Drawing Basics: "Male Back" by John Singer Sargent

David Jon Kassan discusses John Singer Sargent's Male Back.

Male Back by John Singer Sargent, charcoal drawing
Male Back
by John Singer Sargent, charcoal drawing.
Drawn between 1890-1915.

by David Jon Kassan

While most artists will rely on how light describes form in their figure drawings, John Singer Sargent develops his concept of form through the sheer expression of line and how it flows around the body's topography. The artist uses a continuous line quality throughout this figure drawing; it's as if the charcoal is fastened to the drawing surface and yet remains in constant movement.

The artist blocks in this study with strong, long, expressive lines that capture how the outer contour of the figure flows throughout the internal forms. Notice how the sweeping form under the deltoid flows from a contour into the sweep of the interior form of the latissimus dorsi. Each of these back muscles is delineated with sinuous accuracy. Indeed, the strongest aspect of this drawing is its contours; they have movement, and in many cases they show the artist zeroing in on some contours with a second, more accurate long stroke. This really gives the drawing its movement—it's as if he is capturing the model's subtle shifts as he poses. Note how line weight is very important to this drawing's contours. It also helps to give the drawing its sense of mass by using a bolder, darker line in areas of the most strain on the body, such as the contour of the model's back and the internal line of the spine. He masterfully creates form by laying in large areas of midtone with a loose, back-and-forth line quality that acts in areas like a tonal wash—an example is his handling of the model's back arm.

Sargent handles the shadowing of his model's head with simplification to subordinate it to the whole of the body, yet its generalization is still expressive. Note how Sargent quickly established broad value relationships right at the beginning so that he could work the entire piece all at once with an eye for the whole drawing. He even loosely knocks in the lower half of the model with a quick gestural scribble. With this piece, Sargent demonstrates how an expressive and active use of line can give the figure an underlining energy and life.

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