From Afar

From the time I first began oil painting, I’ve been aware of how very different art looks up close as compared to seeing it from afar. In some respects, it’s been problematic for me. It’s very difficult to “see” what a scene looks like when I’m standing close to it. That took me by surprise at first, but stepping back from my easel to get a better look at a painting has become part of my “standard operating procedure” in landscape painting.

This brings up an interesting question. From what distance should a painting be viewed? As is to be expected, there is a lot of information on the topic. Quora’s answer to the question is:

“Most paintings might be viewed from a distance of 5 to 10 feet for example, so the artist paints to give the effect of how it will look viewed at that distance.”

A “Wet Canvas” forum had a lively discussion about viewing distance in which one artist commented she stands far enough back that mistakes disappear — like about 100 meters. That led to a bit of laughter, and others joined in, one suggesting that the best viewing distance for her paintings would be from outside the house with the door closed.

More direct answers were that it depends, of course, on the size of the painting, and that specifically one should step back three times the width of the painting. I’m wondering if perhaps this artist was taking the words of da Vinci and mixing them up a bit. He said, you see, that “when you draw from nature, you must be at the distance of three times the height of the object…”

Three times the height? Really? That would definitely make drawing or painting trees a bit challenging!  And here, Leonardo is discussing the drawing process, not how the finished work is viewed.

Another discussion in “Style Forum” bandied the question about, with one commenter stating that there is no ideal viewing distance, another insisting there is, and many others debating whether or not a painting should ever be put in the kitchen.

I was thinking a lot about viewing distance when I recently completed a drawing exercise from Bert Dodson’s Keys to Drawing. I’ve been going over “tonal studies“, you might recall, and the exercise that day was similar to one I’ve done before.  Here, you might want to take a look back at Five-Tone Shading, an exercise from Drawing Dimensions: Shading Techniques by Catherine Holmes. It involved shading a portrait after first reducing the image to five distinct tones. From this, a “shade-by-number” map is created. It was a good exercise, and I was fairly pleased with my results.

Bert Dodson’s exercise is quite similar. He suggests working with three tones rather than five — light, middle value, and dark — and again, the subject is a portrait. Rather than first reducing the portrait, Dodson has us working directly from a black-and-white photo, either lightly tracing or drawing the outlines of the various shaded areas.

Instead of using the photograph included in the book, I went online, browsed a bit, and found an interesting face, one that I felt had a good arrangement of light, middle-value, and dark areas. I did use tracing paper to mark the shape of the face and the position of the various facial features. For me, this was all about shading, not about struggling to draw an accurate portrait. Once I had my basic outline on the page, I worked to match the different tones.

Now, up close, I don’t think this portrait looks very good. But, step back a bit. View it from afar, and I think you’ll clearly see a three-dimensional face.

So, here’s a question — seriously. If a drawing looks good from a distance but not from close up, is it really a good drawing? We’re right back to that earlier question: Is there a proper distance from which a work of art should be viewed?

Now, in the case of this graphite portrait, my shading techniques need a lot of work, I’ll give you that. Part of the exercise, by the way, was to note hard and soft edges. In some areas, there should be a very distinct value difference; in other places, the change from one value to the next should be smoother and more gradual.

In doing this portrait exercise, I was focusing on having three different tones. I began by working first on the darkest tones. I then looked next at the lightest areas, and worked to establish the middle values. From there I went back to the dark tones. Are they dark enough? Are some areas too dark?

Of course, the more I look at the drawing — up close — and compare it to the black and white reference photo, the more “problem areas” I can find. Yet still, when viewed from afar, at least, I have a somewhat realistic face, and that’s my intention here. I’m not trying for a “hyper-realistic” rendition. I’m merely doing one more exercise designed to help me improve my drawings through better shading techniques.

So, step back — far enough back that my mistakes disappear — and take a look. It’s a step in the right direction, I think.

NOTE: Materials used were graphite pencils in 2B, 4B, and 6B grades.



  1. I’ve always worked with the idea of catch the eye from a distance, come near for a good look and discover the details up close. Works for me with any genre of art, so no single ‘ideal’ distance!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Mine do seem to look better from far across the room… LOL. It’s an interesting question, and it was fun to read the forums and find so many amusing responses to the question.


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