John Singer Sargent rose to fame for his finely rendered oil portraits. At his peak, he was one of the most sought after artists for portrait commissions. But, he was also a remarkable watercolorist.
Watercolors brought out a different side to Sargent's work. His meticulous oil portraits feature muted colors, dark and imposing backgrounds, and finely rendered subjects. On the other hand, his watercolors are generally much more relaxed, with loose brushwork and an impressionist feel.
I imagine that after slaving away over his portrait commissions for important (and probably also needy) people, some of the joy may have been taken out of painting for him.
“Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend.”
His watercolor work probably felt like a refreshing break. He ended up creating over 2,000 watercolors during his illustrious career. I feature some of them in this post along with my commentary.
If you were not familiar with Sargent, you could easily mistake him for one of the Post-Impressionists based on his watercolors alone. He used loose and expressive strokes and left much up to the imagination.
In Ships. Venice, Sargent used long, sweeping strokes for the water. The colors weave into each other, creating the illusion of movement. The boats, by contrast, were painted with more rigid and broken brushwork.
Tip: Most of the time, it can be effective to match the nature of your brushwork to the nature of the subject you are painting. If you are painting smooth and calm water, then use smooth and calm brushwork. If you are painting rigid architecture, then use rigid brushwork.
In the painting below, Sargent used relatively intricate brushwork to match the girl's face. For the rest of the painting, Sargent used a variety of strokes to merely give the impression of a dress and the surrounding nature. Without the subject's face, you may struggle to understand what is going on in the painting.
Take a close look at the rocks in the painting below. It is really nothing more than an abstract arrangement of light and dark shapes.
For comparison, below is one of Sargent's oil paintings based on the same subject.
Although the watercolor was painted with much less detail, it still appears realistic on first glance. That is because Sargent used fairly accurate values, colors, and shapes.
Sargent often used large areas of "flat" color shapes along with strong accents to draw your attention. By accents, I mean small areas of significant contrast (usually light, dark or vivid color).
Below is a great example of this. Sargent used thin, transparent washes of color for most of the painting (it reminds me of J. M. W. Turner's work). Sargent then added dark, opaque accents around the center to really draw your attention.
In Abandoned Boats, simple color shapes make up the trees and parts of the water. Strong accents were used to paint the abandoned boats and their reflections.
Sargent painted many watercolors of Venice like the one below. For the buildings, notice how they are basically just large color shapes with dark, yet simple accents over the top. This is a powerful combination which you will see in many of Sargent's watercolors.
Many of Sargent's watercolor landscapes are nothing but simple and playful washes of color. (This goes to show that you don't need to try and create a sophisticated masterpiece with every canvas you touch).
The intricate watercolors below appear more like realistic drawings than paintings. Sargent demonstrated his remarkable control and accuracy with a rather limited color palette.
Light, Shadow and Color Temperature
The watercolors below feature interesting patterns created by light and shadow. Also, notice the clever use of temperature contrast throughout the paintings. Sargent was constantly jumping from warm to cool to warm, whilst maintaining a consistent theme throughout the paintings.
For the white ox painting in particular, the overall theme seems to be warm lights and cool shadows (rich browns for the lights and cool blues for the shadows). Sargent took it a step further by using temperature contrast within the shadows. The end result is a sophisticated interplay between warm, cool, light and dark colors.
Some Other Interesting Facts and Ideas
Before I wrap this up, here are some other interesting facts about Sargent's watercolors:
- Sargent's watercolor palette comprised of Alizarin Carmine, Brown Pink, Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Chrome Yellow, Cobalt Blue, Gamboge, Lamp Black, Rose Madder, Ultramarine Blue, Vandyke Brown, Scarlet Vermillion, Deep Vermillion, Viridian, and an opaque white (source).
- From what I have read from other artists, photos really do not do his work justice. You need to see his watercolors in person to truly see his brushwork, transparent washes, and use of opaque colors. Unfortunately, his watercolors are not displayed as prominently as his oils, perhaps due to the fact watercolors tend to be more fragile and fade in light.
- Unlike oils, watercolors are highly portable and dry fast. This allowed Sargent to create so many artworks whilst traveling all over the world to places such as North Africa, Switzerland, Spain, France, Italy.
- Sargent never made attempts to sell his watercolors out of principle. He made most of his fortune from his portrait commissions, so selling his watercolors was probably not a high priority and did not align with his vision as an artist.
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