The Gesture of Light in Sargent's Watercolors

The large exhibit of John Singer Sargent's watercolors that I recently saw at the MFA in Boston was exhilarating.

So many beautiful paintings in one place. It was also demoralizing, but that's a common reaction for painters after seeing a show of  Sargent's work.

The man was such a wizard with his brush that we mortals can be left feeling that it's best to just pack away the french easel and find another line of work.

The galleries were jammed, and you could tell who the painters were in the crowd, with our noses three inches from the glass, trying to decipher the magic.


First, let's step back and take a look at Sargent's watercolors in the context of his life and other work:

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was born into a family right out of a Henry James novel about Bostonian expatriates wandering Europe in search of culture. John was home schooled by his artistic mother and physician father, became adept at piano and fluent in three languages, and his artistic abilities were recognized early.

Needing a steady income, he set up shop in England as a fashionable portrait artist, and eventually became one the most successful and prolific of all time.

Yet today Sargent's large figure paintings are often dismissed as flashy, fawning portrayals of the wealthy and powerful. After years of churning out these virtuosic, lucrative commissions, Sargent himself tired of this work, calling it a "pimp's profession" and defining a portrait as a "painting where there's something wrong with the mouth."

Although he made a large income, he lived quite modestly, worked long hours, enjoyed music and the company of family and close friends rather than high society, and loved to travel with his paints.

Over his lifetime, he was to produce some 2000 watercolors, bringing to this difficult medium his acute ability to paint the figure and draw quickly with his brush.

He also took water-based media in completely new directions.

Like all innovators, Sargent borrowed and stole. He learned about expressive brushwork from Dutch and Spanish masters, close-up cropping from photography, pure color from his Impressionist friends. To these means he added tremendous energy, and deep feeling for nature.

While I had my nose pressed against the glass at the Sargent exhibit, here is some of what I noted about his work:

(click on paintings to enlarge):

Defined darks and lights

Warms and cools

Many of Sargent's paintings are in a very limited palette of blue and brown. This allows him to focus on value and temperature. He pushes Burnt Sienna into yellowish tints and rich darks, and Ultramarine Blue into cool whites and intense blacks.

Brown and blue pigments (detail)

Precise lights

Sargent pays very careful attention to small areas of light, which give his drawing great accuracy.

Importance of connected whites (detail)

Color accents

Use of opaque white paint

Many watercolor practitioners consider the use of white paint, or gouache, a no-no, and rely on only the paper to produce their lightest values. Sargent used white paint liberally, both for tints and highlights. In his hands, these opaque strokes add expressiveness and exuberance.

Opaque lights

Opaque whites, active negatives, gesture, complementary colors

Sargent traveled with an entourage of friends and family, including "lady painters" who also worked in watercolor.

This polite and genteel medium, considered an amateur stepchild to "professional" oil painting, was in Sargent's hands a means of avant-garde experiment, searching notation of the natural world, and intense personal expression.

He knew his watercolors' worth, and refused to sell them to private collectors, finally agreeing to let them go as a group to museums.

The crowds thronging the MFA thank him for that.


Closeup we saw a maze of brush strokes that, when we stepped back, coalesced into landscapes so accurate in their depiction of light that they could be mistaken for photographs.

How did Sargent accomplish this combination of expressive abstraction and technical mastery?


The family settled in Paris so that he could study in the atelier of Carolus-Duran, one of Europe's leading figure painters. He was the star pupil,  absorbing all the master's lessons of alla prima brush work (direct painting, as opposed to the more fussy modeling other schools promoted.)

When Sargent finished his studies, he traveled and painted, exploring the dramatic shadows and light of the Mediterranean.

This brings us back to the watercolors. Watercolor is a much more portable medium than oils, requiring just paper, a folding palette of dried pigments, and a few brushes. It dries immediately, and finished paintings can be stacked in a portfolio and carried along to the next destination.

Sargent carted his watercolor supplies to Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Corsica, Corfu, the Middle East, North Africa, Maine, Boston, Montana and Florida.

Strong value designs
Sargent's watercolors are composed with extremes of light and dark. Dark shapes are decisively drawn, and full of saturated color.

Dark value shape of neutralized green

Quiet positives, active negatives

Sargent often bases his compositions on large, simple light shapes. In between these positive shapes (the "stuff") are negative shapes ("background") that are exciting, active zones of brushwork and color.

Details in the background, not the figure

Quiet positives, active negatives

Strong color notes

Sargent punctuates his neutralized value schemes with focal points of pure, vivid color. He used color theory masterfully, juxtaposing complements, and employing a full range of analogous hues.

Green/red complements (detail)

Importance of gesture

Sargent has tremendous confidence drawing directly with his brush. He juxtaposes "flat washes" (areas where you see no brushstrokes) with an agitated web of marks, dabs, and wax resist "subtractions".  Together they create a beautiful complex surface that is also a precise notation of his observation and feelings.

Expressive, gestural brushstrokes

Sargent's watercolor palette: Alizarin Carmine, Brown Pink, Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Chrome Yellow, Cobalt Blue, Gamboge, Lamp Black, Rose Madder, Ultramarine Blue, Vandyke Brown, Scarlet Vermillion, Deep Vermillion, Viridian, and an opaque white.

For extensive information on John Singer Sargent's work, check out

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