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Learning from John Singer Sargent

Learning about light and reflection is key in watercolor and drawing generally, and is a real challenge.   John Singer Sargent, the portrait artist and later watercolor painter, recommended:  “Above all things get abroad, see the sunlight, and everything that is to be seen, the power of selection will follow.”  (See essay “Sunlight on Stone” by Teresa A. Carbone, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of American Art and Managing Curator, Arts of the Americas and Europe, Brooklyn Museum, in John Singer Sargent Watercolors published by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Brooklyn Museum in 2013-2014).

In some of his paintings, Sargent seems only to paint the reflected surfaces and darker contrasts, skipping any outline or sketch.  His work as a watercolorist shocked many of the critics of his time, according to Erica E. Hirshler, the Croll Senior Curator of American Paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in her essay, “Sargent’s Watercolors:  Not for Sale” (also found in John Singer Sargent Watercolors.)   This is an excellent book, by the way, with informative clearly written essays by multiple art historians, and numerous color and black-and-white plates of Sargent’s paintings.

Hershel writes that “the difference between Sargent’s approach to watercolor and the British watercolor tradition was profound…” [in the early 1900s]. “The convention called for carefully delineated and composed landscapes enlivened with transparent washes of color.”  At the time, a reviewer of Sargent’s works noted that his “seeming carelessness of touch is really controlled by the most correct judgement and by the acutest perception of relations of tone and color.”  Sargent’s watercolors, said another art critic at the time, were “a bewilderment to men of an older, more staid school.”  And, more than a century later, they continue to pose challenges, as well as guides, to those wishing to enhance their observation and imagination skills.

Illustration: Watercolor and Micron pen

Illustration: Watercolor and Micron pen sketch in Stillman and Birn Alpha series sketchbook after the John Singer Sargent’s painting, “A Venetian Canal,” by by Black Elephant Blog author

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