Oil Painting Lessons From John Singer Sargent

La Carmencita by John Singer Sargent, oil painting, 1890.
La Carmencita by John Singer Sargent, oil painting, 1890.

Why Not Learn from an American Master?

I try and shy away from describing art in bombastic terms. It can become a slippery slope of flowery language with no real takeaways. But when I’m studying the works of no less than John Singer Sargent, phrases like tour-de-force and mind-boggling just sort of slip out. I think that’s to be expected considering how deftly and powerfully he turns oil on canvas into art.

Powerful Brushstrokes

One of the primary oil painting techniques Sargent utilized that I find most intriguing is that every stroke attempts to describe the essence of an object. The texture of fur, the sheen of silk, the intricate knots in lace, the pattern of sunlight on water, a rosy-colored cheek—Sargent attempted to embody all of these in every stroke. He wasn’t trying to add a bunch of strokes together and hopefully get the shimmy and swirl of the fringe on the dancer’s body in La Carmencita, for example. The paint strokes are shimmies and swirls.

Richard Morris Hunt by John Singer Sargent, oil painting, 1895.
Richard Morris Hunt by John Singer Sargent, oil painting, 1895.

Never Flat

That’s not to say that every stroke Sargent put down was perfect the first time. As a friend reminded me recently, Sargent painted and scraped and painted and scraped ad nauseam. But he got there! Sargent also came from a point of view that form is never flat. Even a marble walkway as in Richard Morris Hunt or the open air behind a portrait sitter, is enlivened with color and texture that is visually interesting but never overpowering.

Mabel Marquand by John Singer Sargent, oil painting, c.1891.
Mabel Marquand by John Singer Sargent, oil painting, c.1891.

Choose the Moment

And Sargent didn’t just paint anything. He painted exceptional moments. That’s not to say he scorned the everyday, but he chose his compositions thoughtfully and well. Even a simple portrait of a woman, a child, or a group delivers impact because Sargent pushed to articulate something noteworthy that makes a viewer linger, as in the position of the two figures in the portrait of Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes or the hand gesture and askance look in Mabel Marquand.

Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes by John Singer Sargent, oil painting, 1897.
Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes by John Singer Sargent, oil painting, 1897.

Art history comes alive when you sit down and let it unfold. The oil painting lessons that Sargent teaches me—which I learned simply by looking at his works—are incredibly rewarding and enriching. But it is also valuable to have expert perspectives on artists past and present as well as context of wider art techniques. Our Memorial Day Sale gives you the opportunity to do just that with tons of art magazines on sale for 99 cents. In any magazine you choose you’ll find the artistic practice of past and present masters along with great images plus tips and techniques that allow us to better our skills while savoring the journey. Enjoy!



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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

4 thoughts on “Oil Painting Lessons From John Singer Sargent

  1. Sargent is one of my most favorite artists if not my most favorite. When I learned of his scraping until there was just a ghost image left, I try to remember that I must be willing to destroy something which I feel is good nor matter how emotionally hard it is to do. It may be precious to me, but I need to get beyond it to improve the next session,

    The only thing I dislike about viewing a Sargent’s work is that you frequently need a ladder to view it properly and there isn’t one around.

  2. Hi Courtney ,
    I wanted to bring to your readers attention research done on John Singer Sargent’s art style and a new video ” John Singer Sargent : Secrets of Composition and Design” The research basically proposes that Sargent clearly used Gestalt methods of illusion in his art even before it was published. This put him ahead of other artists of his time. He did not reveal this, and did not keep a journal either.

  3. Hi I am Johannes Vloothuis. I give the live online classes for the company that publishes several art magazines, Northlight that publishes most art books, and the parent company of Artist Daily. You can find out more about these classes at http://improvemypaintings.com
    To harmonize with this blog Here is a free study on the techniques of Sargent, Zorn, and Sorolla