Drawing Basics: Look at John Singer Sargent's Swirls and Squiggles

23 Mar 2014

Sketch of a Man by John Singer Sargent, charcoal drawing.

Sketch of a Man by John Singer Sargent,
charcoal drawing.
Adapted from an article by Mark G. Mitchell.

Looking at a John Singer Sargent's drawings, I really can't mistake them for anything but the work of his hand. His line work is so thin, firm, and consistent, even in figure drawings full of visual movement and force.

But Sargent is a master at massing light and dark values to show the results of light on form--I think that is his true mark in both his drawings and his paintings. In fact, Sargent's drawings and paintings are some of the most unified I've seen. The way he lays charcoal down with broad, sure strokes is exactly the way he would use a paintbrush, and in that way I've come to realize that learning how to paint is an extension of learning how to draw. So that with every sketch or figure study, both my painting skills and drawing abilities are being honed.

The effect that comes out of this pursuit is dramatic swathes of light and dark across the surface of a painting or drawing that really make a visual impact. They can be broken down into segments almost as if they are stained glass--that is how extreme it is at times--but there's no mistaking the unity of the parts into a whole. Masterful!

Spanish Dancer by John Singer Sargent, pencil drawing.
Spanish Dancer by John Singer Sargent,
pencil drawing.

But I always keep in mind that Sargent also did a lot of quick preparatory studies and the sketching techniques he used were quite different. That is where all of the dashes, swirls, and squiggles come in. He drew Spanish dancers and musicians that were more line than "form" and yet they are amazing drawings--abstract and free. Both ways have an immense appeal.

For more explorations of both drawing and painting, consider a digital subscription to The Artist's Magazine. You'll find instruction from top artists, inspiring contemporary work as well as that of historical masters like Sargent and more. Enjoy!

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