About Me

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New York, New York, United States
I am a portrait, landscape painter and a fiction writer. My paintings can be found in private, academic and corporate collections. Traveler's Insurance, Yale University, Aberchrombie and Fitch Inc. Drew University etc. I currently have two novels in print: 'Raining Sardines' (07)and '90 Miles to Havana' (10) published by Roaring Brook Press. Become Social: Facebook:

Monday, May 30, 2011

John Singer Sargent, Lady Agnew and Natalia, Painting Demonstration.

         If we do not wish to invent the wheel every time we paint it is important to study those paintings that we admire, ask them questions about the how and the why of their creation. It is equally important to ask ourselves why we like these paintings, what are the qualities embodied in these painting that we admire and can aspire to. It is also helpful to read as much as possible about the painter to find out who they were influenced by, and their historical context, as well as the materials they used to gain insights into their working process. But the most profitable engagement comes from copying, or taking the painting apart and then putting it back together. To paraphrase Picasso, there’s no shame in copying, because when you mess it up, it becomes your painting.

Lady Agnew cropped
            The portrait of Lady Agnew is one of Sargents most endearing. Her direct gaze is as guileless and unaffected as his seemingly effortless painting technique. His paintings, in general, exude a feeling of informality and inventiveness, qualities that his American clientele clearly wished to project to differentiate themselves from their fussy European cousins. At first glance this virtuosic performance appears to have been carried out with the greatest of ease, but a closer look will reveal that it just looks that way, he did miss, and then scrape it all off and then try again.

                    As it happened I had the opportunity to paint a portrait as a surprise wedding gift and as the beautiful bride to be, Natalia, looks a lot like Lady Agnew I decided to try to use Sargent’s painting as the matrix for my Lady Natalia painting.  I asked her mother to take pictures of her in a similar position and light like the subject of Sargent's painting. This would give me a chance to look closely and deconstruct a stellar performance, raise my understanding of the painter and hopefully walk away with some technical insights. At least, if all goes well, Natalia will have something a little grander than a painting of her in a T-shirt. 
I think her beauty and youth demand it.      

Studio set up
               I set up all the information I’ll use for Natalia’s portrait at eye level—the same level as the canvas, to the left and right of the easel to make it easy to scan from picture to painting. Some of the photos are close, others are far away so that I can alternately see detail and then the big relationships and keep my eyes from becoming fatigued. To the left, over the palette there is a computer monitor to run a slide show of every picture that I have of Natalia and Lady Agnew. The photo of Natalia that is closest in position to the painting was unfortunately taken with a flash. Flash photos are very hard to work with because when the light comes from the front it tends to flatten the forms. As a remedy I’ll use the shadow pattern on Lady A. 

             The canvas was toned with a mixture of burnt sienna and kings blue in a light middle tone the night before so that it would be dry the next day. The drawing is done with the same color as the tone of the canvas with no thinner added. This keeps my marks soft, fuzzy and far away. This allows me to pull the image closer as I sharpen and define.

Surrounding the head with tones
      When I lay in the blue background, the dress and then block in the shadow I isolate the middle tone of the face which at this stage stands in for the skin. This is very helpful because without painting the flesh, the difficult part, I can still read the face as a form in light and illusionistic space allowing me to check the accuracy of the drawing.

Blocking in, creating value envelopes 

       I block in a cool middle tone for the face gauging the value to the tone of the canvas. I find that a cool, or neutral tones are easiest to work with because in general cools recede, but if they are applied over warms they will jump out.  This step gives me a fluid base on top of which I can add and blend warm and ochre middle tones, again gauging their value to that first wet layer. Then I return to the darks and scumble in warms and ochres in slightly thicker paint. It appears as if Sargent as a rule simplified areas, created general color and value envelopes that he returned to, in the proper sequence, to add more information in order to articulate features and forms.

Scraping back and then repainting 

          Before I start I use my palette knife to scrape down the paint softening edges through out. I return to the darks of the face and again scumble in transparent warms and ochers. Then adding some naples-yellow and white to lighten the middle tone colors on the palette, I create a fan of distinct mixtures, side by side, in warm, cool and ochre and then in values moving down from dark, middle tone, to light. I place the highlights in thicker paint over the wet middle tones on the top planes to establish the light end of the spectrum of values.
Refining the image
             While the paint is still wet (4 hours into the portrait) I start to add details to the features. The challenge is to articulate the eyes and mouth, but not make them seem immobile. Sargent would often paint the edges of the nose crisp and sharp. By contrast the solid form of the nose makes the eyes look softer and appear as if they are about to move. Adding lights on top of the forms, I start to break up the broad planes that I painted in the first pass. Then I go back one step using the middle tones to shape the lights by painting into their edges. This literally glues down the thicker lights to the canvas, keeping them from flying off the forms.

Sequence of events
        If you study the painting of Lady Agnew's dress you can clearly see the underlying principles of Sargents working process. The dress was blocked-in with a fairly liquid lavender middle tone that ranges from a pink to blue to gray. In some areas the paint does not quite cover the tone of the canvas while in others the paint is opaque. By deftly exploiting the viscosity of the paint he was able to create a surface more varied and descriptive than can be achieve with the application of one color of opaque paint. Into this wet layer he stroked in the dark shapes of the shadows in more liquid paint, then adjusted sharp edges to soft as needed to articulate the folds. Then he loaded his brush with a greater quantity of paint for the lights, laying strokes of thicker paint on the top of the forms of the dress. Thicker paint tends to reflect back more light than thin a application creating a subtle transition of the form with out adding too much white and bleaching out the color.

Lady Natalia Finished.... for now.

                   The last consideration is the hierarchy of edges; from razor sharp, to barely discernibly soft, or lost and found. Sharp, high contrast edges grab our attention first and generally come closer to us on the picture plane. Softer, low contrast edges are perceived next and read as further away, deeper inside the picture plane.

           Conclusion:  Looking at my finished painting I can see where Sargent’s genius lies. In the later stages of my painting I picked at the likeness, feature by feature, instead of wiping back and then doing the head as a whole.
Sargent is quoted as having said, “If one eye is not right you wipe both out and then drop them in like two eggs in a frying pan.” If it were only that easy!

  Sargent’s technical brilliance, lies in his touch, his control of the brush, awareness of quantity and viscosity of the paint it carries, and his willingness to wipe out if his layers do not mesh in the right order. But his genius lies in his understanding of the language of physical paint, it's ability to energize, engage, appear informal, demonstrate inventiveness, create time, be beautiful and enjoyed for it's own sake, and above all to be able to marshall his knowledge and talents when inspired by a special subject.
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