For the new year I resolved to do some studies of the masters, and who better to start with than John Singer Sargent. Ask any painter what painters they admire and inevitably Sargent is near the top of everyone’s list. I chose to try his portrait of Mrs. Henry White; it’s not my favorite of Sargents paintings but I feel it represents many of the elements that make Sargents work so special. Painted in 1883 this painting is now in the Corcoran Collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The original is 225.1 × 143.8 cm (88 5/8 × 56 5/8 in.), my study is 24 x 37 inches, Geneva oils on canvas.
Here is my painting:
I would like to note here just a few of the things I learned while doing this painting, which took about 5 painting sessions of 5 hours each.
Paint wet into wet- don’t paint one color next to another color, paint each element into what it’s next to. For example if you are painting the head, surround it and overlap the edges with your background color then paint the head into the background. This helps with softer edges and a more cohesive look.
keep your blacks pure.
draw with your brush- Sargents strokes look random and loose but I found that they were very precise. They say that he used to stand back, look at his subject, mix the color and load his brush and then, when ready, stab at the canvas with the brush, laying in long strokes (whereas most impressionists used short dabs of paint) in one fell swoop- keeping shapes and forms as simple as possible. He does this remarkably well but it is very hard to do. Sargent is precise and recommends drawing with the brush, almost like you are using a pencil. The end result is so loose but everything that needs to be there is there. It was hard for me not to overwork some areas.
a note on painting the head: Sargent said to paint the head just as if it were an apple. The eyes and features are just like marks on the skin of an apple; start with your shadows and build up. He also believed in painting the whole head in one sitting. He would sometimes paint the face and head over and over, rubbing it out and starting over if it looked overworked or lacked expression. I did this 5 times with this painting and could have done it 5 more times each time with better results. I stopped where I did because I wasn’t trying to do an exact copy - but I still have the urge to go back in, tweaking this and that; Sargents painting is so spontaneous and full of life!
I really enjoyed this exercise and plan to do more in the near future- each time doing an original painting in between to see how what I have learned influences my own work. After finishing this I have an even greater respect for Sargent and his work; his choices of color and composition are brilliant, his reduction down to the simplest, most essential stroke is masterful.
Those are some of my thoughts; let me know yours!