John Singer Sargent: His Methods and Materials

Did you know that John Singer Sargent took two summers to finish “Carnation, Lily, Lily”? It took so long that girls he was commissioned to paint outgrew their white dresses and had to wear new ones. Day after day, Sargent would paint in the garden, and then, night after night, he would scrape off the paint with a painting knife, and start afresh the following day. Finally, he got the “alla prima” (paint in one session) look he was seeking, but it was anything but instant; it was done over and over again.

John Singer Sargent painted

One of the best ways to improve your art is to study the masters of the past and learn their methods. John Singer Sargent is widely considered one of the great masters, and many modern painters emulate aspects of his style. He is particularly known for his alla prima approach. His strokes are laid down perfectly, his colors are always harmonious...his subjects look like they are still breathing. The flawless strokes that seem so effortless are his trademark.

If you study the life of John Singer Sargent, you will gain a deeper appreciation of his character—there's more to his work than just the external aesthetic value of his paintings. Through struggles and triumphs, it was his patience and determination that won him his reputation as a master. Amazing and humbling...

After reading extensively on Sargent's life and work, I have developed this summary of his basic oil painting techniques.

  1. He made many preparatory drawings for some paintings. These sketches were usually drawn loosely with swift gestures, and helped him get to know the subject. He wanted to catch their essence, so that when he was ready to paint, he could focus on it, instead of being caught up with unnecessary details.

  2. Once he was ready to put paint on canvas, he would use big brushes to sketch his subject using paints which had been greatly thinned using turpentine and oil. He rarely drew or painted an outline directly. Instead, he loosely blocked in the shape of his subject and kept the boundaries between the background and the subjects flexible.

  3. He used colors of various tones to define planes. These planes are built up on the subject's face (for example) like a stack of blocks. Each “block” was laid down with a single big stroke.

  4. He worked laboriously to get most of the painting down in the first hour or two, or he would scrape it off and start again.

  5. Even after the painting dried, he would add to or change portions of it until he got it right.

Take a look at the disciplines he mastered to learn more about his work habits.

For those of you who would like to experiment with his palette, the next section goes over the materials John Singer Sargent used in his work.

  • John Singer Sargent used fine plain woven canvases toned with mid-tone cool gray—particularly for portraits.

  • He used paints directly from tubes to mix the exact colors he wanted. His palette varied, but he regularly used cadmium yellow, vermilion, Mars red, Mars yellow, Mars brown, rose madder, sienna, ivory black, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, viridian green, and emerald green. He used a copious amount of paint medium: linseed oil for dark colors and poppyseed oil for lighter colors.

  • Sargent mixed flesh tones using a palette of ivory black, rose madder, and viridian green with lead white. Lead white was common at this time, but for safety reasons, I would not recommend it nowadays.

  • Evidence indicate that John Singer Sargent used small (¼ inch or ½ inch) brushes. Studies further confirm that he saved the boldest strokes for last. I conclude that he started with big brushes, then moved to smaller brushes in the middle stages of the painting, and then finished them off with big brushes again.

  • He varnished his paintings, which has led to the varnished paintings yellowing over time.

It can be disheartening to look at a master artist's work. Sometimes you think that you will never master painting or drawing. But it will come, if you possess the same same sort of determination to improve your art that Sargent had. Nowadays there are so many resources at your fingertips, that, as an artist, you only have to provide initiative and patience; with that, you can learn to paint and draw well!

Does it encourage you to know that even John Singer Sargent made mistakes? I know I am. He treated his 'mistakes' ruthlessly, and reworked canvasses endlessly to achieve his alla prima look. Every time I stumble upon problems, be it with technique, composition, or simply a mental block, I know that I have no excuse for not moving on.

For a further glimpse of his painting process, watch how a modern master painter John Howard Sanden copies and paints the painting 'Lady Agnew' by John Singer Sargent."

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