Charles H. Cecil Studios

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Charles H. Cecil Studios



68 Borgo S. Frediano, Firenze, Italy

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The portraits reproduced have been painted at the atelier entirely from life, to the scale of life under natural light.



The aim of the Charles H. Cecil Studios is to preserve and advance the sight-size tradition of drawing and painting from life, and to perpetuate the atelier training that is essential to its future.

Sight-size is both a visual method and a philosophy, handed down over the centuries from master to pupil in private ateliers. Fundamentally a portrait practice, it is a way of working to the scale of life, under natural light, whereby the subject and canvas are viewed side-by-side at a distance; the painter works standing to convey the impression of the whole, as opposed to a piecemeal rendering of the parts. A sight-size image by a past or contemporary master is neither static nor photographic. It manifests a freedom of brushwork that comes into focus when perceived from afar. Too often misconstrued as a mere measuring technique for accuracy, sight-size is a unique means of attaining truth to nature through individual expression. Reynolds and Gainsborough used the same procedure, but their handling of oil paint and characterization can never be confused – so, too, Velázquez and Hals, or Whistler and Sargent. Sight-size is not a stylistic convention, fashion, or manner delimited by a particular epoch; it is, instead, a visual continuum that reaches to the future and the past. For this reason, masters of different eras and origins like Velázquez, Raeburn, and Sargent can bear such a close kinship.

Charles H. Cecil (b. 1945) is an American painter, who has been based in Florence since 1978. He graduated with honors in Classics and Art History at Haverford College before further studies at Yale University. He then received four years of atelier training: the first two with R. H. Ives Gammell (1893–1981) in Boston and the following two with Gammell’s pupil Richard F. Lack (1928–2009) in Minneapolis. R. H. Ives Gammell, author of Twilight of Painting, is acknowledged to have been the pivotal figure in reviving atelier training during the past century. Sight-size formed the basis of his method of teaching from cast and figure drawing to advanced work in portraiture. Gammell’s own teacher, William M. Paxton (1869–1941), was introduced to the principles of sight-size by Dennis Miller Bunker (1861–1890), colleague of John Singer Sargent (1856–1925). Sight-size has a lineage and a legacy: the Charles H. Cecil Studios, founded in 1991, is dedicated to furthering this tradition.


Full-time Study

Atelier training is to be distinguished from that of an academy or art school. The curriculum of an atelier cannot be subdivided into academic categories of elective or required course units. It is instead an integral process of educating the eye to see – contour, proportion, chiaroscuro, modelling and, ultimately, color. From the very beginning, students draw daily from the figure model and casts. They are not required to spend time copying reproductions in the flat, but go directly to studying form under natural light in historic studios designed especially for artists.

The method of teaching is related to the size of the atelier – some thirty students. Charles H. Cecil is thus personally able to follow the progress of each individual. Classes are limited to from six to twelve students, and an instructor regularly works alongside giving daily critiques. Students draw standing with the easel in an upright position, as they will when they eventually paint the nude and portrait in oil. They learn to compare the model and image from a distance, both for accuracy of draughtsmanship and unity of effect.


First Year Students

Casts are drawn to the scale of life using the sight-size method. Students work from a number of casts in charcoal each term to gain the ability of laying in proportions accurately and modelling the subtleties of chiaroscuro. They are then prepared for portraiture to the scale of life by the third term of the first year. At the end of the year students are introduced to portrait painting in oils using a limited palette.

The other half of the day is devoted to sight-size figure drawing in pencil and charcoal. Pencil drawing is crucial for the understanding of line, contour and modelling. Emphasis is on seeing the drawing as a whole, rather than as a composite of separate details. Work in charcoal teaches the perception of chiaroscuro in relation to the background and leads to a broader and more painterly handling. At intervals throughout the year students are taught anatomy as they develop their skills in figure drawing.


Second and Third Year Students

When the requisite level of draughtsmanship has been attained, second-year students concentrate on sight-size portrait and figure painting. They learn to key their work to nature with the limited flesh palette. Students are taught the preparation of canvas and grounds, as well as the handgrinding of oil paints, and the making and use of mediums based on the analysis of historical accounts.

During their third year, students advance to large-scale figure painting and portrait compositions. They progressively gain a mastery of working to the scale of life with impact from a distance. At regular intervals former pupils with professional experience return to teach, thus enabling students to learn by example and receive expert critiques. Students may continue their studies for a fourth year or come back at a later date to further their training.


Art History Lectures

Throughout the year Charles H. Cecil gives weekly art history lectures on Thursday evenings. During the first term Cecil concentrates on the Italian Renaissance from its origins in the art of Giotto to the era of Michelangelo. The important masterworks of Tuscany are discussed, and students are encouraged to see the originals in situ.

The lectures during the second term trace the development of oil painting in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Particular emphasis is placed on Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck, Velázquez and Rembrandt. Large-scale decorative compositions are analyzed, as well as portraiture.

The third term is devoted to comparing the above masters to their successors in the British and French Schools, leading to Sargent and his contemporaries. Works using the sight-size method are demonstrated and give the student an art historical perspective essential to atelier training.




Throughout the year short courses are offered to give students the opportunity to experience an overview of atelier training. Classes are limited to twelve students, and an instructor works alongside giving daily critiques. It is recommended that those with no prior experience of the sight-size method begin with one of our drawing courses.


Drawing Courses

From the beginning, students draw daily from the figure model and casts using the sight-size method. Figure drawing in pencil is crucial for the understanding of line, contour and modelling. Emphasis is placed on seeing the drawing as a whole, rather than as a composite of separate details. Cast drawing in charcoal enables the student to analyze shape and proportion in relation to the effects of light and shade. During the fourth week of the July course students progress from the cast to sight-size portrait drawing. Instructors work alongside the students in both the figure and cast drawing classes.

2018 / 19 program:

4 week
2nd - 27th July 2018

2 week
2nd - 13th July 2018
16th - 27th July 2018
10th - 21st September 2018
25th March - 5th April July 2019

Portrait Painting Courses

During the first week students are introduced to the fundamentals of portraiture through sight-size cast and portrait drawing. Those with more experience, but who are new to the method, first draw sight-size before moving on to portrait painting. Each project is painted to the scale of life using a limited flesh palette. Students are taught the handgrinding of oil paints and the making and use of mediums. Poses are sustained over a number of sessions so that students have ample time to study shape, color and modelling. Instructors work with the class to demonstrate by example in addition to giving individual critiques.

2018 / 19 program:

4 week
2nd - 27th July 2018

2 week
10th - 21st September 2018
25th March - 5th April 2019 

For more information on the full-time and short courses visit our website.


Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723 – 1792) to John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925)


Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723 – 1792)

Reynolds advised his pupils to "… paint at the greatest possible distance from your sitter, and to place your picture near the sitter… so as to see both together."

James Northcote, Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Vol. II, Second Edition, London, 1819, p. 58.


According to Lady Burlington, 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."

W. P. Frith, My Autobiography and Reminiscences, Vol. III, 1888, p. 124.


Thomas Gainsborough (1727 – 1788)

"Like Reynolds he painted standing, in preference to sitting; and the pencils which he used had shafts, sometimes two yards long. He stood as far away from his sitter as he did from his picture, that the hues might be the same."

Allan Cunningham, Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Vol. I, Revised Edition, George Bell and Sons, London, 1879, p. 274.


"Mr. Gainsborough… allowed me frequently to stand beside him to see him paint, even when he had sitters before him. I was much surprised to see him sometimes paint portraits with pencils on sticks full six feet in length, and his method of using them was this: he placed himself and his canvas at a right angle with the sitter, so that he stood still, and touched the features of his picture exactly at the same distance at which he viewed his sitter."

John T. Smith, Nollekins and his Times, Vol. I, Henry Colburn, London, 1828, p. 186.


Sir Henry Raeburn (1756 – 1823)

A sitter to Raeburn relates that "…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. Having done this he retreated in the same manner, studied my looks at that distance for about another minute, then came hastily up to the canvas and painted a few minutes more."

Allan Cunningham, Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Vol. II, Revised Edition, George Bell and Sons, London, 1879, p. 269.


"His manner of taking his likenesses explains the simplicity and power of his heads. Placing his sitter on the pedestal, he looked at him from the other end of a long room, gazing at him intently with his great dark eyes. Having got the idea of the man, what to him carried farthest and ‘told,’ he walked hastily up to the canvas, never looking at the sitter, and put down what he had fixed in his inner eye; he then withdrew again, took another gaze and recorded its results, and so on, making no measurements."

Edward Pinnington, Sir Henry Raeburn RA, The Makers of British Art, London, 1904, p. 124.


Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769 – 1830)

"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."

Allan Cunningham, The Life of Sir David Wilkie, Vol. III, J. Murray, London, 1843, pp. 172-3.


"He could see at a great distance, and also quite close; the first aided him in catching the general expression, and the other in communicating those finer touches, those almost half invisible lines to his finished drawings and paintings, which go in the gross to make up the excellence of the likeness."

Allan Cunningham, The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters and Sculptors, Vol. VI,


J. Murray, London, 1833, p. 268.


James A. McNeil Whistler (1834 - 1903)

"If it were a full-length portrait, he placed the canvas near his palette and his sitter in pose about four feet to the other side of the easel… He then selected two or three small brushes with handles about three feet in length, stood back around twelve feet, took a good look at both sitter and canvas, then stepping quickly forward, and, standing as far from the canvas as the long handles and his arms permitted, he began to rapidly sketch in the figure with long, firm strokes of the brush… The sketch finished, the long handled brushes were discarded and work began in earnest. With one or more, sometimes a handful of brushes, - for they would accumulate without his realising it, - he would again stand back and carefully scrutinise sitter and canvas until it seemed as if – and no doubt it was so – he transferred a visual impression of the subject to the canvas and fixed it there ready to be made permanent with line and colour; then quickly, often with a run and a slide, he rushed up to the canvas and, without glancing at his sitter, vigorously painted so long as his visual image lasted, then going back the full distance he took another look, and so on day after day until the end."

A.J. Eddy, Recollections and Impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler, London, 1904, pp. 233-4.


John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925)

"To watch the head develop from the start was like the sudden lifting of a blind in a dark room… Every stage was a revelation. For one thing he put his easel directly next to the sitter so that when he walked back from it he saw the canvas and the original in the same light, at the same distance, at the same angle of vision."

The Hon. Evan Charteris, K.C. John Sargent, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1927, p. 182.


"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...The 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 Velazquez and Hals were not unlike Sargent’s."*

Sir William Rothenstein, Men and Memories, Faber & Faber, London, 1932, pp. 192-3.


*In his account of Sargent at work, Sir William Rothenstein uses the term sight-size for the visual method of comparing the canvas and model to scale. To our knowledge, it is the first time the word appears formally in print. R. H. Ives Gammell used the same term in Boston when he taught Charles H. Cecil to view the canvas alongside the subject from a distance. As Rothenstein points out, the visual method goes back long before the term sight-size was coined.

Course languages (Check multiple if applicable) English
Accommodation No

Charles H. Cecil Studios

Borgo San Frediano, 68

Firenze, Florence, Italy

Zoe by Charles Cecil

Glenn by Isabella Watling

Alessandra by Harriet Pattinson

Marko by Daisy Sims-Hilditch

Dodger by Henrietta Abel-Smith

Ken by Simon Watkins

Alessandra by Daisy Sims-Hilditch

Nino by Caroline Seilern

Anne-Marie by Simon Watkins

Eoghan by Harriet Pattinson

Nico by Sam Good

Lorenzo by Daisy Sims-Hilditch

Laura by Harriet Pattinson

Guglielmo by Jack Ford

William by Sam Good

Glenn by Isabella Watling

Andrea by Jason Tremlett

Alessandra by George Clark

Nino by George Clark

Nude by Francesca Bell

Nude by Jason Tremlett