Oil Painting Lessons From John Singer Sargent

15 May 2014

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

One of the primary oil painting techniques Sargent utilized that I find most intriguing is that every stroke attempts to describe the essences 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.
Mabel Marquand by John Singer Sargent, oil painting, c.1891.
Mabel Marquand by John Singer
Sargent, oil painting, c.1891.
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.

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.
The oil painting lessons that Sargent teaches me—just by looking at the works—are incredibly rewarding and enriching, but it is also valuable to have an expert perspective as well. This is where The Artist's Magazine comes in. The authors, artists, and experts who fill the pages of the magazine really make a difference in how I understand the depth of artistic practice of masters past and present, and the great images and updates on what is going on in the art world keep my sights steadily on bettering my skills and savoring the journey. The June issue of The Artist's Magazine is available now. Enjoy!

 

 


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Comments

KatPaints wrote
on 24 Jul 2011 10:21 AM

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.

on 13 Jun 2014 7:52 AM

Sargent really knew how to make the simple statement, but achieved great realism with it. I came across another Sargent tutorial here : www.artgraphica.net/.../john-singer-sargent-drawing.html

jasonmarke wrote
on 18 Jun 2014 9:55 PM

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.