of priorities for figurative painting, but they are all steeped in the habit of painting directly from nature on to canvas with little reference to drawings or photographs, along with a lesser interest in what is known but not seen. In short, if you don’t see it, but know it’s there, leave it out.

The method

Having set up both canvas and sitter along-side each other and ideally in high natural light, stand back to look at both sitter and painting from a distance of at least three lengths of the canvas to gain perspective, accuracy in the painting of proportions and, perhaps most importantly, an overall focus across the painting. This is so important as its paramount duty is to lead the viewer’s eye around the work.

The focus must not be overly busy or vacuous, neither piecemeal nor vague. The right amount of additional objects – something that resonates with the sitter – must be found and carefully selected. Too many may overrun the painting and, worst of all, the sitter’s place as the most important element on the canvas. The canvas must not be under occupied either, or you risk dullness. If there’s too little context around the sitter in terms of the actual room or space the person occupies you will be accused of lack of invention, and the portrait may seem to float in a vacuum, but do not elaborate the background, either.

The ambiguous syntax of the compositional language is, for me, the single most perplexing and exciting element of figurative painting. Certainly it can only be acquired at the end of long years of dedicated work and many failures, and I personally feel a good long way off yet. For me the ideal composition is both simple and enticing, striking the balance perfectly between human and setting. Almost all of Sargent’s work is exceptional in this regard.

I fall firmly in the category of those for whom sketching is of little use. I nearly always change my composition as the painting develops, as only on the life scale can the painting’s real challenges and qualities become clear. If all the above elements come together, a painting will emerge that is both true to sitter and artist.

Background matters

Sight size is ever being reinterpreted and modified, and turned to more rigorous or looser explanations of itself. I myself put less emphasis on the ‘masterpiece in nature’ idea (the notion of setting up a complete composition in life, before a stroke of the brush falls) than some of my school. I prefer to paint extensively apart from the sitter and develop an idea of composition directly on the canvas, however roughly, concurrently with the life sittings with the model. I might decide on a quite different background after the portrait has largely been painted, perhaps to satisfy a compositional itch – this was the case with The Postman (below), shown at the BP Portrait Award 2012.

The Postman, oil on linen, (90x75cm)
I had originally planned a very simply background as I often do, hoping to draw maximum attention to the portrait, but the more finished the painting became the more incongruous the background appeared, so eventually the chaos of the sorting office hove into view to lend some atmosphere

This leads me to another passion: I am very interested in placing people in the natural spaces and among the stuff of their lives. This presents a challenge to adapt sight size to all situations and to readapt the traditional idea of what a portrait is. The method is as good as any to convey realistic and naturalistic representation. Chiaroscuro and mood can be wrought out of modern, often dry utilitarian spaces, and I like to think that if Gainsborough and Reynolds were alive today, a classical slant on our modern surroundings would result in their work.

No easel and canvas should look out of place anywhere – if you can get an easel to it then it can be painted from life. In the rural surrounds of my home I have prevailed upon beekeepers, hedge layers, race horse trainers and mechanics, and obviously postmen. I have painted in barns and stables as well; the only requirement is good light. So I would argue that sight size can be used to any end – it is certainly flexible and versatile and though classical, not bound by old-fashioned ideas. It can provide a great degree of accuracy and will give the advanced practitioner a genuine hope of avoiding error.



So why is sight size relevant now? Because sight size is an evolving species; it’s diverse and rangy and has adapted through history; it can be bent to the will of the artist with great elasticity, and provides a way of combining the most complex and ambitious compositions with the certainty of accuracy through its strong technique – if all goes well.

The artist can give full range to an idea, the more ambitious the better. In encouraging painters to a strict classical training, there is greater freedom later after the eye has developed to its full understanding, since the safety net of the sound technique stands tall behind them in their endeavours.
So by small degrees of gradual change sight size continues strongly today, holding only to the unbending core principles of the basic method. It is not a technique for those in search of a quick fix to painting, true, but it does offer great reward to those willing to run the distance.




DEMONSTRATION: Portrait of Mac




This is the base of the painting. Most of this paint will disappear under subsequent layers by the end of the sittings. The purpose of this is to establish rough dimensions and proportions




The lay-in continues. The idea is to correct the shapes as the painting progresses, its proportions becoming more refined all the time






The added layers of paint begin to bring depth to the colours and tones. You should aim to have the full tonal range in by now, ranging from the brightest highlight to the darkest shadow









Portrait of Mac, oil on linen, (61x51cm)

By the final sitting you are hoping to gain a complete and polished view of the sitter in their entirety. The clothes, background and above all the head, must be attended to in all particulars at this stage

Frances Bell trained in the classical tradition at the Charles Cecil Studios, Florence, where she taught for the summer terms 2005–11. Her work has been shown in various exhibitions, including Not The Turner Prize, 2004 and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ (RP) Annual Exhibition from 2005 to 2011, at which she won the De Laszlo Foundation Award for Portraiture in 2006. She is an associate member of the RP and a member of the Society of Women Artists (SWA). She won the Winsor & Newton Young Artist Award at the SWA annual exhibition in 2010 and The Artist Editor’s Choice Award and the Barbara Tate Award in 2011. For more details see



This feature is taken from the April 2014 issue of The Artist



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How to use the Classical Method of Sight Size for Modern Portraiture
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    Thank you to all the artists who have shown an interest in my techniques I hope you will find some inspirational tips from my blog dated 10th september
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    The techniques I have been using in my latest paintings are based on my results over the past year in combining acrylic gels with water coloured washes. I begin by stretching a peice of water colour paper onto a board. Heavy paper 200-300 lb is better as it will provide a good strong base. I start by mixing some weak washes of watercolour in the following colours indigo,potters pink,green gold and lemon yellow. These colours work well for me as they are fairly subdued and provide a subtle combination of tones akin to the English landscape. As the picture develops I bring in stronger tones to enliven the contrasts. After the main shapes have been created on the paper I prepare my textured gel mix. This is to suggest such elements as ice,snow,foamy water and debris on the surface. I make up a mixture of Structure gel,string gel,(made by Liquidex which is transparent) and painting medium. I stir the contents until I have a consistency of runny cream. I may also add a tiny amount of weak water colour to tint it. I then pour this mixture across the design on the paper and drag the shapes with the end of a cocktail stick until I have a watery looking pattern (like the picture insert). This mixture is left to dry completely preferably overnight. The next stage is to add brighter colours around my design using weak acrylic washes.The acrylic helps to provide a seal on the surface of the paper. I can add the suggestion of leaves,twigs mosses and general watery debris to the composition. When the whole imagery is dry I remove the paper from the board and glue it to plain white canvas leaving a 1"-2" border all the way round. I can then extend the design of the imagery around the sides and edges of the canvas. The last stage is to coat the surface with at least three coats of varnish. I have found Windsor and Newton the best varnish to use. I also like using Atelier acrylics, Atelier structure gel plus Atelier painting medium. I don,t use Atelier varnish as it pulls the watercolour off as I apply it to the surface.


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  • The focus of light seems to emerge from the left side of the painting, from where it illuminates predominantly dark or gray shapes giving the painting an appearance. to recommend my favorite artists Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frida Kahlo, Roberto Matta Gabino amaya cacho and Pablo Picasso.

    Posted by Brayan Lonw on Sun 17 Sep 14:17:01