Saturday, July 30, 2011

“Do not try to make a pretty picture”

When John Singer Sargent traveled to America in 1890, he went painting with Frederick S. Pratt, an amateur painter and founding trustee of the Worcester Art Museum.


Luckily for us, Pratt wrote down what Sargent had to say about painting methods.

“Choose simple subjects, near objects at first. Do not try to make a pretty picture so much as to render truthful effects. Paint over the whole canvas with colors approximating the masses so as to obscure [sic--did he mean establish?] relations of tones while working—when finishing, ‘paint into paint’ when possible and in portraits, paint around the features in detail, using small brushes rarely.


“Always use a full brush and a larger one than necessary. Paint with long sweeps, avoiding spots and dots (‘little dabs’). Never think of other painter’s pictures or how some one else would treat a subject but follow your own choice of colors with exact fidelity to nature.”

Quoted in the new book: John Singer Sargent: Figures and Landscapes.

14 comments:

René PleinAir. said...

So true but then again soo difficult!

Tom Hart said...

That use of the word "obscure" intrigues me. Having read other descriptions of Sargent's method, I have to believe that it's more than likely that he did mean "establish" as James (?) proposes. Yet the the two words are such polar opposites that one wonders how such an error in the original quote could have come about. Probably just one of those simple speaking (or transcription errors), but what a difference in meaning!

etc, etc said...

Paint over the whole canvas with colors approximating the masses so as to obscure [sic--did he mean establish?] relations of tones while working

I think by "obscure" he meant to "simplify" values in initial stages.

Julia Lundman said...

I think he meant cover the canvas with approximate tones and masses so that you can get a relative sense of the picture you are making.

That statement alone tells us so much about his thought process in his own work. Makes sense. Sargent's paintings look fresh and bold, as if he painted them all at once. He makes big statements rather than the methodical detailed approach of the classical realists that came before him.

Jason Peck said...

My favorite Quote,

" Never think of other painter’s pictures or how some one else would treat a subject but follow your own choice of colors with exact fidelity to nature."

Great post!

Terry said...

What are the titles of these two pictures?

marvelousmarvin said...

" Never think of other painter’s pictures or how some one else would treat a subject but follow your own choice of colors with exact fidelity to nature."

An ironic statement considering the vast number of Sargent wannabes out there.

etc, etc said...

Sargent wannabes

I think I've seen enough brushstroke bravura to last a lifetime; I'm good. ;)

Michael said...

Honestly the " Never think of other painter’s pictures or how some one else would treat a subject but follow your own choice of colors with exact fidelity to nature." is true in every area of art.

One of the first rules we all have to master is 'paint/draw/render as it is, not as you see it to be', but I see so many who, after mastering it, gradually declining to creating things as they see (this is not to discount the psychological works, etc, mainly rendering of real-life landscapes, objects in the realm of realism, you get what I'm saying)

Sometimes I find myself wanting to create a style but have to keep it as real as possible, as it is, and as light really hits the object.

Great quote to live by.

Tom Hart said...

Re: the quote, " Never think of other painter’s pictures or how some one else would treat a subject but follow your own choice of colors with exact fidelity to nature." Represents a valuable lesson - true, as Michael, says to every form of art.

But of course studying, copying and - yes - even emulating - the greats that have gone before us has it's place in art and is a time-honored and valued tradition. Note Sargent's own many copies of Velazquez, Hals, and others. I know that's NOT the same as the sort of "wannabe-ism" that marvelousmarvin alludes to. But I think that like everything else in art, absorbing the lessons learned by others vs. cultivating your own style is a balance. It's also a very personal quest.

Adam said...

Brilliant observation. And yeah, I interpreted "obscure" as a means to like simplify abstract masses and shapes. Lucian Freud mentioned that a lot in his work as well. Which would fit hand-in-hand with Sargent's work. Wonderful discovery!

Wouter Tulp said...

great advice from the master...

Michael said...

"relations of tones while working—when finishing, ‘paint into paint’"

Then long dash is like a period in this case?

"when possible and in portraits, paint around the features in detail, using small brushes rarely."

Is he making the point covered in the May 23, 2011 post on Automated Selectivity?

http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/2011/05/automated-selectivity.html

julia child said...

I think 'obscure' was the word he meant to use. I think he meant it literally---there is a reason why you can look at his paintings and not 'see' the technique that built them---the technique has been obscured. On purpose. You see what he wanted you to see---the final strokes over the masses that seemed to mass on their own.