images from artrenewal.org
Tonight I think I will point out a quality of a number of Sargent's paintings that I like a whole lot. In many of his studies and some of his formal portraits Sargent employs a very limited palette.
The paintings on this post have in common a very simple range of colors.
This seems to be a method that Sargent deployed routinely, the painting is essentially done in black and yellow ocher (or possibly mars yellow). Then he adds some accents or areas of iron oxide red (again this may be a mars red, mars colors are synthetic iron oxides and have greater pigmenting strength than the natural varieties). He has reduced the color to just a few pigments in order to go after the drawing and make the color decisions almost binary. Is this the black or the ocher here? Even the cool shadows in the piece above look to me that they could be ivory black.
Those of you who have painted architecture in the sunlight know that there are all sorts of variations in the color that would not appear in a reduced palette like this. This is not impressionist color but something closer to an academic study.
Many artists today are using a chromatic or prismatic palette that has a yellow red and blue. I don't know of many who are using an earth color limited palette like this. But it makes a lot of sense. The paintings have phenomenal color unity, you couldn't hit a discordant note if you tried with this palette. They also have a restrained dignity that gives them elegance.
Above is a watercolor using the same reduced method of working. All of the black areas he uses give the paintings both punch and a decorative pattern. Look at the venetian girl at the top of the page and you will see that the three main players are all big black shapes laid over top of the lightly colored street scene. The two men admiring the hurrying young girl are joined together to make one big shape. The painting has a smaller black shape on the left and balanced by a larger black shape on the right. Everything else in the painting would be pretty ephemeral, except Sargent as scattered the darks of the windows about the painting as accents to his larger figures. Sargent placed the little red scarf at her throat to make this figure catch the eye and give it the greatest importance in the painting.