Watercolor: Sargent's "Venetian Canal"

Sargent looking at watercolorsSargent Venetian Canal watercolorJames Toogood comments on John Singer Sargent’s watercolor painting Venetian Canal.

by James Toogood

Sargent Venetian Canal watercolor
Venetian Canal
by John Singer Sargent, 1913,
watercolor and graphite on
off-white wove paper, 15¾ x 21.
Collection The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York,
New York.

This painting depicts a famous spot in Venice, a view of Rio de San Barnaba looking toward Campo San Barnaba. The fascinating thing about Sargent's watercolors is his use of a lot of raw umber, even in the shadows. Much of the building color is raw umber, sometimes diluted and used as a pale yellow. We catch the lightest parts of the sunlit church as white paper. The color on the main bridge and the further bridge underneath the first one, are painted with thin washes of raw umber. It looks like he altered this yellow with some ultramarine blue on the left, and perhaps some viridian as well. Sargent is a master at using this very limited palette. Note how he gradually introduces more ultramarine as he moves further into the picture plane, graying it down as it goes into the distance. He makes the light read so well, especially where it spills across the buildings. The light source is also perfectly described by the two figures walking side by side on the right–one is in shadow and one is in sunlight.

Notice also how Sargent added a boat on the lower left pointing directly toward the church, and how the sky is a simple wash, which he worked back and forth to suggest high stratus clouds.

Finally, note how he described the sensation of water by compressing values. The campanile is slightly darker in its reflection, while the dark building reflections are a bit lighter. Sargent was not afraid to put a lot of pigment down. He did a large number of paintings such as these alla prima, then went back into them later and added white highlights and sometimes figures.


New Jersey resident James Toogood AWS/NWS studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia. The subject of more than 40 solo exhibitions, he has participated in numerous group shows, including those of the American Watercolor Society and the National Academy of Design, winning many awards. He frequently juries exhibitions and was an awards juror for the 2006 American Watercolor Society annual. Toogood is the author of Incredible Light and Texture in Watercolor, (North Light Books, West Chester, Ohio) and he has written many articles and contributed to several other books. His work is widely collected throughout the United States and abroad, and he is represented by Rosenfeld Gallery, in Philadelphia. The artist teaches at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the National Academy School of Fine Arts, in New York City, and the Perkins Center for the Arts, in Moorestown, New Jersey. Toogood also conducts watercolor workshops throughout the United States.

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2 thoughts on “Watercolor: Sargent's "Venetian Canal"

  1. This is exactly the kind of article AA should include! Having a very experienced painter discussing historical examples in technique, materials and design. My favorite articles are usually about historical images and artists. I found James Toogood’s comments of Sargent’s painting excellent. I would rather see more of this than critiques of amateur art works.