Improve Your Art By Studying the Disciplines of John Singer Sargent

Who has not known or seen at least one painting of the American master artist John Singer Sargent? John Singer Sargent is one of a few great artists I admire.

John Singer Sargent's portrait of two girls with lanterns

Sargent started out as a portraitist, and gained lasting success by painting members of high society. He was also proficient at painting landscapes and other subject matters.

His paintings have such a transcendent, timeless quality that, even if you are not trying to emulate his style, you can learn much from him.

Years ago, when I was an art student in Italy, our teacher asked us to study John Singer Sargent’s oil painting techniques.

The point of this exercise was for us to mentally set aside the details. We weren’t concerned with any ″secret color palette″ or what or how much paint he used in this or that painting.

Some of his so-called ″secrets″ have actually been passed down throughout the centuries from the great Renaissance Masters.

For example, his effortless and yet masterly brush strokes are very similar to those of Frans Hals and Diego Velasquez, equally inspiring painters.

What is the secret to Sargent’s greatness?

Having read extensively on John Singer Sargent’s life and work, I have identified several disciplines that helped him achieve greatness. By practicing these techniques with my students, it has helped us become better artists.

Try the following techniques and see how they can help you, too:

  • John Singer Sargent would do a lot of sketches of a subject, either in pencil or watercolors, before he started an oil painting. These sketches helped him learn about the subject matter and served as a tool to practice his wrist movements for later brush strokes.

    He encouraged his students to paint ″a hundred studies″ on the same subject matter and have canvases of various sizes ready to use at any time when inspiration struck.

    He would say, ″You can’t do sketches enough. Sketch everything and keep everything and keep your curiosity fresh.″

  • Sargent almost always drew from life and rarely used photographs.

    He would place his easel right next to the model and walk back and forth between the easel and a set point that was far enough away to simultaneously see both the painting and the model in totality. In doing so, he was able to see the canvas and the model in the same light, at the same angle of vision, and at the same distance.

  • He taught his students that first, it was important to accurately draw the masses of the painting in the right place -- before putting in any fine features or details.

    Sargent would say, ″If you work on a head for a week without indicating the features, you will have learned something about the modeling of the head.″

    By that statement, he meant that an artist should work to get the basic structure right -- before focusing on the details. Draw and paint like a sculptor. Always look for big masses, angles and prominent planes.

    John Singer Sargent's portrait of a boy sitting on the chair

  • When it comes to painting, Sargent would use a lot of thick paint with a large paint brush.

    He would say, ″You do not want dabs of color, you want plenty of paint to paint with.″

    This is something I have taught my students. You can’t go wrong with a lot of paint, if you are using well-made brushes that can hold it all.

    If you only use a small amount of paint for each brush stroke, the strokes will appear timid and your painting will suffer.

  • Sargent worked mostly with half tones before finishing a painting with the dark tones and highlights.

    He said, ″If you begin with the middle-tone and work up from it towards the darks so that you deal last with your highest lights and darkest darks, you avoid false accents.″

    Making the middle tones come together may seem like it should be easy, but it takes discipline.

    Using this technique, you first work tightly among the middle tones. Then, the dark tones and highlights are just accents.

    However, if the middle tones are not right, then even the most dramatic darks and highlights will not hide the weakness of your painting.

  • He would walk away from his easel to look at this painting from a distance and step back to the easel for each brush stroke that he added.

    Looking at your painting from a distance, while you are creating it, instead of fixating on it, is a great discipline for every artist to have. I can’t emphasize this time-tested technique enough.

    By constantly pulling back to see your painting from a distance, you are more likely to get the geometric perspectives right.

    This is because you will be looking at your painting the way your viewers do. If the whole painting is done while you are only one foot away, the perspective of the painting will often be distorted.

  • John Singer Sargent never hesitated to be a tough critic of his own art. He had the ability to detach himself from his paintings and was able to look them from a more objective point of view.

    He was also known to erase entire paintings at times, if he was not satisfied with the outcome.

    Once, he spent three weeks working on a lady’s portrait, only to decide that her hand was not painted well enough. He wiped away the whole painting and redid it. (Imagine how the lady sitter’s patience was stretched!)

    You can develop the same ability to review your art to determine where you need to improve. Find out how to develop the art of self critique.

  • Sargent learned from the old Masters – from artists like Frans Hals, he learned when to simplify and what to leave out of his paintings.

    Copying other artists’ work is another powerful tool. I recommend you do this to help you improve your techniques.

    When you copy a painting, you learn how the painting is composed and how to mix the colors you want to match the palette of the artist.

Your art will benefit if you imitate great artists like John Singer Sargent. His disciplines, if practiced consistently, will put you on a path toward better works of art.

Update: I have found an interesting booklet on John Singer Sargent's teachings. Click here and get a glimpse. It's only nine pages long.

To actually witness his painting process, click here and watch how the contemporary master painter John Howard Sanden copies and paints the painting Lady Agnew by John Singer Sargent."

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