John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925) was a remarkable and prolific artist, having created over 900 oil paintings and 2,000 watercolor paintings during his life. You will notice that I use his work to illustrate many of the posts on Draw Paint Academy.
In this post, I take a closer look at his work to see exactly what made him such a remarkable artist and what you can apply to your own paintings.
Accurate and Distinct Values
“Color is an inborn gift, but appreciation of value is merely training of the eye, which everyone ought to be able to acquire.” John Singer Sargent
Sargent's accurate use of value is one of the main reasons why his paintings appear so realistic, even with the painterly brushwork he often displayed. When your values are on point, it gives you the freedom to be more relaxed in other areas of the painting.
He was also very economical with his values. Instead of painting every value he saw, he grouped similar areas and simplified the value structure. The unfinished painting below clearly shows his value groupings, particularly in the planes of the face:
Below is another great example of strong value groupings. Notice how the lights are distinct from the darks. It is easy to identify whether any particular area in the painting is in light or shadow. Many artists get so caught up in the rendering of a subject that they lose the important distinction between light and dark.
Here is the painting in grayscale to give you a clearer idea of the value groupings. In particular, notice how the boat and water are around the same dark value; without color, they form one solid shape. The same goes for the sail and buildings in shadow. These value groupings help simplify the value structure and convey a more powerful and concise image.
When working in oils, Sargent often started with the middle-values, then worked into the darks, and finally into the lights. In his own words:
“If you begin with the middle-tone and work up from it toward the darks so that you deal last with your highest lights and darkest darks, you avoid false accents.” John Singer Sargent
I know many oil painters like to start with the darkest dark then move up from there in value, but, as Sargent said, you are at the risk of false accents (going too dark). So you may want to consider adopting a similar strategy and working on your middle-tones first.
Remarkable Edge Work
Sargent transitioned between hard, soft, and lost edges to help convey realism and to direct attention to important areas.
Hard edges tend to command attention and are typically used for focal points, whilst soft and lost edges appear more ambiguous and are useful for background or less important areas in a painting.
His A Parisian Beggar Girl is a masterclass in edge work. The hardest edge in the painting appears to be around the subject's left hand marking the end of her white garment. This hard edge, along with the burst of red around her forearm, draws attention to the beggar's extended hand.
Below is a close-up of her extended hand to give you a better idea of the edge work:
Her face, on the other hand, is painted with mostly soft edges, leaving her slightly obscured and ambiguous. The edges are just strong enough to get a sense of that dormant look on her face. This suggests her begging hand is more important than her identity.
Sargent's Smoke of Ambergris is a subtle painting, with white architecture and a woman standing over the smoke ornament. Hard edges draw your attention towards the woman and the ornament on the floor. The white architecture in the background features hard, soft, and lost edges as the light hits the different planes.
Sargent's use of different edges in Venice in the Fog helps create a sense of depth and atmosphere. Hard edges and strong contrast give a feel of activity and closeness in the foreground. The background, by comparison, appears soft and distant. The horizon line is basically a lost edge, represented by a subtle transition in color.
One of my favorite aspects of Sargent's work is the way he combined academic painting with painterly brushwork. He painted with confident strokes and a loaded brush. As he once said, “The thicker you paint, the more it flows".
His painterly brushwork suggests that he painted quickly and spontaneously, but from what I have read, he was very careful and deliberate in his approach.
The painting below features two fishermen along the river. It is an interesting composition, with only the legs shown for one of the men. Sargent appears to have used thick paint and long strokes which follow the ripples in the water and the contours of the two men. Also, notice how the two men almost blend in with the surrounding nature.
Claude Monet is featured in the painting below. Sargent and Monet were known to paint together from time to time. That may explain the impressionist feel to some of Sargent's landscape work. The brushwork is loose and the detail is simplified. It almost appears like a sketch compared to some of Sargent's more refined work. However, the fundamentals of the painting are strong (the general shapes, colors, and structure).
In the painting below, Sargent took a very painterly approach for depicting the light hitting the rough terrain. Notice how he scumbled light colors across the dark foundation and used thick, blue paint to depict the sky peering through gaps in the trees.
Sargent used similar techniques in A Garden in Corfu:
“You can't do sketches enough. Sketch everything and keep your curiosity fresh.” John Singer Sargent
Drawing formed the foundation of Sargent's artistic career. It allowed him to paint with a high level of realism and tackle remarkably complex subjects.
The thing about drawing is that it will usually show through in the finished painting. You cannot fix bad drawing simply by introducing color. If anything, color will only make things worse! That is why most of the top artists are such strong advocates for learning how to draw first if you want to become a great painter.
Sargent was always sketching, either in preparation for more serious works, or simply to keep his "curiosity fresh". Below are some of his sketches I was able to locate. Take note of the clarity and economy of his lines.
The two sophisticated paintings below demonstrate his academic training and skills in drawing:
Diverse Subject Selection
Sargent is mostly known for his meticulous portraits, but he certainly did not limit himself to that subject. He painted everything from somber still lifes, intricate interior scenes, rigid architecture, to sweeping landscapes.
The thing about painting different subjects is that it allows you to explore different sides of painting, which will help you become a better and more well-rounded artist. Still lifes might teach you more about control, light, and shadow, whilst portraits might teach you more about the human figure and capturing emotion. So try not to limit yourself to just one subject.
Fresh and Spontaneous Watercolors
“Make the best of an emergency.” John Singer Sargent on painting with watercolors
Sargent's watercolors are fresh, spontaneous and filled with color. Watercolor painting probably felt like a refreshing break from the meticulous portraits he became known for.
He tended to use more color in the shadows than what he did with his oils. Notice the rich blues used for the shadows of the rocks in the painting below:
Here is a beautiful interplay between transparent blues and rich oranges.
In Sicily, Sargent layered thin washes of color to depict the sweeping landscape, with dark accents of blue, green, and brown scattered throughout. Notice the gradual change in color temperature as it gets further into the distance. This gives a sense of atmospheric perspective.
Below are some basic studies in watercolor by Sargent. He was able to simplify the cows down to nothing but a few simple color shapes. This is what painting is all about: taking what is in front of us and simplifying it down to the pure essence. It is about seeing less, not more.
Here are some of the key takeaways from Sargent's work:
- Focus on painting with accurate and distinct values. This goes a long way in giving your work a sense of realism, without having to render every single detail.
- Consider if you are taking advantage of hard, soft, and lost edges. Hard edges will command attention, whilst soft edges appear vague and out of focus.
- "The thicker your paint, the more it flows". Paint with a loaded brush and make decisive strokes.
- Drawing is the foundation of painting. Sketch regularly to keep your skills honed and "curiosity fresh".
- Do not limit yourself to just one subject. Sargent painted everything from meticulous portraits to sweeping landscapes. Different subjects will teach you about different aspects of painting.
- Experiment with different mediums. Sargent was prolific in both oil and watercolor painting, along with all the drawing he did.
(If you want to learn more about the principles of art, you might be interested in my Painting Academy course.)