Monday, September 4, 2017

Sargent's Preliminary Pencils

How much preliminary pencil drawing did John S. Sargent do before launching in with watercolors in his famous "Muddy Alligator" painting of 1917?

Analysis of a related work "Alligators" (below) provides a clue. The 15 x 20-inch painting appears to be abandoned after a few washes were laid down, perhaps because the subjects moved.

Using the technique of infrared reflectography, Marjorie Shelley of the Metropolitan Museum was able to peer through the layers of paint to reveal the preliminary drawing in graphite. Sargent only drew the alligators at the top of the page, the ones in the extreme distance. 

Then, possibly sensing that the animals were on the move and he had to speed up, he evidently shifted his strategy, constructing the forms with the brush directly and dispensing with the pencil.

Sargent's normal practice in watercolor was to draw the main lines of the subject first in graphite. This was attested by observers, including Newton Phelps Stokes, who said: "fine and correct drawing was the foundation on which all his work was built." Sargent's biographer Evan Charteris said that his "general habit was to make the lightest indications in pencil to fix the relative position of objects."

Spanish Fountain, by John Singer Sargent, watercolor
So how much pencil is there under the Spanish Fountain painting? 

The infrared reflectogram assembly confirms that Sargent drew the main contours of the sculpture, the path of the water, and dots for the eyes. But he didn't draw the far tiles or the water ripples. Those he left for the brush.

The practice among early 19th century watercolorists in Britain was to erase the graphite lines with a piece of bread or India rubber after the main washes had been laid down. But by later in the century, it became more acceptable to allow the construction lines to show through the final paint. 
Some images and quotes are taken from the chapter "Materials and Techniques," by Marjorie Shelley in the publication American Drawings and Watercolors in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: John Singer Sargent2000.

More books by Marjorie Shelley: 


A Colonel of Truth said...

Sargent's mastery of watercolor just unbelievable! What a talent. Peerless. Standing before an original ... jaw-dropping. Great post this Labor Day, James.

Richard Ewen said...

I remember when I started out submitting transparent watercolors to show that there was a rule against using white and mixing in any other media. Eventually I realized it was very limiting for any creative work and soon I also realized that al the images submitted looked very much alike. So too was the erasing of pencil lines in a watercolor. "Rules" are detrimental to artists. But learning techniques to help you get the effect you want are very helpful. Techniques you provide us are helpful too. Thank you for showing the under drawing of Sargent's watercolors.

sfox said...

Love, love, love seeing his process! Also how he adjusted to the gators moving around, something anyone who draws from live animals has to deal with. Starting with a pencil sketch, but also going straight to watercolor if necessary is something I will keep in mind in the future. Hope you can post more of these from him and from other artists.

Steve said...

I also love seeing JSS's process. Thanks for introducing me to the book from which this is taken. Just requested it through interlibrary loan.