John Singer Sargent Watercolors: Exhibition Report
We recently visited the Brooklyn Museum to see the show of John Singer Sargent watercolors. It’s close enough to Montreal that I couldn’t really pass it up. Not and still call myself a serious watercolorist. The exhibit ends July 28, so by the time I post this it’s basically over – however, it comes to the MFA in Boston (Oct 13/13 – Jan 20/14), so that’s another chance for Nor’easterners.
Like most artists, I’ve always admired Sargent’s mastery of calligraphic brushwork in oil. I wasn’t as aware of his watercolors before this show. Which I suppose was the point. The curators have brought together a never-before-seen exhibit.
So, for those that don’t have a chance to get there in person – here’s my report:
Shocking news: Mr. Sargent watercolors like an oil painter
Walking in, looking at the very first image, I was immediately struck with his liberal use of body color (opaque watercolor, also called gouache). Watercolor purists shy away from gouache – because it alters the surface of the work. It reflects, rather than transmits light, and thus can be noticeably ‘on top’ of the image.
JSS does not give a fig for such concerns. He demonstrates that it can be done, and done handily. So long as you make careful observation of color, and correct for the tendency of gouache lights to dry down in value. (Darks dry lighter, lights dry darker. Gouache is sneaky).
I’m impressed both how much opaque pigment it he used, and how *MUCH* of it he used. Sometimes it goes on so thick, it’s impasto. I suppose it should be no surprise, given that he was so accomplished with alla prima oil technique.
Overall, his use of gouache seems to fall into three categories:
01: Detailing broad passages of wet-in-wet:
JSS believed a painter should make the broadest mark that describes the form at hand. One stroke is always preferable to 2, and certainly to 100 fiddly marks. In this way he’s the opposite of perfectionist tiny-brush-blenders like Bouguereau, and subtly different from dab-dab-dab impressionists like Monet. He is not accumulating the effect of many small marks – he is carefully placing exactly the right one.
It makes sense then, that in watercolor he has the largest brush possible – the wash. He is certainly in the a habit of making big blocks of shape (a figure, a tree, or a piece of architecture) out of single, well planned wash. Then going back to add detail with touches of opacity.
The figure on this fountain is a silhouette, executed in one pass. The light on the leg is brought back on top with body color. We also see the streams of water indicated with thick impasto drizzles.
Here’s a close up of how the large wet-in-wet silhouette of the lady’s dress is modified by strokes of gouache. Again, it’s impressive to me how thick he goes.
Another variation on ‘detailing of big shapes’ is his execution of water and dappled sunlight. Here the wet-in-wet washes that make up the muddy-stream-bank-grading-to-blue-water are completely worked over with dabs of opaque sunlight (white and yellow) and intense blue shadow. The underlying blue-green water would have been made in one wet passage. He could have tried to reserve all the glinting reflections, (paint around them) but that would have probably resulted in a stiff rendition, and would certainly have made undesirable hard edges inside the water.
As well, cutting around lights slows you down. It seems JSS was not interested in painting slowly in any of his works. He’s on record as a guy who’d rather re-paint a speedy execution twenty times than take 20 times as long to do it once.
His solution here, coming back on top with opaque dabs, is remarkably efficient. The large smooth water surface is transformed into ripples by this ’net’ of marks. One could say that this sketch is almost entirely opaque painting – if you measure it by the surface area affected by these retouches. They are everywhere! Spread evenly over the entire painting.
Here in this painting of weird fruit (I can’t recall what these are?) - the ‘blotchy’ mass of dark foliage behind is completely transformed by opaque strokes making ‘sky holes’ in the canopy, but also vines, small twigs and hanging dry leaves. I would argue again, that this painting is only partially watercolor – the full effect of the work in entirely present in those lively opaque strokes.
I offer you this example of an oil – just to demonstrate how the flecks of light over a dark background are used to create the effect of a shadowed forest. This is the oil painting thinking that you can see appearing in his water-works.
Here’s another simple but perfect example. These streaks of sunlight on the ground *could* have been reserved whites – but I like the way he just ignores them at first – so his passage of earth can be executed without pausing – then goes back to hit them later.
It looks to me like he’s painted these first in white – then going back to touch them again with orange. I might be crazy, but there are a number of paintings I think he’s hit the highlight twice. One theory is this might avoid carrying too many colors in the field. He can bring just the white gouache, then tint the white strokes after they dry. Thus getting any color he wants without bringing too many tubes. You could of course just mix the gouache and watercolor together – which he also does at times – but it might have been a case of wanting to push on without pausing for mixing paint.
One last on this subject – just to emphasise how thick he puts it on. I have a theory – I read that chemical analysis determines he’s using zinc white – so it’s possible he had to do this to get complete coverage. Zinc being less opaque than our more commonly used Titanium white.
02: Outright changing the whole painting:
I can’t be sure if he meant to include these gondoliers in the lower right from the very beginning, or if they were a last minute. But in either case, four complete figures of the boatmen and ladies under parasols were painted on top of the dark shadow, entirely in body color. That’s a significant ‘retouch’ JSS!
Interesting trivia from the wall text – apparently he was known to pose a travelling companion and move them around multiple times to manufacture a nice grouping of people. (Reportedly done in that cluster of attentive students in the oil above). So this might have been one boatman and tourist cloned, or (more likely) might have been an amalgam of numerous boats passing by as he painted.
03: Casting raking light on figures:
JSS has a trick with painting faces – there is never a white highlight on the features. They are all positioned into the mid tones. I’m thinking that a specular highlight on the face would be considered too distracting. I heard Jeremy Lipking say the same in a workshop – if there is a white gloss on the nose or forehead, he leaves it out.
So here we have a couple of examples of JSS creating the ‘egg’ of the head in a wet-in-wet manner, then coming back to cast directional light on the side planes. Or to pick out detail like the old guy’s beard. He is consistent in his approach – he doesn’t want to try and reserve all of these light-flecks when he can just add them later.
This is seen again with these North Africans. The shape of the head covering is done as a silhouette – which is then modified with opaque strokes of peach and bright yellow.
In this one – done from life – the initial washes have been completely worked over with opaque details. He’s taken simple silhouetted figures and created folds in the cloth, facial details, and dramatically indicated a late afternoon sun casting raking light on the tent and the shoulders of the standing figures.
Those orange/peach accents are so strong, that once again I’m going to have to insist, it is the opaque touches that make the sketch a success.
Hollywood Special Effects:
JSS has a small toolkit of special effects, which I’ve heard of people doing, but frankly never paid much attention towards. I tend to think ‘tricks’ are a waste of time – that we should just be mastering drawing first and not distracting ourselves with effects. But there are a few things that come up again and again in his work.
These ‘tricks’ often support his philosophy of working freely with large washes and big strokes – but coming back for the key details.
Here’s an argument for working on good paper! JSS is drawing with a pen knife – adding small details which are sharper even than his white gouache note. Effectively these are ‘white ink’ lines.
02: Wax Resist:
By using clear wax – perhaps just a blob of candle, one can partially reserve textured lights. The wax adheres to the bumps on the paper, and when a wash comes by, it can’t penetrate the wax – thus leaving a mottled light.
JSS uses it frequently in foliage, plaster walls and rocks. My theory is he lays down a bright wash representing the lightest local color, then textures with wax, and when the dark comes on top, the color underneath is allowed to show through in an interesting organic mottled effect.
Here’s an example where he’s using the wax in combination with gouache to complete a work that is much more than just a transparent painting.
What I think happened here is this: First, he paints a very free rendition of the impressive pink blossoms on this magnolia. I expect he paints the green foliage next, then works over some of the leaves and picks out branches with wax crayon. (I think these are crayon marks at upper left and on the small extended branch at far right).
Now he cuts in the dark background, trying to stay away from his bright blossoms and getting the wax resist texture effect. It looks like he has to touch the background twice to get it dark enough. That’s a pesky aspect of watercolor for sure.
Finally he goes back into the blossoms, which have probably lost something during all this, and he restates the petals in a rich impasto. In this case it looks like he’s using a loaded brush with more than one color of gouache to get variegated marks inside single brush strokes.
Cool hey! It’s quite a multi-media approach. I’m going to have to try it all out as soon as I get a chance.
03: Pen and Ink:
Here’s an example a limited use of pen and ink. This distant figure is subtly enhanced with linear details. Interestingly, not black, but sepia ink – so it is not too strong. But the eye is still drawn to the sharper details on the figure in the midst of the abstract handling of this field of marble blocks.
04: A Ruler:
I don’t know why this should surprise me – but it’s worth noting that he used a straight edge on architecture. That should put an end to the comment ‘I could never paint like that, I can’t even draw a straight line’.
05: High Dynamic Range:
This is not actually an effect like the others – but I didn’t know where else to discuss it.
It’s interesting to see JSS’s observations on bright sunlight. It’s something that I can’t help but compare to modern HDR photography. It’s not really the same, but this is something that’s on everyone’s mind these days, what with the new iPhones offering automated HDR.
The point is – in these examples of white objects in a sun-lit situation he has made very specific groupings of value. The bounced light in marble plazas creates a situation in which shadows are lighter than you would expect. Ambient light reflects off the white surfaces thereby lightening cast shadows.
In order to emphasise this effect, he makes the sky and distant trees darker than you also expect. He pushes everything in the background down in value so it is darker than the shadows on the marble architecture. See how dark the sky is between these two pillars?
It’s like a simulation of that effect where you come from a dark theater into sunlight, or vice versa. For a moment your eyes are adjusting, and everything looks bleached out. If JSS was staring intently at the details on an ornate fountain, and then switched a glance to the trees behind, he might have noticed this optical effect. This is also why it’s un-advisable to paint wearing sunglasses. You really can’t see the full range of values.
So! If you’ve read all the way to the end of this article, I commend you on your endurance. I hope some of these notes were interesting, and I welcome discussion in the comments or on your own blogs. And it goes without saying that if you have an opportunity to catch this exhibition, it is definitely well worth a trip. ~m