How to Paint like John Singer Sargent

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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.

John Singer Sargent, San Geremia, 1913
John Singer Sargent, San Geremia, 1913

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:

John Singer Sargent, Edward, Son of Asher Wertheimer, 1902 (Unfinished)
John Singer Sargent, Edward, Son of Asher Wertheimer, 1902 (Unfinished)

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.

John Singer Sargent, Boat With the Golden Sail, 1913
John Singer Sargent, Boat With the Golden Sail, 1913

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.

John Singer Sargent, Boat With the Golden Sail, 1913 (Grayscale)

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.

John Singer Sargent, A Parisian Beggar Girl, 1877
John Singer Sargent, A Parisian Beggar Girl, 1877

Below is a close-up of her extended hand to give you a better idea of the edge work:

John Singer Sargent, A Parisian Beggar Girl, 1877 (Close-Up 1)

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.

John Singer Sargent, A Parisian Beggar Girl, 1877 (Close-Up 2)

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.

John Singer Sargent, Smoke of Ambergris, 1880
John Singer Sargent, Smoke of Ambergris, 1880

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.

John Singer Sargent, Venice in the Fog, 1882
John Singer Sargent, Venice in the Fog, 1882

Painterly Brushwork

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.

John Singer Sargent, Fisherman in Valle dAosta, 1907
John Singer Sargent, Fisherman in Valle dAosta, 1907

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).

John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of the Forest, 1884
John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of the Forest, 1884

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.

John Singer Sargent, Blue Pigs on Mallorca, 1908
John Singer Sargent, Blue Pigs on Mallorca, 1908

Sargent used similar techniques in A Garden in Corfu:

John Singer Sargent, A Garden in Corfu, 1909
John Singer Sargent, A Garden in Corfu, 1909

Skilled Drawing

“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.

John Singer Sargent, Sketch for The Sorrowful Mysteries, 1916
John Singer Sargent, Sketch for The Sorrowful Mysteries, 1916
John Singer Sargent, A Sketch of Oxen, 1911
John Singer Sargent, A Sketch of Oxen, 1911
John Singer Sargent, In the Woods
John Singer Sargent, In the Woods

The two sophisticated paintings below demonstrate his academic training and skills in drawing:

John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1886
John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1886
John Singer Sargent, Mining of Marble From the Quarries in Carrara, 1911
John Singer Sargent, Mining of Marble From the Quarries in Carrara, 1911

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.

John Singer Sargent, Old Chair, 1886
John Singer Sargent, Old Chair, 1886
John Singer Sargent, Hotel Room, 1906
John Singer Sargent, Hotel Room, 1906
John Singer Sargent, Cordoba. The Interior of the Cathedral, 1903
John Singer Sargent, Cordoba. The Interior of the Cathedral, 1903
John Singer Sargent, Artist, 1922
John Singer Sargent, Artist, 1922

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:

John Singer Sargent, Brook Among the Rocks, 1907
John Singer Sargent, Brook Among the Rocks, 1907

Here is a beautiful interplay between transparent blues and rich oranges.

John Singer Sargent, In a Levantine Port, 1906
John Singer Sargent, In a Levantine Port, 1906

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.

John Singer Sargent, Sicily, 1901
John Singer Sargent, Sicily, 1901

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.

John Singer Sargent, Sketch of Cows, 1924
John Singer Sargent, Sketch of Cows, 1924

Key Takeaways

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.)

John Singer Sargent, The Master and His Disciples, 1914
John Singer Sargent, The Master and His Disciples, 1914

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.

Happy painting!

Signature Draw Paint Academy

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

54 thoughts on “How to Paint like John Singer Sargent”

  1. Dan
    A very captivating exploration of this topic. Each demonstration was clear and gave encouragement to apply your approaches to my canvases. As always TIME will help improve any attempt…if one thing this craft demands its PATIENCE with SELF and the brush.

    Reply
    • thank you for showing me these wonderful & inspiring works of John Singer Sergent – introducing us to a whple new style / colours and composition – & esp. the animal sketches. – of which I knew little before. A. de Rohan.

      Reply
    • Thank you so much. I have learned more in a few of your lessons than in all my time of experimenting! These J Singer Sargent expositions are a wonderful education in art.

      Reply
  2. Fantastic article. Having copied a few of JSS master works, your article was so informative that helped me appreciate his talent in all mediums. Thank you.

    Reply
  3. I feel clicks in my heart watching these paintings. He must have been so talented and courageous. Thank you for showing us his works and giving us the tips.

    Reply
    • A good overview of JSS painting style, which I will keep in mind for my next painting. One can never stop learning. Thanks for the concise manner in which you present your information c/w photos (very helpful) and for me is better slogging thru a thick book.
      PS He is my favorite painter and now that I have gone thru your information, I better understsnd why.

      Reply
  4. Wonderful article and so educational! I am learning more and more reading each one of your posts! It is amazing how the great masters could put it all together with control. I need to try few of this tips. Thanks again for your teaching Dan!

    Reply
  5. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. They are always instructive and give me a new perspective that I can apply to my artwork.

    Reply
  6. This was a fabulous lesson I will read many times. Thank you for continuing to open my eyes and mind — Sargent was a brilliant artist and I could study these paintings for hours. With much gratitude for this post…

    Reply
  7. Dan Scott, This is a very informative article. It reminds me to take in account the “Big Picture” when painting and step back frequently. As a self taught learner in progress, I often get too caught up in minor details. Your description and examples of having an accurate color story was especially helpful along with beginning with middle values. Thank you!

    Reply
  8. I love how you clearly explain the artist’s techniques, replete with excellent examples.
    I found myself looking more intently at the paintings and hopefully transferring some ideas to my own.
    Thanks Dan, a great post!!

    Reply
  9. Love your article, I enjoy how you deliver your knowled about the artist in an interesting and easy way to understand.
    Thanks
    Lourdes

    Reply
  10. Thank you for showcasing an artist who used a variety of mediums and subjects! I especially enjoyed his watercolor paintings. I also appreciated how you trained us how to see the paintings as a artist. I am learning how to see differently and need help knowing what I’m seeing!

    Reply
  11. Thanks so much, Dan! I learned a lot with your reviews on the classical artists. Two things I came away with is to try starting with medium values and make the main dark and light values distinct. Also you brought out the importance of developing drawing skills for better compositions/paintings.
    ~Liz

    Reply
  12. Nice article Dan.
    Thanks for sharing your observations, goes to show one is never to old to learn,I have a few miles on the clock and Took a lot from this post.
    Keep up the good work.
    Dave M (Australia))😎🇦🇺

    Reply
  13. Hi Dan,
    This is excellent mate.
    Even if you are not acclaimed for your own painting (which I don’t think I will be) your very intelligent, insightful articles on famous artists and their works are seriously good – informative, helpful in general terms & with specifics. The wealth of visuals is fantastic. I have used aspects of some of your past “Illustrated Essays” with my students & your one on Homer Winslow was an eye opener (I have to admit I was unaware of him). Do keep up the great work on these as well as with your own painting videos.
    Regards
    Owen Brown from Oz

    Reply
  14. Thank you, Dan for such an insightful post. I love JSS and was so fortunate to see an exhibit of his work when I was in Venice. His work is magnificent. I especially love the way his paintings come alive with only a few colors. I will try to incorporate some of your suggestions when I paint my next watercolor—tomorrow- Can’t wait!

    Reply
  15. I love your articles and find myself immersed in the topics and references to famous artists and their works. Quite frankly, it is like reading a fascinating story and I just can’t put it away until I read to the very end. My compliments to your knowledge, observation and discernment in capturing the elements of the works and the techniques that play such important roles in conveying the artists intention.

    Reply
  16. My compliments to your knowledge, observation and discernment in capturing the elements of the works and the techniques that play such important roles in conveying the artists intention. It is wonderful information and I learn so much from you.

    Reply
  17. Thanks again for a wonderfully thoughtful and instructive article. The research you must put in to each is detailed and enlightening. Keep ‘em coming.

    Reply
  18. VERY helpful…I need to load my brush..
    This is one of the best lessons for me so far….
    I sketch alot and wondered if it was helping me without realizing it..guess it surely is! Thank you.

    Reply
  19. Dan, thank you so much for your excellent article (s) you are always sharing with us.
    Very helpful. Looking forward to learn more.

    Reply
  20. Dear Mr. Scott,
    thank you so much for a lovely presentation on a work of the great artist. I am not a painter. My husband and I, however, appreciate the art of many kinds. We are looking for seeing more in a picture all the time. The more we learn the better we see and enjoy the art. Thus I do not understand: “see less, not more!”? Does this concern painters only, but not viewers? Thank You!

    Reply
    • Hi Jana. Thanks for the comment. That phrase is more for artists: our job is to take the complex surroundings and turn it into something more concise and clear. Thanks! Dan

      Reply

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