Inspired by Sargent

At Christmas I received a present of a book: 'John Singer Sargent Watercolors' by Erica E. Hirshler and Teresa A. Carbone. I've always admired Sargent's work in the medium, and this book is full of lots of wonderful, large illustrations.

Looking at some of the enlarged details, I was struck by how boldly the paint was applied. Sometimes the marks seem almost abstract until they are viewed from a distance. Then they coalesce into a wonderfully vibrant impression of the subject. In some ways his way of working seems quite modern.

Simplon Pass, Crags, 35.5 x 49.5 cm - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Simplon Pass, Crags - detail

It was interesting, as well, to see the variation in the thickness of the application. In some areas the paint is thin and transparent , while in others it is thick and opaque, so much so that sometimes cracking has occurred as the paint has dried. Look how effectively opaque paint has been used in the painting below, especially in the hands of the right-of-centre figure:

Arab Gypsies in a Tent, 30.5 x 45.5 cm - Brooklyn Museum

Arab Gypsies in a Tent - detail

Sargent was, on many occasions, experimenting with innovative techniques, and trying various additives in order to achieve the effects he wanted. As well as using conventional masking to preserve white areas, he would also use wax as a resist, and in order to recover lost areas he would lift off colour or scratch it out. To increase the richness of the colour he would sometimes add thickening agents, which would show the brush-marks and provide a varied texture. At times he appeared to be applying the colour more like an oil painter. He doesn't seem to have been limited by any need to adhere to rules about what was acceptable in watercolour painting. He would use whatever means necessary to convey the impression he wanted.

Simplon Pass, Mountain Brook, 36 x 51 cm - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Simplon Pass, Mountain Brook - detail

Sargent was painting these watercolours on holiday trips, and the impression is that he was enjoying the freedom from the formality of his portrait work in oils. They are like tourist's snapshots. In fact he originally had no intention of selling them, and it was only later that he was persuaded to exhibit them.

Hillside, 40 x 53 cm - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

It was mostly with his society portraits in oils that Sargent made his name, but the paintings he produced in watercolour, on his annual holidays, show that he was arguably even more of a master of that medium.


  1. There is a wonderful freedom associated with these paintings; I'm sure that he really enjoyed painting them.

  2. Hello Diane,

    Evidently you were able to leave a comment this time, so that is good news.

    I agree, he was painting these watercolours when he was on holiday, and that feeling of freedom definitely comes through.

  3. For a moment I thought the first painting of the pass with all of the bright purple was painted in a similar style to your own Keith! I thought 'Oh Keith is using bright purple how unusual for him' turns out it was Sargent's painting not yours! I love his work, especially his portraits.

  4. I have been trying out some brighter colours, Caroline, so you might well start seeing those purples in my paintings. I'm finding it quite liberating to break away from the earth colour palette I've used for a long while.


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