I’ve realized recently that much of the confusions happening regarding the sight size method stems from not being clear on what the term “sight size” refers to. I think most of today’s realists, especially ones practicing the sight size prefers it to merely mean any situation where the artist would observe the subject and the canvas nearby each other at same or roughly the same sizes. If this is the case, there really shouldn’t be much debates as that wouldn’t even make sight size a method but just a way of viewing or just a tool.
It would also make many artists both from the past and today-sight size users, including Sargent. Many living painters today paints seated with view of the model on the stage directly above their canvases, often the two being about the same sizes, and have even mentioned themselves that it is deliberate to compare the two easier. Thus they would also be regarded as sight size users. The photo-realists that works from a photo placed right next to their painting, printed at same size, should then also be called sight size artists. You see my point, that misconceptions are likely to occur with this reference as we all know that sight size practiced today involves much more than this and used very differently.
I personally feel that it would be better off if the term “sight size” would be reserved for the strict manner as used in sight size schools today, which then excludes aforementioned artists including Sargent as being sight size users. But if the world insists on using the term “sight size” broadly as previously described, much clarification would be needed to prevent misunderstandings and realize that the tool can be used very differently, as it was indeed, by the masters such as Sargent. Then it becomes important to try to understand how he used it to recognize the differences.
My speculation of Sargent running back and forth to the canvas placed at a distance between each mark or two, was not at all for the purpose of sight size, but to just view his painting at a distance for simplification and accuracy. Then placing the easel next to the model was secondary, and done only when possible or convenient. If you look at the video of Laszlo (can be found on youtube), whom I suspect to have painted similarly to Sargent, is not far enough away to observe the model and the painting as a whole, constantly turning his head back and forth between the painting and the model, and most of the time especially in the beginning, the painting and model is not at all level to each other. Which shows his purpose of painting at a distance from the easel is to see the painting at a distance, not for the sight size method. If you are doing a life size portrait with your own model with plenty of space in front of you, and you want to move your easel back to look at your painting at a distance from viewpoint, it would be natural to push back the easel where it would be near next to the model instead of anywhere else, thus creating that extra advantage (although not a necessity) to observe side by side at roughly the same scale.
I would think if one wants to try how Sargent or Laszlo painted as thus far described, he should first get in the habit of painting with the canvas at a distance from the viewpoint WITHOUT it being next to the model, and recognize the purpose of that practice (simplification, and making mainly the marks that would read well at a distance, omitting unnecessary details) .Then after getting used to that, for additional advantage, could try having the canvas next to the model time to time, perhaps later on into the session after the lay in has been already established(roughly, without trying to make the canvas and subject exact same scale or leveled). I believe this is how Sargent worked as also seen clearly evident on the Laszlo video. I think if one is told that the Laszlo video is use of sight size, it could seem a bit confusing.
I’d like to add that it’s still not wise to make much definite conclusions that masters painted in certain ways based on written records, because you’d never know if he did that always or occasionally. We do know that Sargent painted landscapes seated at times, and majority his smaller works including figure drawings, watercolors , probably weren’t done as thus far mentioned.
I see beautiful works coming out of today sight size schools, but I feel that this is due to use of the helpful sight size tool combined with other good things they learn, not because they were trained WITH the sight size tool. I’ve been doing the sight size (in rough manner mostly) for a while now, but I can’t say it at all helped improve my drawing or painting skills, nor my vision, although it helps to get the accuracies easier. Similarly,(though exaggerated) an artist that paints from photos would not improve his drawing skills by using the projector, or seeing how accurate he can get with it won’t improve his vision.
There’s a quote by a past master that I’ve read online saying that sight size is not advisable for students although a charm for a master, and much other quotes seem to suggest that sight size was not a main nor important practice in their time, but just something that can be used as an optional viewing trick time to time, even considering the use of it beginning to end rather abnormal. Had sight size been such an important method or a training tool back then, I believe they would’ve made that known, and perhaps even had a name for it, instead of random mentions indicating rough usage of it or sitters’/observers’ vague descriptions sounding like the process here and there.
The strict over-usage of the tool in schools today has made it a significant method, even giving it a name,”sight size”. But I feel that sight size, whether used roughly like back in the days, or strictly like today, is an effective tool either way that can be used differently as any tool would, according to individual artist’s or teacher’s intended goals, although I personally would not give this tool of convenience to a student in early stage of learning process.