Why Not Learn from Master John Singer Sargent?
I try and shy away from describing art in bombastic terms. It can become a slippery slope of flowery language with no real takeaways. But when I’m studying the works of no less than John Singer Sargent, phrases like tour-de-force and mind-boggling just sort of slip out. I think that’s to be expected considering how deftly and powerfully he turns oil on canvas into art.
One of the primary oil painting techniques Sargent utilized that I find most intriguing is that every stroke attempts to describe the essence of an object. The texture of fur, the sheen of silk, the intricate knots in lace, the pattern of sunlight on water, a rosy-colored cheek — Sargent attempted to embody all of these in every stroke.
He wasn’t trying to add a bunch of strokes together and hopefully get the shimmy and swirl of the fringe on the dancer’s body in La Carmencita, for example. The paint strokes are shimmies and swirls.
That’s not to say that every stroke Sargent put down was perfect the first time. As a friend reminded me recently, Sargent painted and scraped and painted and scraped ad nauseam. But he got there!
Sargent also came from a point of view that form is never flat. Even a marble walkway as in Richard Morris Hunt or the open air behind a portrait sitter, is enlivened with color and texture that is visually interesting but never overpowering.
Choose the Moment
And Sargent didn’t just paint anything. He painted exceptional moments. That’s not to say he scorned the everyday, but he chose his compositions thoughtfully and well.
Even a simple portrait of a woman, a child or a group delivers impact because Sargent pushed to articulate something noteworthy that makes a viewer linger, as in the position of the two figures in the portrait of Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes or the hand gesture and askance look in Mabel Marquand.
Art history comes alive when you sit down and let it unfold. The oil painting lessons that Sargent teaches me — which I learned simply by looking at his works — are incredibly rewarding and enriching. But it is also valuable to have expert perspectives on artists past and present as well as context of wider art techniques.
If you are looking for even more oil painting instruction, then you should check out Everything You Need to Know About Oils. In this Artists Network University course, you’ll learn the differences among the various types of oils, including traditional paints, alkyds and water-soluble oils; strategies for mixing and applying color; the best brushes for oil painting; and more. Enjoy!