Joseph McGurl’s Sight-size Method

Image courtesy of Outdoor Painter

Outdoor Painter wrote an article about McGurl’s use of the sight-size drawing method and we’ve put together a brief synopsis below accompanied by some available works by this masterful painter! You can click here to read the entire article!

A little bit about Joseph McGurl

Joseph grew up working with his father, James McGurl, who was a muralist and Joseph’s most influential teacher. Joseph graduated from Massachusetts College of Art; he studied in England and Italy. After college, he worked for a period as a yacht captain, sailing the east coast from Maine to the Caribbean while continuing to observe, interpret, and paint the natural world. In search of a more solid training in drawing, he sought out Robert Cormier, a devotee of the French Academy methods and for two years studied sight size figure drawing under him. Joseph synthesizes academic figure drawing skills with sight-size landscape painting resulting in a new and unique approach to addressing the landscape.

“In the Field” 16×20, oil on canvas at Principle Gallery
Luminist Painters & the Sight Size Method

McGurl likes to call himself a “contemporary Luminist” after the 19th-century Luminist painters, “who were influenced by the transcendentalist views of writers like Emerson and Thoreau. Luminism was more of a philosophy than a style,” McGurl explains. “In fact, the word ‘Luminism’ was adopted by 20th-century art historians to describe a group of 19th-century painters that included Fitz Hugh Lane, Martin Johnson Heade, Sanford Gifford, and John R. Kensett.” McGurl points out that while these historic painters opted for a very smooth and quiet paint surface, he himself deploys much more energetic handling and a generally cooler palette. What they share is a fascination with how light is infused into every corner of a landscape, and an intimation that it is a spiritual force.”

“Green Light” 20×30, oil on linen at Principle Gallery

The use of photography varies by artist and Joseph McGurl rejects photographs as painting references because he prefers experiencing an in-person connection with nature. Therefore, he employs the sight-size drawing method. Here’s a breakdown of the process:

  • The artist places his canvas next to the subject so there is little head-turning to shift from the view of the canvas to the subject.
  • He then places an open frame of the same size as the painting right next to his canvas. Generally the frame has a wire or string grid dividing up the space.
  • An identically sized grid is drawn on the surface of the canvas.
  • The artist looks at the subject through the open frame and, by stepping forward and backward, chooses whether to work with a wide angle or a tighter view.
  • The closer he steps to the frame, the more of the subject he sees and the more wide-angle the view will be.
  • Having decided on a composition, he must now mark the spot on the ground where he is standing so he can always return to it to check his drawing.

For the sight-size method a viewfinder (shown in photos above) is an important tool for finding and developing the perfect composition. It’s also a very simple tool to make at home!

“The subject can now be drawn exactly the same size as you see it, and this immediately makes the drawing more accurate. The shapes in your view are the same size as the shapes on your canvas, so you can compare shape to shape rather than saying subconsciously, ‘This shape is 30 percent smaller.’ It’s much easier to see errors; in fact, they jump right out.”

Joseph McGurl
“Red Light” 18×24, oil on linen panel, at Principle Gallery
The Final Product

The compositions McGurl creates on location aren’t the finished product; what he paints en plein air act as a study or reference for him to create a final painting. By immersing himself in the subject; McGurl can capture colors, glare, and movement that can only be noticed in-person. Therefore, when he returns to his studio and reviews his small studies, he can remain confident in the accuracy and translate that to the final painting.

“The other day, I was painting a shoreline with a lot of kelp. I couldn’t really determine if the kelp was brown or yellow, so I rowed out and took a close look at it and saw that some of it is brown, while the younger shoots are yellow. So when I went back to paint it, I could make more sense of the color because I now had an intimate knowledge of the subject. It’s the kind of connection you can’t make if you are just looking at a photograph.”

Joseph McGurl
“Incoming Tide” 20×16, oil on canvas at Principle Gallery

Click here to view our inventory of work by Joseph McGurl! Please email inquiries to and click here to join our mailing list to stay updated on new arrivals and upcoming exhibitions!

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