Learning from John Singer Sargent
20 x 16
I waffle between an allegiance to the colourists and a love of traditional tonal painting. While I lean towards Sorolla in my colour choices, the work of Sargent is what inspired me to try oil painting in the first place, and I still love his paintings. So I decided to attempt a copy of one of his most tonal paintings. This Sargent portrait allowed me to explore several new things: thin paint application, muted palette and a very realistic portrait. It was quite a learning experience!
What struck me most was the thinness of the paint layer that I had to use. Like Sargent, I toned the canvas with a thin wash of gray, then I massed the shadows in earth colours. The pale skin and background were applied with far less paint than I would normally use (I love buttery slabs of paint) and the shawl - in a miracle of minimalism - was created with just a few bluish and cream strokes over a warm underpainting. I only got to pull out the impasto on her brooch and that seemed to sit violently on top of the painting at first. I left it and, by the next day, it had settled down into the painting a bit and looked alright. Some of my students once referred to this as the wonder of the "paint fairies" and I think they were right. Sometimes a day of rest makes all the difference in a piece. I did have to add a bit of thick paint in the background and a couple of marks on the scarf so that the brooch didn't feel too isolated in its thick consistency. And, to be honest, I need to see chunky paint sitting up on top of a canvas or it just doesn't feel like a fun painting to me.
I got into some trouble when I made "one more little adjustment" (always my downfall) to the area beside the mouth on the left. As soon as the paint reached a slightly greater density, her expression hardened. It was tiny, but perceptible. That area only worked when the thinly-painted cheek could butt up and flow into parts of the thinly-painted mouth. As soon as the cheek got one extra stroke, the mouth seemed isolated and in need of repainting. Trying not to panic at seeing her go from fresh girl to hardened harpy, I opted to let the whole thing dry and then laid one single, fresh stroke into the cheek in order to enliven it again. It's not as good as if I hadn't touched it at all, but it's improved.
What I learned:
- Damn! Sargent was an amazing painter!
- A palette that looked like thin puddles of mud could yield a luminous, subtle work. My main colours were: cad red light, yellow ochre, trans. red oxide, ivory black and cerulean blue. I added a tiny amount of cad. yellow deep to the background and to freshen the cheek area.
- Hit the values hard and distinctly in the initial lay in. The impact of this work relied on the strength of painting in her hair, eyes and mouth. They had to be dark from the start.
I'm going to attempt a copy of one of Sargent's sumptuously-draped figures at some point. He could paint fabric like nobody else. I just have to find a good detail of one of his paintings so that I can understand the play of chaotic brushwork that he used in order to create the illusion of light playing on satin and velvet.
If the word "copy" is raising uncomfortable, elementary-school-instilled feelings in you, disregard them and give a copy a try. Your favourite painter may be gone, but his or her work is still here and can teach you so much. Reading about their methods is not the same as actually copying them; the act of recreating a painting is one of the best ways to learn.