Sunday, June 26, 2011

Admiration File: John Singer Sargent

I remember a good friend of mine admiring John Singer Sargent and studding his paintings and processes when we went to Art College/University together eight years ago. At the time I was too wrapped up in my own studies looking at John Wolseley, Rosalie Gascoigne and Fiona Hall to take the time to look at Sargent. I'm kicking myself now, I wish I had taken the time, because he was a painting genius and there is so much to be learnt from his methods and techniques.  Here are some of his beautiful paintings.

Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs. Wertheimer (detail), 1901

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1893

 Alice Vanderbilt Shepard, 1888

Head of an Italian Woman, 1878 

Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler (or Mrs John Jay Chapman), 1893

 Garden Study of the Vickers Children, 1884  

Emily Sargent, year unknown 

Here are some interesting points about Sargent's painting technique that you may find helpful, I know I did.

  • John Singer Sargent would do a lot of sketches of a subject, either in pencil or watercolors, before he started an oil painting.
  •  Sargent almost always drew from life and rarely used photographs.He would place his easel right next to the model and walk back and forth between the easel and a set point that was far enough away to simultaneously see both the painting and the model in totality. In doing so, he was able to see the canvas and the model in the same light, at the same angle of vision, and at the same distance.
  • He taught his students that first, it was important to accurately draw the masses of the painting in the right place -- before putting in any fine features or details. By that statement, he meant that an artist should work to get the basic structure right -- before focusing on the details. Draw and paint like a sculptor. Always look for big masses, angles and prominent planes.
  • When it comes to painting, Sargent would use a lot of thick paint with a large paint brush. He would say, ″You do not want dabs of color, you want plenty of paint to paint with.″
  • Sargent worked mostly with half tones before finishing a painting with the dark tones and highlights.
  • He would walk away from his easel to look at this painting from a distance and step back to the easel for each brush stroke that he added This is because you will be looking at your painting the way your viewers do. If the whole painting is done while you are only one foot away, the perspective of the painting will often be distorted.
  • John Singer Sargent never hesitated to be a tough critic of his own art. He had the ability to detach himself from his paintings and was able to look them from a more objective point of view. He was also known to erase entire paintings at times, if he was not satisfied with the outcome.
  • Sargent learned from the old Masters – from artists like Frans Hals, he learned when to simplify and what to leave out of his paintings. When you copy a painting, you learn how the painting is composed and how to mix the colors you want to match the palette of the artist.1
and some more helpful points to note.
  • John Singer Sargent used fine plain woven canvases toned with mid-tone cool gray—particularly for portraits.
  • He used paints directly from tubes to mix the exact colors he wanted. His palette varied, but he regularly used cadmium yellow, vermilion, Mars red, Mars yellow, Mars brown, rose madder, sienna, ivory black, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, viridian green, and emerald green. He used a copious amount of paint medium: linseed oil for dark colors and poppyseed oil for lighter colors.
  • Sargent mixed flesh tones using a palette of ivory black, rose madder, and viridian green with lead white. Lead white was common at this time, but for safety reasons, I would not recommend it nowadays.
  • Evidence indicate that John Singer Sargent used small (¼ inch or ½ inch) brushes. Studies further confirm that he saved the boldest strokes for last. I conclude that he started with big brushes, then moved to smaller brushes in the middle stages of the painting, and then finished them off with big brushes again. 2


Further Readings 
Booklet on John Singer Sargent's teachings. Click here and get a glimpse.
See previous link love for some great videos on Sargent

I hope everyone has had a wonderful weekend!

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  1. I just found this post on your blog, so interesting and interesting links to explore too! I "discovered" Sargent a few years ago at an exhibition about the city of Venice here in Switzerland, and his pictures just stood out for me, and I've been trying to find a good - and affordable - book covering his work ever since. It's always so interesting to see how artists work, I think, how much studies they did and all that. Thanks for sharing all this information!

  2. Wow, great post on Sargent! He's one of my favorites.