John Singer Sargent’s Watercolor Paintings

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John Singer Sargent, Simplon. Lesson, 1911
John Singer Sargent, Simplon. Lesson, 1911

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. I cover the following in the post:

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.

Impressionist Brushwork

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.

John Singer Sargent, Ships. Venice, 1904
John Singer Sargent, Ships. Venice, 1904

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.

John Singer Sargent, Girl with Umbrella, 1900
John Singer Sargent, Girl with Umbrella, 1900

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.

John Singer Sargent, Simplon. Cliffs, 1911
John Singer Sargent, Simplon. Cliffs, 1911

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.

John Singer Sargent, Simplon. Pass, 1911
John Singer Sargent, Simplon. Pass, 1911

Strong Accents

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.

John Singer Sargent, Unloading Boats in Venice, 1904
John Singer Sargent, Unloading Boats in Venice, 1904

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.

John Singer Sargent, Abandoned Boats, 1917
John Singer Sargent, Abandoned Boats, 1917

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.

John Singer Sargent, The Small Channel. Venice, 1904
John Singer Sargent, The Small Channel. Venice, 1904

Thin Washes

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).

John Singer Sargent, The View of the Valley. The Dolomites, 1914
John Singer Sargent, The View of the Valley. The Dolomites, 1914
John Singer Sargent, Sicily, 1901
John Singer Sargent, Sicily, 1901
John Singer Sargent, Loch Moidart, Inverness-Shire, Scotland (View from Shore), 1896
John Singer Sargent, Loch Moidart, Inverness-Shire, Scotland (View from Shore), 1896

Intricate Detail

The intricate watercolors below appear more like realistic drawings than paintings. Sargent demonstrated his remarkable control and accuracy with a rather limited color palette.

John Singer Sargent, Santa Maria Della Salute, Venice. The Main Entrance, 1907
John Singer Sargent, Santa Maria Della Salute, Venice. The Main Entrance, 1907
John Singer Sargent, Salmon on the Rocks, 1901
John Singer Sargent, Salmon on the Rocks, 1901
John Singer Sargent, The Coat of Arms of Charles V, King of Spain, 1912
John Singer Sargent, The Coat of Arms of Charles V, King of Spain, 1912

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.

John Singer Sargent, White Ox at Siena, 1910
John Singer Sargent, White Ox at Siena, 1910
John Singer Sargent, Corfu. Light and Shadows, 1909
John Singer Sargent, Corfu. Light and Shadows, 1909
John Singer Sargent, Laundry, 1910
John Singer Sargent, Laundry, 1910

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.
John Singer Sargent, Lake Carezza, Tyrol, 1914
John Singer Sargent, Lake Carezza, Tyrol, 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!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

49 comments on “John Singer Sargent’s Watercolor Paintings”

  1. So very interesting, had never seen so many of Sargents water colors. Loose strokes until the coat of arms, such detail!!!

    Reply
  2. Thank you so much. Your explanations and pictures about John Singer Sargent’s watercolours have inspired me to keep persevering with water colour which I was despairing over!

    Reply
    • Stunning – how simple shapes and patterns of light/dark translate into finished images.
      Lots to think about and practice. Thanks.

      Reply
  3. Thanks for your insight. I take the time to read all your emails but as a water colour painter, I found this analysis very helpful and most interesting! Thank you!

    Reply
  4. Reading you and looking at your chosen painters ,Dan, is always a pleasant and instructional moment though I only paint soft and Oil pastels

    Reply
  5. Thanks so much! I really enjoyed this article; John Singer Sargent continues to inspire. You’re such a good writer, thank you!

    Reply
    • What us a good book to read on Seargent? I read one this winter, mostly on his drawings. It was dry and not interesting.

      Reply
  6. I’ve seen an exhibition of Singer Sargent’s watercolours at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. You are right, photos really don’t do them justice, he is a master of the medium. But this is a lovely analysis, especially about warm and cool contrasts. I’m too inexperienced to see that sort of thing, thanks.

    Reply
  7. Very helpful article. Sargent is one of my absolute favorite artists and I have seen a large exhibition of his oils, with a few watercolors thrown in the mix. I had no idea he has so many that don’t get as much exposure. Learning from the masters!!

    Reply
  8. Excellent! I had ignored Sargent because of his dark portraitures. As you pointed out, much to learn from his watercolors.

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  9. I have saved all your posts and look at them to get strength from them. Today’s write up about John Singer Sargent ‘s beautiful work is excellent. Thank you. I love to copy some aspect of ever painting and incorporate in my work. The way Sargent uses dark and opaque accents, is so unique in his work of boats and landscapes.
    Thank you.

    Reply
  10. Thank you Dan, I enjoy reading your articles and find this one particularly inspiring as I endevour to paint with watercour myself. This collection by John Singer Sargent teaches us so much about the medium.

    Reply
  11. Hi Dan,
    Thanks for this …just beginning so would you please explain MORE ABOUT what you mean by temperature contrast within the shadows? In the ox painting.
    Thanks, S. KELSO

    Reply
    • Hi Shonna. If you look within the shadows, notice how some colors are slightly warm and some colors are slightly cool. But, as a whole, the shadows are cooler than the lights. Kind regards, Dan

      Reply
  12. Thanks again for another informative article. I’ve just seen the Sorolla Exhibition at the National Gallery and thought that some of his paintings were similar in style to Sargent, what do you think?

    Reply
    • Hi Sheila. I am jealous! Yes I completely agree. Though I think Sargent is a bit more refined in his oil paintings. Thanks, Dan

      Reply
  13. Excellent summary of Sargent’s watercolours. I was lucky enough to see his watercolour exhibition at Dulwich gallery London year before last. You’re right – photos don’t do them justice.
    BTW I just discovered your site. Great range of articles!

    Reply
  14. I am learning so much from the many artists you feature – almost like being in a class with them. I look forward to learning more as I view those to come. Such a great education! and all at my finger tips. Thank you Dan.

    Reply
  15. I do a lot of studies of Homer’s works – it’s a whole diff experience with Sargent; he is so intuitive and organic with his brush work that studies come of forced. Not that it isn’t worth doing – you really get an appreciation of brush strokes and his palette (very cool that Dan Scott talks about this above). I’ve also heard that photos don’t do justice to his work – I look forward to seeing some of these in person!

    Reply
  16. Thank you so much. I love his vibrant colour glazes and no-one can beat him for his way with fabric. Can you tell me the best book of his watercolours please.

    Reply
    • Thanks Vivienne! Not sure regarding the book. But I will have a look round as I would be interested in such a book myself. Cheers!

      Reply
  17. Thought this might be of interest regarding his oil commissions: In 1907, Sargent declared that he would no longer paint portraits on commission. “No more paughtraits,” he wrote to his longtime friend Ralph Curtis, using his personal and satiric spelling of the genre that had made him famous. “I abhor and abjure them and hope never to do another especially of the Upper Classes.”

    No wonder he felt free with his watercolors. My mother was an artist and during the Depression she was asked to paint a rich woman’s child who happened to be obnoxious. Despite badly needing the money she declined! At the end of her life she said she was lucky she had chose not to be a commercial artist and been able to do the art she wanted.

    Reply
  18. Thanks for putting this together and sharing. His brushwork and these watercolors are intriguing, so different from Sargent’s usually seen work. I did google ‘John Singer Sargent watercolors’ and a lot of pictures came up and also some Amazon books. It would be interesting to see what surface he painted on and what size these watercolors are. I work as a commercial artist doing advertising for pharma companies so even his ‘paughtraits’ would probably seem like liberating work to me!

    Reply

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