The Atelier Tradition

Charles H. Cecil Studios was founded in 1991 to perpetuate the atelier tradition, a practice stemming from Renaissance Italy in which a master painter opens his studio to a select group of dedicated students. Charles H. Cecil partakes of this legacy through his training at the ateliers of R. H. Ives Gammell in Boston and Richard F. Lack in Minneapolis. Author of Twilight of Painting (1946), Gammell is acknowledged to have been the pivotal figure in reviving atelier training during the past century. His line of descent through the Boston painters William Paxton and Dennis Bunker takes the tradition back to the École des Beaux-Arts and the atelier-trained John Singer Sargent.

Charles H. Cecil is committed to the belief that the atelier tradition is invaluable for a renewal in figurative art. In keeping with this concept, Cecil personally supervises the progress of each student and is assisted by advanced students and colleagues who return at regular intervals. The aim of the Studio is to train painters and teachers who will excel as artists and evolve the atelier tradition.

The Sight-Size Method

Fundamental to the training is the practice of working from nature without recourse to photography. Students are taught the sight‑size method, whereby the image and subject are placed side-by-side at a distance in order to perceive the whole. In this way one sees a unified image to scale and proportion. The method has been used by masters since the seventeenth century, including Reynolds, Lawrence, and Sargent, while its origins lie in the practice of Titian, Van Dyck and Velázquez.

Sight-size when properly understood is not a mere measuring technique, but a philosophy of seeing. Rather than focusing on detail, the student learns to observe the motif from a distance and convey the visual effect. Mastery of sight‑size leads to qualities of characterization and handling that are inherent to the technique. The work of current and former students trained in the method has consistently been recognized in such international competitions as the BP Portrait Award and Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibitions.

Historical Accounts of the Use of Sight-Size

“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.”
– Roger de Piles (1635 – 1709)

Reynolds “… 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.”
– Lady Burlington (1761 – 1824)

“His picture and his sitter were placed at a distance from the point of view, where to see both at a time, he (Lawrence) had to traverse all across the room, before the conception which the view of his sitter suggested, could be proceeded with. In this incessant transit his feet had worn a path through the carpet to the floor, exercising freedom both of body and mind; each traverse allowing time for invention, while it required an effort of memory between the touch on the canvas and the observation from which it grew.”
– Sir David Wilkie (1785 – 1841)

“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 the eye, and was able to estimate the construction and values of his representation… (T)he placing of the canvas near to, or at a given distance from the subject, so that the sitter and image can be compared together, is an essential factor of representative painting. Painters often deplore the loss of tradition, and speak with regret of the days when artists ground their own colours; but knowledge of the visual methods of the older painters, rather than of their technical practices, seems to me of equal, if not greater importance. The methods of Velasquez and Hals were not unlike Sargent’s.”
– William Rothenstein (1872 – 1945)

For an in-depth historical account of the sight‑size technique read Nicholas Beer’s essay The Sight-size Portrait Tradition.