5 Things to Learn From John Singer Sargent’s Painting Techniques
Studying the masters is one of the best ways to advance your own painting. Whether it’s completing a full museum copy of an original work or creating small studies, analyzing the techniques of the masters helps to expand your visual language and unlock new potentials in your own work. If you’re looking to paint more like John Singer Sargent, start by painting your own master studies like the ones in this article. Here, we summarize Kristy Gordon’s analysis of five distinctive techniques found in Sargent’s paintings that you can use. Featured here are excerpts and lessons from Kristy Gordon’s video “Sargent’s Painting Techniques,” which is included in the video library for Members and can be purchased as a download.
In her full demonstration, Kristy Gordon sets herself a goal of learning to paint more like Sargent by studying his techniques through the process of creating master studies of his work. She describes her analysis of Sargent’s process and techniques as she works on master studies of two famous paintings by Sargent – “Lady Agnew” and “Carnation Lily, Lily, Rose.” Her research began by studying the writings, teaching, and painting style of French painter Carolus-Duran (1937-1917). You can learn more about Carolus-Duran and his influence on Sargent’s work here: Black is the New Green
These are the materials Kristy Gordon selected in her master studies. The palette is a rough approximation of the colors Sargent may have worked with, so if you’re looking to paint more like Sargent, this is a good place to start.
- Titanium White
- Cadmium Yellow Light
- Cadmium Yellow Deep
- Cadmium Orange
- Cadmium Red Light
- Alizarin Permanent
- Yellow Ochre
- Burnt Sienna
- Viridian Green
- Cobalt Blue
- Ultramarine Blue
- Cobalt Violet
- Ivory Black
11×14 Primed Linen Panel
Filberts (a variety of sizes), and Mop Brushes (Large and Small)
Gamsol or similar odorless mineral spirits, Painting Rags
How to Paint Sargent’s Flesh
If you’re looking to paint portraits like Sargent, examine his mastery of painting flesh. Sargent’s paintings feature beautiful, lifelike flesh tones, with a masterful approach to painting light and shadow. Kristy Gordon demonstrates this in her video and recommends beginning with a thin wash using mineral spirits and a mixture of Viridian Green and Burnt Sienna to block in the shadow side of the head. Then use paint directly with no solvent or medium added to build dark in the hairs. Be aware that a distinguishing feature in Sargent’s work is to establish not only the lights, but also the shadows using thick, opaque paint. The color of the flesh is controlled by first mixing an overall base flesh tone, then increasing the saturation by adding small amounts of orange and red, or decreasing the saturation by adding a grey mixture. The shadow side is then painted with a thick mixture of Cadmium Orange, Ultramarine Blue, and a small amount of the base flesh tone. As the flesh tone transitions from light to shadow, the color is darkened and made warmer in contrast to the cool shadows, using careful brushwork and an occasional use of a mop brush to soften and blend edges.
How to Paint with Sargent’s Brushwork
When painters want to learn to paint more like Sargent, they often start with what he is most known for, his confident and painterly brushwork. He was known for scraping down his paintings and reworking areas multiple times, with the result appearing fresh and spontaneous. Gordon demonstrates that confident brushwork, layering color with direct and descriptive brushwork. Her advice? Slow down and carefully consider each brushstroke. Place the brush, drag, and lift, with minimal reworking or fussing afterward. If you’re not satisfied, scrape the mark away and try again!
How to Use Shapes Like Sargent
To paint more like Sargent, take a look at his compositions, particularly his use of distinctive shapes. Gordon observes in “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” The use of silhouettes as design elements. What she describes here is the way in which Sargent emphasizes the two-dimensional qualities of the three-dimensional forms in his compositions. In Sargent’s painting, the positive and negative shapes of the flowers and background are observed as two-dimensional shapes, interlocking with one another to unify the composition. There’s an elegance to Sargent’s use of asymmetrical shapes that balance straight and curved forms, sharp and soft edges, and pointed and blunt forms, creating rhythm and variety in the compositions.
How to Paint Sargent’s Glowing Light
Painting like Sargent could also include the use of light to create mood and describe form. The lanterns Sargent painted in “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” a scene in a flower garden with girls lighting lanterns at twilight, are truly astounding. Kristy Gordon observes that sensitivity to saturation and color temperature in her copy of one of Sargent’s lanterns. A key observation is the shifting between pink, red, and orange to illustrate plane changes in the form of the lantern. The cool properties of the flowers and grasses in the landscape provide contrast to the warm glow of the lanterns. She also observes Sargent’s use of lighter values in the centers of the lanterns, using darker, more highly saturated hues along the edges and to create texture.
Finally, painting more like Sargent could mean to use flowing, folded fabric like he does in Lady Agnew. His approach demonstrates other qualities described so far, like his use of color, confident brushwork, wet-into-wet painting, and emphasis on edges. Sargent begins with a simple block-in to describe the light and shadow shapes. Then, working wet-into-wet, the fabric is sculpted with careful brushwork as color is darkened at the edges and along the turning from light into shadow. The texture of the folded fabric is largely described through careful observation and control of the finer details and highlights. Reflections on fabric reveal quite a bit of information about its texture. Glossier surfaces create sharper, more distinct reflections, while increasingly textured fabrics create softer and more diffused reflections. In “Lady Agnew,” Sargent varies the brushwork with which he paints his highlights. This helps to distinguish the unique textures of the dress, sash, and chair.
Try these painting exercises yourself to paint more like Sargent. What unique observations about Sargent’s process will you make? How can it influence your own approach to painting? Share your thoughts and discoveries in the comments below!
Kristy Gordon is busy. In addition to being represented by multiple galleries in both the US and her home country of Canada, and regularly participating in group and solo exhibitions, this artist is also a writer, a teacher and a podcast host. Her contemporary figurative work dwells in magical realism, with fantastical themes defining the unique conversation she seeks to have with her audience.
“Now, more than ever, there is a need for art that examines socio-cultural events through the lens of social justice and ecological awareness,” she says. “Many artists are returning to representational painting because of its storytelling capability.”