The Art of Charles Sovek


Secrets of Sargent's Watercolors
The Artist's Magazine - April, 1989 (Cover Story)
Page 2


I've chosen Sargent's watercolors for this article because, of all his voluminous output, his watercolors are most easily analyzed. In most, we see the entire creative process taking place beneath the transparent paint. Preliminary pencil lines are often evident, as is the application of beginning and intermediate washes, modeling, surface textures and the occasional corrective swipes of paint or pastel.

Sargent's working procedure was surprisingly academic. Preferring coldpressed paper and favoring half-sheet sizes, Sargent began his painting with a careful pencil drawing. Next came the massing in of lights, which is the first lesson to be learned from his technique.

Working over the entire picture area, Sargent not only established the correct color and value for all the lighted areas in the painting, washing the paint over the entire form of all the components in his composition, he was also careful to leave untouched paper for the objects which were to remain white. Study Camp at Lake O’Hara and observe the crisp whites of the cup and metal canteen top on the table in the foreground.

When a wash accidentally covered some of these precious passages, as happened in the clouds in From Jerusalem, Sargent simply re-stated the area with opaque white. This is certainly a rub to many purists, but a necessity if the mood was to be accurately captured.

Once all the lights were massed in, Sargent's next step was to establish a shadow pattern and begin modeling his forms. Working quickly, he would often let shadows flow into the wet areas of the lights. Study the sky in From Jerusalem and notice how the shadow sections of clouds on the left and just above the horizon soften and merge as they blend into the lights. Now compare this with the contrasting crispness of the shadows on the ground just below the horizon line. Sargent knew exactly when to harden or soften an edge, and his second step of placing shadows onto either wet or dry paper shows how the entire underpinning of the painting's success or failure depended on the decisions he made at this crucial stage.

Another device Sargent employed was to re-wet a dry shadow passage with clear water and develop some modeling into that area. The lower part of the figure, interior of the tent and area below the wooden camp table in Camp at Lake O’Hara (below) are examples of this technique.

"Camp at Lake O'Hara"

Illuminating Ideas – Hold your hand over the upper-right quarter of Camp at Lake O'Hara (watercolor, 15 3/4 x 21; left) and notice how the mood becomes somber and far less luminous. This is because the sun-drenched mountain contrasts the cool colors in the rest of the composition, suggesting that there's space and light beyond this bit of woods, and that the campsite is only temporarily shadowed. Sargent liked to say he was indifferent to what he was painting and was more concerned with the effects of tone and color. In the following illustrations, I’ll explore these effects.

Statement of Values – Sargent never let his execution undermine the solid pattern of simple values that unified his compositions. Study this three-value sketch of Camp at Lake O'Hara (right) and the accompanying value scale. Now squint at the actual painting and notice that the same, simplified tonal pattern lies beneath the various textures and brushwork.

Sketch - "Camp at Lake O'Hara"

Sketch - "Camp at Lake O'Hara"

Reveal the Lights – Observe how the initial washes establish all the values and colors of the light side of objects. Already, the lighting condition begins to reveal itself through the temperature changes between the warm orange of the light-struck mountain and the cool gray-purple, tan and green of the campsite. The accuracy of this all-important first step is what gives vitality and a sense of realism to the shadow patterns that will be added next.

Dashes of Dark – Sargent was never afraid to state a strong dark. Here, the rich tones of the pine trees silhouette the tents and imbue them with luminous, colorful grays. Although the artist employed a number of value changes while painting different objects, he never let them overpower the pictorial unity. The lush accents of dark on the hair, tent and cooking pots finalize the painting, giving it just the right amount of detail to appear complete.

Sketch - "Camp at Lake O'Hara"
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Examine the surface of Figure in Hammock, Florida (Page 1). Notice how each form is incisively modeled, revealing both its volume and texture. Observe how, upon close inspection, each area is made up of combinations of differently shaped brushstrokes. Some are hard, others soft. Still others are drybrushed, worked over, painted wet-in-wet or even scraped into with a knife or fingernail. Like a good handwritten letter, each mark of the artist's brush contributes to the painting as a whole. He's not trying to dazzle, be clever or call attention to his virtuosity. He's simply and sincerely painting how he feels about what he sees.


Sargent had "perfect pitch" when it came to observing and stating a value. Squint your eyes at any of the paintings shown here and notice that when the details are softened, the pictures still convey an incredible quality of existence.

This also has to do with the fact that Sargent worked exclusively from life. While not the innovative patternmaker that Homer was, Sargent nonetheless imparted his compositions with striking arrangements of light, medium and dark shapes that form the structure of his realistic approach to painting. Study the bold simplicity of the trees in Camp at Lake OHara and Figure in Hammock and take note of how these dark shapes heighten the illusion of detail scattered throughout the rest of the compositions.

From Jerusalem is made up essentially of two values, with few modulations occurring outside of the painting's basic light and dark framework. While Sargent's brushwork is generally busy, his value organization keeps even the most complex of passages in perfect counterpoint to the overall composition.


The consistent thread that runs through all of Sargent's paintings is a concern for the illusion of light. Scrupulous in capturing an effect, Sargent would only paint for the duration of a given effect. When painting his famous garden piece Carnation Lily, Lily Rose, he would wait for the sun to just touch the horizon and paint furiously for the 15 minutes or so before its warm rays disappeared. He worked for months in this disjointed fashion before the painting was completed, rather than trust his memory. Like most painters, he preferred to paint in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun casts long, revealing shadows.

Having been a friend of Claude Monet surely had an effect on the expanded range of colors that Sargent started using after 1876. Prior to that, Sargent captured the tonal qualities of light but played down its color aspects.


Sargent's masterly manipulation of working wet-into-wet is obvious in the shadow passages of Reading (see Cover, Page 1). In that piece and in my study here (at right), note the effervescent color changes as cool viridian mixes with orange, blue and purple-gray. To contrast these soft and playful effects, Sargent treated the sun-splashed edges of the forms with sharp, crisp decisiveness. Without his accurate yet animated preliminary pencil drawing, however, the flair and gusto of his technique could easily turn this into a sweetly colored narrative. He evidently used pan colors rather than tubes. Although there's no record of exactly which hues he used, I'm reasonably certain his palette included the following colors. (Colors with an asterisk have since been replaced by more permanent colors, shown in parentheses.)

Sketch - "Camp at Lake O'Hara"
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Burnt umber *Prussian blue (Thalo blue) *Cobalt yellow (Aureolin)
Vermilion *Chrome yellow
(Cadmium yellow medium)
Naples yellow
Raw umber Cobalt blue Yellow ochre or raw sienna
Hooker's green Cobalt violet Burnt sienna
Alizarin crimson Chinese white Viridian
*Chrome orange
(Cadmium orange)
Ultramarine blue Cerulean blue

 It's doubtful that Sargent used all of these in any one painting. Some, such as Figure in a Hammock, appear to be done with a limited palette. Others, including Reading, employ a full palette of most of the above-mentioned colors. Occasionally, the artist would elaborate on a passage with pastel, and his choice of pastel colors would be analogous to the hues used in executing the painting.

From Jerusalem (below), however, is a good example of his more colorful, impressionistic approach to landscape. Juxtaposing orange against its purple complement - a warm and cool combination Sargent used repeatedly for sunlit scenes - the painter injects variations into each of these colors. Notice the more blue-purple qualities of the shadows on the distant landscape as opposed to the more reddish-purple passages in the cloud shadows.

Variations on this theme can also be found in Reading and Camp at Lake O’Hara. Study the diagonal slivers of sunlight cascading down the left side of the seated figure. Notice the step-like planes describing those lights and how Sargent warmed them with splashes of orange to heighten the effect. Now observe the more purplish cast to the shadows in Camp at Lake O'Hara and how they add vibrancy to the lights. The yellow orange of the distant mountain is the key here. Without it, the campsite's cool, contrasting colors would appear dull and lifeless.

"From Jerusalem"

Fleeting LightFrom Jerusalem (watercolor, 12x18; above) is a location study of an effect that probably lasted only minutes. Sargent's preoccupation with light led him to paint many such studies. Working with a handful of wet brushes, he was known to utter such exclamations as "Demons!," "It's unpaintable" or "I can't do it!" Yet beneath this gruff veneer was a master technician, capable of recording every nuance his eyes perceived. Of particular interest is Sargent's use of thick globs of white to model the light areas of the clouds - a testament to the artist's conviction of placing more importance on a singular effect than on being a purist and working only within the transparent limitations of the medium.


Most artists love to paint white objects. Sargent, however, raised it to an artform. In Reading, for example, we see a rainbow of color changes on the white clothing the women wear. The area around the seated woman's right arm and hip is an education in itself. There are cool greenish whites on the hip, reflected from the parasol. Orange whites reflect into the underside of her arm from the sun-struck areas of the skirt. Blues and purples are evident on the top planes of her dress, which reflect the cool color of the sky. Even the accents have color, going more brownish to better complement the overall cools of the shadows. The figure to the right has muted tan-whites in the shadow of her dress. There's also a touch of blue-green reflected from the surrounding foliage. Closer inspection would probably reveal even more subtle, yet definite color changes.


My first exposure to John Singer Sargent was in art school. A teacher brought in a portfolio of fine reproductions and after going through them and seeing the artist's effortless brushwork, impeccable value control and convincing illusion of reality, I couldn't wait to run home and paint like Sargent. But my teacher wisely delivered a short but eloquent dissertation that I eventually dubbed, "How I learned to look at a Sargent without wanting to paint like him." The reason for this caution is not because Sargent wasn't a superb artist, but because his paintings appear so easily executed. It's all too easy to get mesmerized with the technique, toss aside all other approaches and concentrate solely on duplicating Sargent's surface mannerisms. When this happens, you risk not only losing your own identity as a painter, but also miss the essence of why Sargent's paintings are so successful.

The key to Sargent is realizing that he was the ultimate observer. Some critics believe his emotional detachment from a subject gave his work a superficial quality, disqualifying him from the upper echelons of great art. In some respects the critics may be right. On the other hand, Sargent was himself and I don't think he much cared what the critics said. He was an enormously talented painter who had the gift of accurately recording exactly what he saw in front of him. He loved painting for its own sake, and isn't that what it's all about? Sargent's heritage to us includes not only a fine example of the heights to which a representational painter can climb, but also a rich textbook of artistic principles from which to learn.

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