Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sargent's "Signet" Palette

Curators at the Harvard Art Museum have completed their study of one of John Singer Sargent's palettes, which was given to the Signet Society.

The palette still contains a lot of paint, and it's arranged in the normal way for a 19th century painter. The colors start with a large amount of white forward of the thumbhole, and proceed through the yellows, reds, browns, blues, greens and black at the back, or far left in this photo.

UV illumination reveals two kinds of white paint: lead and zinc. It also shows "numerous droplets of resinous material which fluoresces orange in UV, scattered predominantly around the white paint, and one reasonably large blob of wax on the palette surface."

The colors include vermilion, red lake, red ochre, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow, a green containing chromium, Prussian blue, cobalt blue, ultramarine, and umber. Observers watching him work said his colors were piled in "miniature mountains," and they were the ones in ordinary use, the earth colors predominating.

Although Sargent kept his brushes meticulously clean, he was not as scrupulous about keeping the colors on his palette separate from each other. The paint is mixed in the areas where the paint was squeezed out, rather than keeping the edge-colors distinct, as some painters do.

The palette was re-used without full cleaning, as revealed "by a darkened paint layer underneath the top layer, especially visible beneath the white paint."

Some of the paint is flattened from having something put on top of it before it was fully dry. One of the red pigments has a surface of paper applied to it, presumably to keep the paint active longer.

Julia Heyneman, a contemporary of Sargent, wrote that his palettes were weighted. The weight (probably lead) appears on the underside of the palette (lower left of image above), which is made of a double-thick layer of wood. There is also a metal fence made of zinc clipped to the edge of the palette that would touch the artist's left sleeve, preventing the paint from getting on Sargent's sleeve.
2017 Newsletter of the Signet Society of Harvard College
Pall Mall Gazette, 1907, Volume XXXIX, pages 643-651
Previously on GJ: Palette Arrangements
See Also: Another palette Harvard collection reputedly used by Sargent.


Kessie said...

In the art classes I've attended, many, many palettes looked exactly like that, only not so fancy. We got paint on our sleeves. :-D

Marion Boddy-Evans said...

It's somehow reassuring that Sargent wasn't fastidious in his colour control on his palette, that I need worry less about it.

Unknown said...

Dear Mr Gurney, is there evidence of what black he used or if he used black at all? And between the two palletes is there evidence of his color palette changing significantly throughout his career? I am really interested in his works and want to use colors that he would have used.

James Gurney said...

Puckle, I have notes on that, and I'll check on it. I do remember reading in that same Pall Mall Magazine that Sargent's colors weren't especially unusual, and there were no "secret ingredients" or tools, just ordinary stuff that everyone else used. The recent catalog on Sargent's watercolors has an appendix with a lot of analysis of his pigments, and the general conclusion was that he was always experimenting.

My Pen Name said...

Sargent is purported to have been exasperated when he borrowed monet's painting kit and discovered there was no black.
Sargent most likely used ivory black (which is really a very dark blue) for his early paintings -the background of Madame x and his portrait of his teacher Duran is similar to many by Velasquez - whom Sargent admired and made many master copies of while he was in spain - that greenish background is achieved by mixing yellow ochre and ivory black.

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Quoc Phan said...

Is there a story to how or why the palette is broken?

ThomD said...

I don't think it is what you are asking, but the palette is made of solid wood, and it is reinforced in the hand area for comfort, balance, and strength. It broke along the long grain just at the point where the doubler created a stress riser, even though that is the longest section to break in the whole palette. It looks too wavy to be a glue joint separation. If the palette was a single piece, there would be some quartered grain in it where the resistance to splitting would be minimal. Even if the palette was made of pieces, the same kind of weakness could be in the parts. Quartered grain is less likely to warp, but splits easily. It would not take much to split a solid wood palette that was built to be light, but I don't know what event was responsible. With plywood, even light material is very resistant to that kind of injury

ThomD said...

It is interesting that in the Portrait Society reproductions which copy an existing Sargent palette the area that is split in the photo above is reinforced with the doubler. I don't know what their repros are made of, but if made of plywood, and if the split palette had a better balance but split, plywood repos would be fine without the doubler. The PS version also has two wells affixed to the upper lobe, and the extended doubler would help with attaching those, though the whole balance would shift a little.