Friday, November 12, 2010

Sargent using a reduced palette

images from

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.


billspaintingmn said...

I've heard Sargent painted in Zorn palette,(4 colors)
The second painting looks to have a bit of blue in it.
Can black be made to look blue when
set next to a perticular color mixture?
Stape, would you recommend a limited palette for snow paintings?
(Did Sargent paint winter scenes?)

billspaintingmn said...

I think I will add that the 3rd painting appears to look like a young Stapleton Kearns! He really does!

Unknown said...

Thank you for your insight into this matter with Sargent and for posting and sharing - invaluable, thanks!!

Anonymous said...

thanks for this article... it confirmed certain ideas i had and wonderful to hear your analysis of Sargent's work in this aspect.

jake gumbleton said...

Pure gold Mr Kearns. You the man!

Bill said...

Is that last Venice scene really a watercolor? It looks like loosely painted oil.

Timothy Parks said...

Great post Stapleton. Keep up the Sargent theme, can't get enough of him.
For those that are hardcore Sargent lovers, here is Sargent's palette of colors, (taken from Harrington Mann's excellent book "The Technique of Portrait Painting". Harrington Mann was a very successful portrait painter, who knew Sargent personally):
Blanc d'Argent
Chromes (Pale and Orange)
Rose Madder
Cobalt Blue
French Ultramarine
Transparent Golden Ochre
Chinese Vermilion
Burnt Sienna
Raw Umber
Ivory Black
Peach Black
Cobalt Violet
Venetian Red
(all of the above colors are spelled that way in the book).

Darren said...

Black can look blue when glazed over a warmer color. Check out the halftones on Rubens' flesh.

J Hopper said...

Fairfield Porter too used that palette on occasion - love his work as well.
Also, I think that the slightly skewed architecture gives the picture an uneasiness, that this scene is a little edgy, perhaps extrapolating the tension between the figures - a lovely woman discomforted by two dark strangers she doesn't know, observing her.

jeff said...

I think Ivory Black in Sargent's day was bluer than it is now. Mind you Ivory Black does tend towards blue.

I have tubed up a small amount of a blue black and if you want to use a limited palette for landscape painting this could work well.

I added about 10% of Ultramarine blue to the black. I've experimented with Cobalt and Prussian as well. Prussian makes a very intense blue black.

Philip Koch said...

Great post! So true.

Color can be so maddeningly involved and get in the way of you expressing yourself. You can alwasys do it through composing your darks and light into an exciting composition. So often when I've had serious color problems with a painting I end up solving them by ignoring color and going back to drawing more interesting shapes and composing them better.

Unknown said...

Good stuff! I will have to give this palate a try when I go back to painting (I am working on my drawing skills right now).

By the way, I just read your posts on turpentine and had a question. Some of the materials handbooks say not to use any turp in the top layers of paint because it can dissolve/darken the lower layers. Have you had this experience? Do you think stuff like Gamsol would have that effect too?

Stapleton Kearns said...

I can't say I know of many winter paintings by Sargent. Some of the Tyrolean paintings gave glaciers though.
I don't think I would be so happy in the snow with out the prismatic palette.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That painting is of a girl.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks, hows that nativity coming?

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks, bill thinks I look like a girl.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Yes it is a watercolor. Sargent painted thousands of them.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks I posted that tonight out front.

Stapleton Kearns said...

And it works like a charm.

Stapleton Kearns said...

He may have done, but I like his brother better.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have thoufght the same thing and fooled around with both blue black and cooling ivory balck with ultramarine. Indigo is an interesting blue that is almost black too. Seago used a lot of it.I think most of it is a mixed color these days rather than authentic, and they vary a lot from manufacturer, the best being less blue and more blacky. I believe Seago used the Winsor Newton.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Color is just a decoration you hang on your drawing.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have had that happen. But alkyd solves that problem, when it dries it is bulletproof.

Bill said...

Stape - yes, I know I know Sergeant painted thousands of watercolors, but that's not one of them. [url][/url]