Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A theory about Sargents methods.

Tonight I Thought I would write a little on Sargent's working methods. Sargent's was what we call today a wet into wet painter, he painted alla prima. Unlike many artists of his time and the generation before, Sargent painted directly. He didn't transfer a finished drawing to the canvas and color it in with glazes. He sat his easel up in front of nature and painted his interpretation of its appearance.

Often when painting portraits Sargent worked with the canvas up next to the model. He was described as using this method (sometimes called sight size) on several occasions. How doctrinaire he was about sight size I don 't know. I would guess not very. But he evidential did place the canvas up with the sitter, walked back to a fixed point in the room to make an observation and then walked back to the canvas and placed that note on the painting. Then he would return to his observation position and look for the next note. I don't believe he always worked this way, but he certainly did often.

Sargent got many sittings for his portraits. Much has been made about Sargent scraping down and redoing the same head over and over. I believe (based on my own experience) is that this sounds like something different than what it actually may have been. I think two separate actions were observed and recorded by those who saw him paint. The first is that Sargent was likely to take a knife and remove a failed passage before repainting it. That's a good habit to be in. Rather than letting the paint just pile up, Sargent pulled it off with his knife and made another go at it.

Here's where my opinion (and that's all it is too, I am not a Sargent scholar) differs from many who have described his approach. Some of the chroniclers of his time remarked that Sargent would completely remove the painting with a knife before working on it a second or additional sitting. Having been trained by Ives Gammell ( who actually met Sargent, though he did not study with him) in an approach at least partly based on Sargent as transmitted by the Boston school painters who idolized Sargent, I am familiar with something similar but slightly different.

My guess is that Sargent's portrait sittings were far enough apart from each other that he started the sessions with a dry or nearly dry canvas. Sargent worked with lead white which makes the paint dry very quickly. Lead is an excellent dryer and has been used as that historically. I was taught that something you can do when beginning work over a dry canvas was to scrape it with the side of your palette knife. That takes the edges down and even though the fineness of the painting may be lost, more than a ghost of the image remains. I believe this was what Sargent may have been doing. To a casual observer the painting might have looked ruined, but there was a fine if slightly degraded image left on the canvas. Flake white scrapes very differently than the titanium white with which you are no doubt more familiar. Lead white scrapes beautifully to a smooth surface. The side of the knife actually cuts into the lead in a way that it doesn't with titanium which is more rubbery. Any paint that sticks up proud of the surface, slices neatly away with the edge of a palette knife.

Because he still had a good deal of his image left, not a lot was really lost by doing this and Sargent could work on his canvas without having to worry about raised edges of paint or too much buildup. This way each days painting was a rehearsal for the next. The paintings look like they were rattled off in one go, because they were rattled off in one go. However there were any number of rehearsals under the image before that one go.

I expect that there were times when Sargent scraped back a painting that was still wet at the end of a sitting, but even then, I expect he scraped enough to get a decent surface and blur his image some, but there was a pretty good ghost of an image left on the canvas to guide his next attack on the problem.

30 comments:

rahina q.h. said...

was the scraping back done at the initial stages mainly for correction? or would this be a normal part of the painting process? i often scrapeback for the ghostly image from which i get a better understanding of the subject. thanks for this Stape.

Gregory Becker said...

I am amazed by the idea that he got such amazing results from bristle brushes. Most of the people achieving good figure results in painting are using badger hair brushes these days. I wonder if the scraping back facilitated something for the use of bristles that is unnecessary for the badgers, ya know?
I've been reading the blog and spending more time painting than commenting or even posting to my own blog. I've also been taking some personal inventory of my life these days.
It's good to say hi to you again Stape.
Great series on Sargent and I loved the pottery series.

Philip Koch said...

Great reverie here by Stape of the amazing handling qualities of lead white. I remember it fondly as it was my white of choice back in the 1970's.

Funny thing was though I noticed I was getting headaches when I painted, and when I tried Titanium White instead, no headaches. So like a lot of painters, I said a tearful goodbye to that sensuous creamy lead. At least I have my memories. Wonder if a lot of the old painters used to walk around with headaches too?

Simone said...

Stape, this was good writing. Thanks.

Mary Byrom said...

Ah, very nice explanation. Lead white & its properties ...materials make such a difference in the process and the end result.

billspaintingmn said...

That's a 'wicked keen' observational theory Stape!
An artist like Sargent couldn't have been making all those mistakes, I too believe something else was at play.
Either way, you bring awareness to an important piece of the puzzle.
As always, Thanks for the artserve.

Thomas Kitts said...

Stapelton:

As always, I read your blog every day with great interest, and even more so when you write about Sargent. I too may not be a recognized scholar on JS but I have devoted much of my professional life to researching and looking at his work from a technical point of view. And I agree, Sargent scraped down in a number of different ways, and at different times of a painting.

Re your comments about lead white:

LW does scrape more cleanly than Titanium or Zinc, and that is one of the reasons I prefer to paint with it. (Just one reason, as there are many more that could be shared. And no, Phillip, I doubt LW was the culprit responsible for your headaches. More likely to have been some volatile flashing off from your materials, or the solvent being used at the time. Try painting with a verified pure oil and lead carbonate if you want to find out. Say, an Old Holland Cremnitz # 2, or a Rublev LW from Natural Pigments, or a Micheal Harding LW.)

If anyone is interested in improving their knife's ability to scrape cleanly, and reduce the chance of gouging your canvas, see this post on my blog -- http://thomaskitts.blogspot.com/2010/01/more-on-palette-knife.html --

Something else worth mentioning: LW also pulls and builds up on the surface differently than T or Z white does, and, perhaps that will be a subject for another post from you, a self-described 'chisel' painter. Me? I might just do a post on lead white alone.

I will be traveling to NYC next week and going to see a modest but exciting show of Sargents at the Adelson Gallery -- http://www.adelsongalleries.com -- There will be thirty or so lesser known works available for close inspection and If I see anything of note, beyond the usual extraordinary handling of paint, perhaps I'll post something here.

As always, Stapelton, a great blog and fun read!

Thomas Kitts
http://www.thomaskitts.com
http://www.thomaskitts.blogspot.com

Thomas Kitts said...

Stapelton:

As always, I read your blog every day with great interest, and even more so when you write about Sargent. I too may not be a recognized scholar on JS but I have devoted much of my professional life to researching and looking at his work from a technical point of view. And I agree, Sargent scraped down in a number of different ways, and at different times of a painting.

Re your comments about lead white:

LW does scrape more cleanly than Titanium or Zinc, and that is one of the reasons I prefer to paint with it. (Just one reason, as there are many more that could be shared. And no, Phillip, I doubt LW was the culprit responsible for your headaches. More likely to have been some volatile flashing off from your materials, or the solvent being used at the time. Try painting with a verified pure oil and lead carbonate if you want to find out. Say, an Old Holland Cremnitz # 2, or a Rublev LW from Natural Pigments, or a Micheal Harding LW.)

If anyone is interested in improving their knife's ability to scrape cleanly, and reduce the chance of gouging your canvas, see this post on my blog -- http://thomaskitts.blogspot.com/2010/01/more-on-palette-knife.html --

Something else worth mentioning: LW also pulls and builds up on the surface differently than T or Z white does, and, perhaps that will be a subject for another post from you, a self-described 'chisel' painter. Me? I might just do a post on lead white alone.

I will be traveling to NYC next week and going to see a modest but exciting show of Sargents at the Adelson Gallery -- http://www.adelsongalleries.com -- There will be thirty or so lesser known works available for close inspection and If I see anything of note, beyond the usual extraordinary handling of paint, perhaps I'll post something here.

As always, Stapelton, a great blog and fun read!

Thomas Kitts
http://www.thomaskitts.com
http://www.thomaskitts.blogspot.com

Thomas Kitts said...

Apologies for the duplicate posting above.

Something went haywire on my side on the first go-round and my comments did not look like they uploaded.

Thomas

jeff said...

I tend to agree with you Stapleton.
I think Sargent painted much in the manner you are describing.

I've seen something similar done by Fran Mason many a time. He would do 3 hour portrait demos once or twice a year. This was how he worked, pretty much alla prima. Frank was a master at drawing with the brush and it's obvious that Sargent was.
The heads Frank would do in these demos often looked like Sargents
or something close to that idea and Rubens, Hals and Velasquez.

Gregory mentioned that he is amazed of the results Sargent can achieve with bristle brushes. It's pretty hard to paint the way Sargent did with sables, or badger hair as they are soft and don't have enough resistance. The other brushes are good for details or accents.

tom martino said...

Was this "scraping down" the method also used by Whistler between sittings?

b said...

This is off topic, and I've tried to find this out online, but haven't been able to yet.

A comment a few posts back said that the Sargent's painting of Jacques Barenton, was of a boy.

This is going completely against what my eyes are telling me. The girl has two bows in her hair, and has two very long braids.

The only thing about this that is even remotely boyish is the sailor outfit. And that is if we believe that ONLY little boys ever wore a sailor outfit.

So unless this "boy's" parents were completely messed up in the head, I'm calling it a girl.

b said...

After looking at the painting again, I see that the second white bow is probably part of the outfit. But this makes me believe even more that this is a little girl, as it would feminize the sailor suit making it more likely that it was designed for girls not boys.

Kyle V Thomas said...

Just to clarify the portrait: It is a portrait of the writer Vernon Lee which was the pseudonym of author Violet Paget, a girl.

Now to get back on topic. Marc Dalessio demonstrates this scraping technique in a video on his website, www.marcdalessio.com
It seems like a valid and helpful thing for alla prima painters who work over multiple sessions. (I know that goes against alla prima)

It makes sense to me that Sargent would do this. Thanks Stape.

willek said...

Terrific posting, Stape. I suppose you must scrape back after painting outside and bringing it back to the studio for the "kernels of rice" phase.

Jeremy Elder said...

That is an interesting working technique. It reminds me of partially erasing a drawing to rework it.

By the way, what is your opinion of sight-size? Do you think it is a valuable method to learn to improve one's drawing ability?

Stapleton Kearns said...

Rahina;
It was probably a daily part of his methods.
.............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Gregory.
I believe that bristle brushes give better handling.But there are great painters using soft brushes too, so who knows?
.................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Philip:
Lead is a great white, too bad it is so poisonous.
..................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Simone;
Thanks.
..........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Mary;
There is the physical, mechanical art of oil painting that requires craftsmanship.
...............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Bill
Thanks.
.........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thomas:
I couldn't get that link to work.
................Sttape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Jeff;
I see you agree with me on bristle brushes.
....................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Tom;
I think when lead was the common white, artists routinely scraped down their paintings.
..............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

b;
I think I am going to do a post and get to the "bottom" of this gender question.
...........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Kyle;
I think someone said I looked like Vernon Lee, but maybe they said I looked like the indeterminately sexed child in the sailor suit.
.....................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

willek;
I don't scrape the ricey stuff.
.................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Jeremy;
I think sight size is an excellent teaching method. I don't think it is the way to go after that at all.
..................Stape

Thomas Kitts said...

Sorry, Stapelton, here is the link again, assuming you wanted to see the post on improving the palette knife:

http://thomaskitts.blogspot.com/2010/01/more-on-palette-knife.html

I wish these dang blogs generated shorter URLs.

And you may know this, but some of your readers may not: Vernon Lee was a childhood friend of Sargent (and Sargent's sister). Both sets of parents were ex-pats kicking around Europe. There is even a story that was circulated by Vernon Lee (aka Violet Paget, Vernon's non de plume for her novels and poetry, that she lent him her paint box one rainy week when both families were summering in Italy. Whether or not this is true, who can say, but much of what we know about Sargent's life comes from Lee, as they remained intimate friends. It was Lee who helped Sargent through the debacle of Madame X.

I hope the link above works. If it doesn't let me know and I will figure something else out.

Thomas