Friday, February 13, 2009

Sargent’s Painting Notes

1. Painting is an interpretation of tone. Colour drawn with a brush.

2. Keep the planes free and simple, drawing a full brush down the whole contour of a cheek.

3. Always paint one thing into another and not side by side until they touch.

4. The thicker your paint—the more your color flows.

5. Simplify, omit all but the most essential elements—values, especially the values. You must clarify the values.

6. The secret of painting is in the half tone of each plane, in economizing the accents and in the handling of the lights.

7. You begin with the middle tones and work up from it . . . so that you deal last with your lightest lights and darkest darks, you avoid false accents.

8. Paint in all the half tones and the generalized passages quite thick.

9. It is impossible for a painter to try to repaint a head where the understructure was wrong.

PALETTE: Silver White, Naples Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Ochre dew (English Red), Red Ochre, Vermillion, Ivory or Coal Black, and Prussian Blue.

These notes, attributed to American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), are courtesy George Pratt. Mr. Pratt is a painting instructor at Ringling College of Art and Design. He told me he found these nuggests in the library when he was a student at Pratt Institute. Thanks, George!

These notes are just the tip of the iceberg. Two of Sargent’s students, Miss Heyneman and Mr. Henry Haley, also recorded extensive first hand observations of Sargent’s painting methods. If you’re interested in this kind of material, let me know, and I’d be happy to share it with you on future posts.


gregizz said...

Thanks! For another one of your so instructive and inspiring posts. Sargent notes are gold for anybody interested in Paiting.
In case you don't already have it, I also found this link on Craig Mullins web site:

Mark Heng said...

I was wondering about point 5: The secret of painting is in the half tone of each plane...What exactly does he mean by that?
And I wonder how many modern day painters can paint like Sargent. Thanks for the post!

eugubino said...

Thankyou for this marvelous post
Yes it would be very interesting to know more from the mind of this brilliant ,but very practical painter .
Paul Howlett Gubbio

Erik Bongers said...

The statement that is most recognizable to me:
7. You begin with the middle tones and work up from it . . . so that you deal last with your lightest lights and darkest darks, you avoid false accents.

Perhaps statement 5 (halftone) means about the same as 7, namely that you start with the middle tone and figure out how it 'evolves' into gradients towards the neighbouring planes.

Jussi Tarvainen said...
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Jussi Tarvainen said...

What a great post Mr. Gurney. I would most definitely like to hear more of these golden nuggets from Sargent! Can't wait. Thanks for a great post:)

Vaughn said...

I can't imagine why anyone wouldn't be interested to learn more about Sargent's approach.

Andrew said...

Number 3 is a bit confusing. What does he mean by painting into another, and not side by side?

And James, you'd be crazy to not post up those other notes for us!

Tim said...
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Tim said...

Sweet! Anything with Sargent get me all knowledge spongy! Ive read the account of Mrs Heynman but not the gentleman, Mr Haley. Please post them when youre up for it!

Pete said...

More painting notes by Sargent? Hmmm, let me think.....heck YES!

J M said...

Of course yes, please do it!
I like especially his watercolours and plein-air work, something about it would be great too.

nancy said...

I also would like to know more about 5, the half tone. Great info, thanks.

innisart said...

Thanks, James! Great post... I'd love to see the rest of the notes.

Beck said...

Please keep them coming!

Unknown said...


I am reading " Alla Prima" by Schmid right now and it seems to me his technique is somewhat different. If I am right, he works #3 differently. I saw a portrait video of his and he places values side by side. So different from Sargent.I actually prefer the Sargent way, as I have been taught that method, but Schmid's method seems to work for him.

Definitely post his notes and if you can locate the bootleg DVD of a portrait session....well you will have the world at your door...actually , you already do!

blessings bro

I went through some old posts and saw the Chris Evans Show Post. Great!

ricardo said...

Yes! I am highly interested on anything regarding Sargent's painting technique!

Thank you, Mr. Gurney.

Mike Bear said...

I would love to learn more about Sargent's painting methods.

To me, his ability to make decisions about where he wants the viewer to focus is what makes his work stand out among so many great painters.

badbot said...

great post! thanks!

obviously, i am interested ( i guess like everybody here :) )
with this kind of stuff !! let's see on a future post ;)

craigstephens said...

Another typically practical post. Thanks again for all your work. I'm with everyone else in wanting to see more from Sargent, barring that, I am more than happy to have more from Gurney.

Daroo said...

I'll agree -- definitely more Sargent! And if you have any Zorn or Sorolla there in the back of the Gurney art emporium I'd be interested in those too.

Drew -- I take #3 to mean don't apply the paint as if you are filling in spaces on a paint by number. For example: If you are painting a portrait of a head work the color of the cheek out beyond where it would actually be and then cut back into it with the background color (or vice versa). This gives you the ability to "work the edges" wet into wet and achieve the desired level of hardness or softness and control any transition of the color that occurs where edges meet (also contributing to the hardness or softness of the edge). I think that's why he keeps mentioning thickly painted passages.
Frank Ordaz -- From his books and lectures I think Schmid has studied Sargent extensively (and one of his main concerns is edge manipulation -- read the chapter on edges in Alla Prima). So it depends if #3 is referring to values placed side by side or the actual objects (things) in your painting. That said, I think one of Schmid's main lessons is to be flexible and have a bunch of approaches at your disposal so that you can respond to your subject in an honest way and communicate those feelings to the viewer.

Larry said...

Please sir, can I have some more?

Linda Schweitzer said...

Thank you for posting the notes of Sargent, one of my favorite artists. I will be hoping for more.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, everybody. I didn't mean to tease with the hint about MORE...I just meant to say that we're all too busy to digest or cover too much all at once.

There are some awesome painters interpreting these points, but let me just offer a couple of thoughts. I think Daroo and others have it right that Sargent is urging us to paint across our outlines as a way of controlling edges and modeling form.

For me, one of the keys of understanding Sargent is looking at the painting methods of his teacher Carolus Duran, who had a somewhat unusual method compared to other academic teachers. In a nutshell he tended to block in the tones in discreet mosaic-like patches at first (like a plane head, if you're familiar with those things) and then later in the game you blend the patches into each other.

I believe this method gives the best tonal accuracy, which is what he's singing about in #5.

Regarding #7 about starting with the middle tones, I believe he means that right away you want to make your big value statement (or the 'effet' as they called it), but you should reserve your very darkest accents and lightest highlights for final, carefully considered touches.

Bowlin said...

More notes would be much appreciated!

Daroo- That makes sense about the edges on #3. Thanks for that insight.

karen said...

Yes, more Sargent notes for sure!

Any insight into his process and technique is thrilling to absorb. Thank you offering up more!

Jason Peck said...

Wonderful post, Sargents notes are a rare gem, I wish we could find more on his technique. I did read that he liked to mix Raw Sienna, and Ivory Black to match the dark background colors seen in some of Velazquez and Anthony van Dyck's work. I can't recall the name of the book, but Ill look through my notes, and see if I can find it.

Daroo said...

Yes I think you nailed it Jim.

I think Sargent's notes 5,6 and 7 can be understood in the context of "Conservation of Values" ( I swear you did at least one post on this concept- but when I went to look for it I couldn't find it).

My understanding of "C of Vs" Is that Sargent would limit himself to 5 main values. Three in the light family and two in the dark family or shadow family. Morgan Weistling in his DVD "Homework" demos this concept very clearly.

In the light family you have 1)a high light (or rather your lightest light of your main values) 2) a middle or average tone 3) a halftone (where the light value starts to transition to the dark family).

Then in the shadow family you have 5) a core shadow (the darkest of your main values) and 4)a shadow tone that is illuminated by reflected light.

The trick is to keep the halftones clearly grouped in the light family and the "reflected light darks" clearly in the shadow family.(I think there is a GJ post on separation of the light and shadow families too )

Then beyond those 5 main values you have actual high lights (like the sparkle in an eye or the shine on a nose) and then at the other end of the value scale -- those darkest dark accents.

The theory is pretty simple -- in practice I start to get distracted by all the pretty colors and lose track of my value plan.

sfox said...

I would be interested in anything you can find about how Sargent worked. Is there any chance that you could make it available as a pdf?

Amy "Bambi" Wendt said...

Brilliant post! More of this, for sure. Thank you for the tips and instruction, you are a regular part of my day, and it has definitely shown in my work!

Unknown said...

great, i love these tips,
pure gold!
could you please share more observation of paintings methods in the next future?


Anonymous said...

yes, please, more more more. Thank you, Judy

Scott Daly said...

Sargent's work is absolutely amazing. I'm lucky enough to live across from the Detroit Institute of the Arts. There we have a few including one of my favorite, "Madam Paul Poirson" by Sargent. I try to make it out there once a week, especially when I'm in the middle of a project.

Karen Thumm said...

I, too, would like more Sargent notes.

Scott Daly, would you please ask the DIA to send another exhibit up to Traverse City to the Dennos Museum? I loved the exhibit they loaned us while they were remodeling.

Thank you, James, for all that you share. I look forward to every one of your posts.

Erin said...

more! more!

Unknown said...

Hi. I didn't see them actually posted but you can download the entire PDF that these were taken from here, courtesy of the digital painter Craig Mullins.

I still read through them probably once a week.

"Painting is an interpretation of tone through the medium
of color drawn with the brush. Use a large brush. Do not
starve your palette."

Unknown said...

hah! scroll up and they're in the first post. apologies for the repetition.

Izzy Medrano said...

Anything that Sargent had to say on the subject of painting, and simplifying form in the manner he does is of great interest to me! I'll stay tuned for more! Again, great blog, and collections of wisdom. Brilliant. Truly!

Timothy Tyler Artist said...

The idea of "conservation of values" is a term made up by non- painters. Artist and art students should beware of these terms as they are often either mean nothing or leave the wrong impression of the truth. Sargent painted sight size or from life and nature completely took care of the values for him. He never once simplied values that were not precisely what he observed from life. I've heard this concept attributed to other good realistic artists who also paint from life-but never have I heard those artists use the term themselves.

James Gurney said...

Timothy, I guess the way I interpret the quote about simplifying or clarifying values is that some of the random tones have to be grouped and ordered for the form and light to read with simplicity and impact. Part of this goes back to the French sense of "effet" that he would have learned from Carolus Duran.

In an outdoor scene (as opposed to a controlled sight size setup in the studio), any artist or photographer faces a huge range of values that can't possibly be captured with the limited gamut of reflective paint, so a conscious approach to values is vital, even if the goal is to precisely reproduce what you see. Perhaps I'm saying the same thing you are, but in a different way. said...


Hey there, long time to talk! Hope you and your family are doing well. Regarding your comments about Sargent not limiting himself to 5 values -- but precisely painting what he saw instead . . .

Sure, I'd agree J.S. would start with what nature would deliver to him, but he clearly chose to set his subjects up in high contrast situations, or preferred a certain kind of lighting environment. Or perhaps more likely, he preferred some of all that AND consciously edited what he saw to fit his artistic intent.

There is almost always an extreme light and dark mass to be found in his oils, with those light and dark masses used to create the design. At least until late in his life, when his oils appear to become more affected by his watercolors.

But here is where you and I might disagree: Sargent did selectively simplify his color and value breaks. You can see this in the way he edited out subtle transitions the human eye can still see even in a high contrast situation. I believe this simplifying was deliberate and considered in the same way Sorolla's simplifications were. Sargent's big value shifts occur along the major planes, and each patch of color works because of the way he would confidently associate it to one or the other larger light or dark mass. (He also would edit out the lesser plane changes, and values, for the sake of the design.) You will rarely find he violated this in his work.

His mild posterizing introduced a sense of drama when the work was viewed at a distance. (Everything flies apart up close, but locks together at a distance.) And when combined with lost and found edge work, he generated wonderful expressive ways to to play with the viewer's eye. "Is it a paint stroke or the back of a woman's neck? Oh wow, it is both!"

Of course, this may sound easy to do, but it ain't. It's a bit like learning how to launch into a triple-summersault without the benefit of having a net below. The potential crash can be so huge and alarming you choke midstroke, or worse, never strike the stroke you wanted.

It certainly isn't easy if one is also struggling with the drawing issues, or having difficulty establishing the proper color and value relationships.

I'm not championing Sargent's direct painting method over any other approach; say, a more procedural technique like developing a refined underdrawing, then underpainting in dead color, then overpainting and glazing -- the sort of method you are known to use -- I'm just pointing out a dividing line exists between the two different ways to paint. Both can create masterpieces in the right hands, but I lean toward Sargent's manner of drawing and painting simultaneuously out of a personal preference. And necessity, as an ala prima plein air painter. Not to mention: convenience and expediency.

I will admit I felt a sense of relief when I learned how often Sargent wiped or scraped down his canvases. It's nice to know he didn't get it right every time without experiencing some pain. And knowing that doesn't lessen his genius in my mind, it just make him more human.

Good to run into you again. Tell your wife hello for me.

Thomas Kitts

James Gurney said...

Thomas, thanks for that really insightful analysis. Everyone should check out Tom's gorgeous plein air work at said...

Aww, thanks James.

Your kind words are much appreciated. What really caused me to drill down deeply into your site after I stumbled across it, -- and I still have yet to run through it all -- is the terrific info you've posted regarding plein air work. (And everything else as well.) And certainly, I don't want to overlook the high quality of your own plein air work, since it validates much of what you have to say about the matter.

I'm a West Coast guy, but maybe we'll paint together at some point, at some invitational somewhere. Turns out we have a few friends in common for my old days of illustrating.

I've bookmarked your blog and check it daily. So keep 'em coming -- although I don't know how you find the time to maintain it so regularly, and get your painting done . . .



Rebekah Joy Plett said...

More, more, more!

forrie said...

I found this post rather late :-) I would be interested in more notes about and from Singer Sargent. Can you let us know where to find these notes and reference? Thanks!