Saturday, January 18, 2014

Sargent watercolor techniques: Five observations

This is the last weekend for the Sargent Watercolor exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

The show combines the best watercolors of the collections of the MFA and the Brooklyn museum, along with a few oils.  

We saw the show a couple of months ago, but beforehand, we visited behind the scenes with conservator Annette Manick (second from right. That's Richard Scarpa at the far left, Garin Baker, and Jeanette).

Annette Manick showed us swatches made with the actual pigments recovered from paint tubes in Sargent's paint kit. She also made a number of test swatches to experiment with some of the unusual techniques that Sargent was known to use with his watercolors, such as wax, gouache, gum arabic and oxgall.

In the back of the show catalog, Manick goes into great detail about these painting methods. I think this represents an exciting new trend in art history scholarship. Conservators, working closely with art historians and practicing artists, are trying to reconstruct the practical methods of artists from the past.

Here are five quick observations that struck me again and again as I visited the show.

1. Unlike many of the British watercolorists who believed in using purely transparent pigments, Sargent used gouache whenever he needed it. This passage of a white dress has opaque white in the bright lights and in the open shadows. He often lays down a spot of white gouache and then, after it dries, he goes over the spot of paint with transparent colors to keep the gouache stroke from jumping out of the paint surface.

2. He used wax as a resist to give a scintillating effect. Here he first laid down a yellow green base color, then stroked it with wax, which resisted the brownish later layers.

3. In the dark passages, Sargent stays away from black, and generally mixes bright blues with browns at the same value. You can see it dramatically in the lower central area of this detail.

4. Sargent was incredibly daring, taking huge risks with big brushes at every step of the painting. It's not just pure boldness and freedom, though, because he's also deliberate and considered, too. I can just picture him thinking, waiting, or planning, and then diving in with an apparently reckless move, cursing under his breath all the while.

5. He defines only what he wants to define, and leaves a lot quickly stated. There are no individual hairs defined in the beard, nor are the lips defined with a strong line between them. The result of this simplicity is that the eyes, with their sparkling highlights, really grab the viewer. This informal portrait is called "The Hermit" "A Tramp." It was really painted from a fellow artist who posed for him.

The exhibition will continue through January 20
Thanks to Marc Holmes and Greg Shea for the closeup photos. Marc has a great blog post with more Sargent watercolor insights. 
Catalog of the show 


Tom Hart said...

Congratulations and thanks for a wonderful post, James. This is one I'll return to again (and again). Also, I'm thrilled to read that FINALLY mainstream art history is paying attention to technique. This is a very welcome and overdue development.

Robert J. Simone said...

That informal portrait of "The Hermit" must have been a study for the larger oil painting by the same title. That oil painting is in the Met and is my favorite Sargent.

mdmattin said...

I finally got to see the show last week. It was fantastic, I wish I could go back several times. My friend and I did little sketches of several paintings, which is a great way to see what's going on behind the surface elements. I was struck by how he didn't "sweat the small stuff." Details that I would fuss with, like a too-hard edge in a background brush stroke, he just let be, because he had his eye on the big picture.
The show and catalog list that painting as "A Tramp," not "The Hermit." Did its name get changed at some point?

David Apatoff said...

Excellent points, James, especially 4 and 5 which really show Sargent's mastery.

I saw this show and was first intrigued by all the color swatches and the chemical composition of the pigments and the analysis of Sargent's working methods but soon I began to feel that it was intruding on the magic of Sargent's watercolors-- like a member of the audience trying to call out how a magician performs his tricks. I'm glad the information was available for those who wanted it, but I found myself skipping it to preserve the mood and the flow of the work.

David Webb said...

I love Sargent's watercolours. Whenever I get a touch of artist' block, I take a look at his paintings and think 'yep'. I'd love to see that exhibition but it's a bit of a trek/swim from England, and my home made transporter beam is still having a few teething problems.

Unknown said...

Thank you sooo much for this post! What kind of wax would I use now for a similar effect?
Love your work too!

James Gurney said...

Cheryl, I've tried canning paraffin and an old white candle, and they both worked OK. Experiment!

Unknown said...

Thank you for taking the time to answer my question! Warmly, Cheryl

Unknown said...

i am wondering if Sergent used gouache in some parts of areas or he used it throughout tha entire painting.. just curious..

RideHanna said...

So pleased I stumbled on this blog! I am already a fan of Mr Gurney’s so I was delighted to see him checking out JSS’s water colours. I like Mr Sargents oils but I love his watercolours. Thanks James you have given me fodder to experiment!