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Essay: The Art of Watercolor – John Singer Sargent

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  • Published: 24 November 2020*
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John Singer Sargent’s name should ring a bell for anyone even slightly interested in the arts. This should not come as a surprise as he is perhaps the one painter America most readily claims as its own, despite the fact that he was born in Florence and spent most of his career outside America’s cradle, painting mainly European people and scenes. Sargent is also one of the few Americans enrolled and embraced by the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts, a historic art school in Paris, France. Its alumni list boasts names like Delacroix and Renoir. During the same time he studied at the École, Sargent was also the pupil of a prominent young portrait painter named Carolus Duran, who greatly influenced Sargent with his modernist methods, especially his reverence for painting “en plein air” or in other words, outdoors (Kilmurray). While portrait painting dominated his initial training and his early career, Sargent was absorbed by a more free flowing and expressive medium — watercolor. It is arguably through his watercolor that his brilliance is most evidently displayed and where he is most distinguished. His talents separates his work from that of other artists, making it easily recognizable as his. While identifying a Sargent is rather effortless, discerning the exact traits that give its identity away poses a difficult task. This is due to the sense of spontaneity in his greatly varied paintings and sketches. However, by diving into a study of Sargent’s method, particularly his way of “suggesting” objects and his thoughtful compositions, the aspects of his paintings that make them most impressive can better understood.

Sargent received professional training in drawing and oils at the École des Beaux-Arts while being simultaneously under the mentorship of Carolus Duran. Despite these origins in portrait painting, there are prominent differences between Sargent’s grandiose oil portraits and his scenic watercolor paintings. His early oil paintings are primarily painted indoors, giving him plenty of time to work through the composition and accurately portray his subjects with paint. Whereas he artificially constructed the composition of his oil portraits by giving specific instructions to the model, he fully embraced the “en plein air” method for his watercolors. This method, popularized by the impressionists, emphasized painting outside of the studio to achieve an authentic representation of nature. Sargent usually reserve watercolor for outdoor settings. Particularly, he used watercolor to satiate his endless fascination with picturesque facade of Venice. These watercolors were usually done rapidly as to capture the fleeting moment where by chance buildings and people created a perfectly balanced composition. It was these transient moments like these that seemed to have the power to transcend time and resonate with the people of the past and present alike. There are still more places in which Sargent’s watercolors differ from his oil paintings a part from the difference in the setting. One such area is in his choice of palette, in which his portraits are usually toned down and limited whereas his watercolors the most varied and vibrant. Despite all these difference however, there are still common veins that drive the creation of both his oils and watercolors because while the medium is different, his thought process is the same. Therefore, while accounts of Sargent giving advice are usually in the context of oil painting, the still give insight to how he works in general.

It is only fair if a description of Sargent’s method and process be prefaced by a quote from Sargent himself. John Collier, author of the book The Art of Portrait Painting Artist included in his book Sargent’s response when when the latter tried to request to detail his own processes; it reads as follows: “As to describing my procedure, I find the greatest difficulty in making it clear to pupils, even with the palette and brushes in hand and with the model before me; to serve it up in the abstract seems to me hopeless.” As proven by Sargent himself and the accounts of his pupils, to “abstract” exact steps that can serve as a guideline to ensure that one paints like Sargent is nearly hopeless. While the possibility of something like “Sargent’s Handbook for Aspiring Painters” being in publication is rendered effectively unrealistic, this quotation does hint at the way Sargent works; he does not blindly follow methodological steps when rendering pictures. Instead, every stroke is highly analytical and made from careful observations of the subject matter.

That is not to say that it is entirely futile to try to distill general steps that Sargent takes from studying his watercolors of Venice’s architecture. As influenced by his mentor, Sargent painted his watercolors en plein aire to capture the environment. This enabled him to capture a degree of likeness to the environment which is not possible indoors. One caveat of painting en plein air, however, is that Sargent has to work at impressive speeds since the right interplay of lighting, people, and buildings were so temporal. This is how Sargent likely seized the the fleeting nature of the environment or what he called “making the best of an emergency”. He usually starts with simple pencil lines to delineate general structures and people. This is followed by a wet on wet technique using generous amounts of paint to block out larger shapes and variations in color. After that layer dries, Sargent will go in with more precise strokes which helps to define the objects in the painting more clearly and add detail (MacEvoy). While these steps seem simple and straightforward, not everyone who follows them becomes a Sargent as there are so many more small nuances in Sargent’s Modus Operandi.

A insight analysis of the above steps offers a deeper understanding of why knowing these step alone will not be sufficient in becoming comparable to Sargent. For example, for the first step, Sargent’s underdrawings are often times very simplistic. There are also other instances where his paintings are completed without much of an underdrawing. His lack of an underdrawing leads to the hypothesis that Sargent prefers to define objects through paint and color rather than through a careful drawing. His primary method for “painting” an object (as opposed to sketching down structures and filling it in like the pages of a coloring book) is by portraying how the light interacts with different structures. Instead of painting the light however, Sargent paints the various shadows casted when light hits an object. He usually portrays areas more directly bathed in light by adding light touches of a dark shadow color onto the natural white color of the paper or a dried wash that lightly tints the fibers. A prime example of how Sargent “draws” with light and dark appears in one of his many depictions of the Santa Maria della Salute. In this interpretation of the Salute, Sargent creates sharp contrast between areas of shadow and areas in direct light, allowing the structures to appear more prominent, more visually striking, and all the more majestic. The shadow’s edges are usually darker, cleaner, and well defined. Sargent does not use a spectrum of colors or soften the edges even for round surfaces, making the transition from light to dark very abrupt. For areas more obscured from the light, Sargent uses broad and bold strokes to cover large areas with a wash of shadow. For the features most directly exposed to the light source coming from the top right corner, one can see that sargent only uses light strokes that do not extend all the way to carve out the depth of the indents. The variance of how Sargent renders object with shadow for different areas demonstrates an expertise knowledge of how the values change for the object’s different planes when they interact with the light. By painting the shadow, Sargent is like a sculptor chipping away at the clay to reveal the sculpture with each stroke he lays on the white canvas.

In reference to Sargent’s general process, the last step where he adds detail with more precise strokes to suggest the nature of the things he is portraying seems at first simple. However, there is also much to say about the sheer variety of brush strokes that Sargent is capable of. Sargent is credited with an adorit and nimble hand as he is able to produce a plethora of squiggles, blotches and lines in all directions inimaginable. Amatures imitating Sargent will probably pick this up and accent their paintings with strokes of all different characters. Instead of making the painting and the objects it portrays more coherent however, the amature will most likely decorate the canvas with random strokes that destroy the composition of the painting. Aside from technical prowess, in this case an expert command of the brush, deliberation before laying down a brush stroke is extremely important. While Sargent was known to start his paintings off with rapid strokes and lines, “from the moment that he began really to paint, he worked with a kind of concentrated deliberation, a slow haste so to speak, holding his brush poised in the air for an instant and then putting it just where and how he intended it to fall” (Charteris). Although Sargent works in a seemingly free and loose manner, Sargent does not mindlessly lay down color without careful deliberation, always making rapid decisions about his next step. In this respect, the way he paints can be compared to calligraphy. Even though every calligrapher has very precise control of the pressure they exert on a brush, they are still have to make quick mental calculations. On a moment to moment basis, the calligrapher constantly juggles in his mind which flourishes to follow their previous stroke or how much to exaggerate their next stroke so that the characters remain in visual harmony with each other. One of the key factors to Sargent’s brilliance is indeed how analytical he is when he works. Unfortunately, unlike an exact step by step process, the ability to analyze is even more difficult to emulate. Despite this, a closer look into the master’s paintings can help supplement the thinking of aspiring Sargents.

One thing that Sargent constantly directs attention to is the most defining characteristics of what he is trying to portray. Reducing objects to these characteristics, or vital signs, enables Sargent to construct an illusory sense of photorealism. From far away, his paintings seem to boast a wealth of accurate details that contribute to a convincing reality in his paintings. However, upon closer inspection, the well defined structures in his paintings disintegrate into seemingly random dabs of color. Contrary to how the brushwork appears, Sargent’s strokes are actually very analytical and captures the essence of certain structures by documenting the most vital signs. Every mark is a conscious act to make a statement about the texture, value, color, and form. When Sargent paints, he tries simplify the object by using the minimal arrangement of these all revealing strokes, the interactions of which creates hallucinatory detail (MacEvoy). In this respect, Sargent is a perceptual painter. His technique is brilliant because he takes advantage of the caveats of the human perception. There is a wealth of information to be taken in by the human eye that far exceeds the limited capacity of our cognition. Our perception circumvent this problem through making inferences. Perception is highly illusory. Our minds construct a reality from signs that we selectively take in. With this understanding of the human mind, one can fully realize that Sargent is in fact reverse engineering the process of perception to understand which signs are the ones people are adapted to attend to. Fortunately, Sargent was documented imparting advice on how to accomplish such a difficult feat, imploring his pupils to:

“be always ready to make slight notes of postures, groups and incidents store up in the mind without ceasing a continuous stream of observations from which to make selections later… Do not be backward at using every device and making every experiment that ingenuity can devise, in order to attain that sense of completeness which nature so beautifully provides, always bearing in mind the limitations of the materials in which you work.” (Charteris)


Sargent contends that the ability to make selections of signs comes with a constant practice of observation. He also provided a precaution against documenting every little detail and in effect overwork the painting. His awareness of the limitations of the tools and materials one has to work with is perhaps why he chose the technique of simplify objects to adequate signs. In an attempt to simplify the object, Sargent deliberates and compare the importance of each sign. He discerns which is the most definitive character and forgoes the less significant details that distracts from these signs, sometimes going so far as to replace numerous details with one broad stoke.

There are other artists, many of them Sargent’s contemporaries, that employ a similar method of using small individual strokes to create a larger image (MacEvoy). Contrary to Sargent however, these marks are more mindless and repetitive as in the most exemplar of pointillism and the overarching category of impressionism it falls in. Every dot and dab on the canvas in and of itself do not help to establish information about the object it is portraying and very little difference is made if the stroke is placed somewhere in the vicinity of its original position. The result of this is that impressionists sometimes create messy and unfocused painting where Sargent creates coherent, almost photographic imagery.

To present a clearer picture of Sargent’s technique, we can once again refer back to his painting of the Salute. From a distance, the intricate edges of the building seems to be captured in astonishing accuracy. If one were to zoom in however, the delicate stonework of the building is revealed to be essentially an ambiguous blob of umber with some white either left from the paper or accented with gouache. But from afar, Sargent somehow leaves just the right amount of white as evidence for our mind to unconsciously piece together a cohesive image of the building. However, Sargent often warns his students against using “false accents” (Charteris). In attempting to emulate Sargent, it is easy to just copy his usage of adroit brush strokes and carry out the motion of leaving spots of white without actually going through the same intensity of deliberation that does.

Although Sargent’s usage of vital signs to suggest an object is the core component of how he paints, there are other stylistic flourishes Sargent uses to make his paintings more appealing. Sargent’s incorporates a sense of movement into his paintings like many of his contemporaries in the impressionist movement. There are several ways Sargent conveys the sense of motion. The most evident way he does this is by preserving the distinctiveness of his brush stroke as shown in this watercolor sketch of the La Dogana in Venice. Instead of laying down a wash for the sky, he kept the water in his brush minimal and combined some degree of dry brushing, allowing viewers to trace individualized strokes. As a result, the viewer’s eyes move from left to right along with the strokes in an upwards motion. Simultaneously, though more obscure, the slight tilt of the building’s roof also endows a sense of movement for the viewer. In La Dogana, Sargent uses a subtle two point perspective to complete his composition. Moreover, the building is off centered, with more of the sky revealed on the left side of the painting than the right. With this delicate use of perspective, as well as a ingenius placement of the building, Sargent places the viewer directly in the shoes of a pedestrian walking down the streets of Venice as he passes the La Dogana to the right of him.

On the note of composition, another interesting quirk of Sargent’s is how he is drawn to painting from various rather challenging angles. This trait is best demonstrated in his painting the White Ship, in which he painted ships from a bottom up view. Other than a mere showcase of his artistic talents, these difficult angles and dynamic compositions make the image all the more compelling. Sargent rarely used flat compositions with a lot of symmetry. These compositions create a similar effect as the one in La Dogana, inviting the world in with its diagonal lines, partially obscured objects, and cropped frame.

A closer study into Sargent’s work serves as a silver bullet that terminate the stigma society currently harbors against art. Many parents might see art as waste of time and irrelevant. However, for Sargent, art is found not only in the final product he produces but in the act of creating as well. Through analyzing Sargent’s method, it is clear that in the pursuit of creating art, the mind is exercised. Sargent’s careful analysis of how to represent objects with different mediums demonstrate the creativity, perseverance, insight, and observation required to create a convincing image. Art helps to develop the skills that make necessary tools for people to succeed in more recognized academic fields. Therefore, art is very much relevant in the real world.


Santa Maria della Salute





La Dogana


White Ships


Works Cited


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