Thursday, April 8, 2010

Demons, Demons

Those who watched John Singer Sargent painting in his studio were reminded of his habit of stepping backwards after almost every stroke of the brush on the canvas. The tracks of his paces were so worn on the carpet that it suggested a sheep-run through the heather.

"He, too, when in difficulties, had a sort of battle cry of 'Demons, demons,' with which he would dash at his canvas."

From the notes of Miss Heyneman. Link to Craig Mullins site, which has the notes as a PDF. Hopefully that link will work. Follow the buttons to "miscellaneous" and look for the button that says "Sargent Notes."

The painting is a detail of the full length portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 1889, collection of the Tate Gallery, link for full image.

27 comments:

Jeff Z said...

Gosh, did Sargent ever have a client deadline?! If I stepped back from every stroke I make, it'd take me six weeks to paint something that would normally take a day!

Craig said...

I know there are numerous Sargent publications, and the link from Craig Mullin's site is very good, but is there any particular writing that shares Sargent's wisdom about painting? Thanks!

sam said...

John Singer Sargent is in my opinion one of the greatest painters ever to have held a brush. His technique was evocative and impeccable. I only wish that I could harness a fraction of his power. Thank you for posting the link. Would love a good reference on his personal notes on his process.

My Pen Name said...

he also would talk out loud when painting watercolors basically saying the whole time that it looked like crap...

a Sargent quote many of us can relate to "“A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth"

My Pen Name said...

the link posted is broken for those who want it:

www.goodbrush.com/misc/painting_lessons/sargent_notes.pdf

downloads to pdf.

WesC said...

100% agreement Sam. I'm constantly amazed, inspired and humbled by his art.

I just finished reading "Strapless - John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X".
Really good stuff, I knew how it all turned out in the end of course, but fascinating reading anyway.
It's funny to think of such an artist legend having self doubt, it makes me feel better when my art isn't working out.

sam said...

Thank You Pen Name! What a great link! Going to dig into this!

My Pen Name said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
My Pen Name said...

you're welcome but credit goes to James Gurney - it's the link in his post but the one posted there was broken when i tried it.

but here are some more links about sargent's methods..
http://jssgallery.org/Resources/Forum/Forum_Sargent%27s_Method.htm

Andrew Wales said...

Does anyone else have a battle cry? I'm thinking I'm going to come up with one. :)

Jason Pruett said...

a note to Jeff Z

painters used to get paid a lot more than they do now - in the 1800s frederick church was sent to south america twice - each trip taking months so he could paint one large painting for a company that wanted to encourage travel there. I think that one took him 2 years - for one piece - that's the story I heard, anyway.

even early american illustrators were sent on assignment to the west and other places to paint on location, create studies -

ah the good old days. . . .

Michael said...

The link is still broken it's 9:47pm PST.

William Meijer said...

For further reading you might also want to check on Mr. John Collier´s book "The Art of Portrait Painting" in which he asked John Singer Sargent for an account of his methods.

Andrew Finnie said...

Great idea to step back after each stroke at certain points of the painting. A well rigged double mirror system could save you a lot of calories and carpet though :)

But there would be a lot of fat painters then - smart but fat :)

But seriously, those tall paintings he used to do needed the painter to step back, even if only for the sake of the vertical perspective.

Johan Derycke said...

This reminds me very much of what is described in Richard Schmid's book Alla Prima. He too says to think about each stroke and only put it on the canvas when you know it will have the right color, value, drawing and edges.

Mark Harchar said...

I had heard that the editorial cartoons of the time showed Sargent lunging at his canvas with a mop, really exaggerating what must have been a site to see. At the time (and even today), artists added showmanship to their craft to help sell their talent. Stepping back and lunging at his canvas as though fencing may have been for show.

My Pen Name said...

Stepping back and lunging at his canvas as though fencing may have been for show.
Mark, I sincerely doubt it - the technique of standing back has been taught to me by several teachers and when one gets in the mode of doing it ... when you step back, see what's wrong you get that 'aha!' feeling and you want to lunge back to the painting before you forget what you were going to correct..

Lauren said...

Those battle cries really demonstrate how stressful and intense painting can be, especially painting from life. I am always physically weary after a day of painting regardless of my stance or movement. It is the mental energy that tires me out.

I would love to see a post listing some of the master painters' mantras.

James Gurney said...

My Pen, thanks for letting me know the link was broken. I still had trouble linking directly to the PDF, so I linked to Craig's main site, and people can find their own way to the Sargent notes on "Miscellaneous."

Regarding backing up from the painting and considering strokes, I think part of the process with Sargent was that he was working sight size on large canvases, so you really need to step back a lot to check your work. It's a great process, taught at some of the contemporary ateliers. But make sure you have lots of backup room. I once busted a big mirror that was balanced on an easel behind me.

Mark Harchar said...

I was not implying that Sargent did not employ the step back and forth technique as stated, I am saying that he (at times) may have exaggerated the technique when visitors came to the studio in order to add persona flare to his product.

James Gurney said...

Mark, you're right--and I'm sure Sargent wasn't above a little showmanship. I guess we all do that sometimes. I was sketching once when a group of Japanese tourists came up with cameras snapping pictures, and I started painting (or pretending to paint) with two brushes at once. That really got the shutters clicking, but it didn't help the painting much.

Mark Harchar said...

"John's energetic approach to painting was closer to fencing. With a brush in one hand, palette gripped by the other, a cigarette or cigar smouldering in his mouth, he backed away from the sitter and canvas with slow but deliberate steps, further and further. His eyes were fixed on the sitter and canvas throughout this withdrawal. He stopped, then lunged at the canvas. Over and over again he performed this ritual dance." - From 'John Singer Sargent' by Stanley Olsen,B&J,London,1989)

Darren said...

In describing a painting session, one of Sir Henry Raeburn's sitters said, "...and then having placed me in a chair on a platform at the end of his painting-room, in the posture required, he set up his easel beside me with a canvas ready to receive the colour. When he saw all was right, he took his palette and his brush, retreated back step by step, with his face toward me, till he was nigh the other end of the room; he stood and studied for a minute more, then came up to the canvas, and, without looking at me, wrought upon it with colour for some time. Having done this he retreated in the same manner, studied my looks at that distance for about another minute, then came hastily up to the canvas and painted a few minutes more."
-Allan Cunningham, Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Vol. II., 1831

Mark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Waikien said...

The 'demons, demons' line got me. I've had the experience of battling and struggling as well, and then reaching that triumphant end feeling like you've conquered a great beast.

Andrew Wales said...

Now that I think of it, no battle cries...I guess I just make a lot of Popeye noises or mutter like Yosemite Sam.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Sargent was practicing the sight size technique, and as I do it as well, I can vouch for the times when I lunge or race back and forth when you are really inspired and desperate to capture the beauty on the canvas! There are times when the light is so stunning, that it is like a race to get it down. The walking back and forth is also liberating, and though it seems like it might take more time, you actually save time because you can more accurately judge abstract shapes, tones and colors. Thereby making fewer errors that need more time to correct.
Rebecca Harp