The greatest influence on my work has come from Charles Cecil whose school in Florence I attended. Charles would often talk about his teacher back in Boston (R.H. Ives Gammell) and how the sightsize method we were using did not just go back just to Ives Gammell but had a longer genealogy: Ives Gammell was taught by William Paxton who was taught in the 1890s by Gérôme and Bonnat (who taught the likes of Sargent in Paris).
In late 19th century Paris it was the work of Velazquez that had a profound influence on these artists – some of them, like Sargent, actually went so far as to copy some of Velazquez’s masterpieces. That influence (limited palette, loose handling and the use of blacks and greys) over the years, and through all these teachers, forged the essentials of the methods and techniques that I learnt and use today in my portraits.
Below are a few paintings by these artists which I have placed in inverse chronological order to show how both the essence of Velazquez and the sightsize method, which is mostly detectable in the handling, has been passed on in a long chain of influence.
All the paintings above have in common what I call the Velazquez touch. The brushwork is loose (well, a lot more loose than the photorealism we see today) but skilled, the palette is limited to little more than five or six colours and all make use of blacks and greys.
The other common theme is the unity of image (what Charles, my teacher called the tout ensemble) which is also found in Velazquez’s paintings. This is when a painting works harmoniously as a whole. The effect is best achieved when there is quite a bit of space between the artist and the sitter, allowing the artist to see the subject as a whole and paint accordingly. When artists use the sight size method they are obliged to put plenty of distance between themselves and the sitter. Charles, who taught me the sightsize method, was so keen on getting me to stand back, he once pulled me out of the studio into the hall to about eighteen feet from my canvas and model to view the effect. It worked.