When The Honourable John Collier wrote his excellent book The Art of Portrait Painting in 1905, he not only explored the "Aims and Methods of the Great Masters," (Holbein, Titian, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Vandyke, etc.), but also ventured to discuss the processes of three, then-contemporary, portrait artists working in Great Britain. The Scot Sir William Quiller Orchardson was one of these artists; Irishman Sir John Lavery was another. But if Collier had not included the most well-known portrait artist of his day, John Singer Sargent, then his book certainly would have been incomplete. And to have Sargent's technique outlined by the artist himself would have been a great coup on Collier's part.
Unfortunately, the response Sargent gave to Collier's inquiry offered little insight: "As to describing my procedure, I find the greatest difficulty in making it clear to pupils, even with the palette and brushes in hand and with the model before one, and to serve it up in the abstract seems to me hopeless."¹ Sargent was not being standoffish with his response: by all accounts, he was a generous man, and would have likely shared his methods if only he felt he had had the ability to distill them. Unfortunately, Sargent was under the impression he had no gift for training artists.² When he took up teaching at the Royal Academy, he would paint from the model for an entire day, explaining to his students each stage as he went along. And yet, when Sargent arrived at class to give the next criticism, he would find that not a single student had made the smallest attempt to implement what he had shown them.³ Perhaps he was correct, and was poor at communicating his technique; or perhaps the changing taste in art had made Sargent's methods less appealing to young students entering the R.A.. The result was that Sargent seems to have believed there was no value in attempting to document his painting procedure. Collier, in the end, could only offer his readers the advice that to learn more about Sargent's processes, the only course open to them was to study Sargent's paintings themselves (something which was much harder to do then than it is now).
When Sargent passed away in 1925, there was a threat that written records of his approach, if any, would disappear. In the face of Modern Art, Sargent's legacy easily could have been disparaged and forgotten; not forever - he would have been remembered during the recent resurgence of interest in representational art - but long enough to make access to the people with meaningful firsthand experience of Sargent's teachings not possible. But something strange happened after Sargent's death; unlike so many of his contemporaries when they passed away, Sargent remained popular.
Two years after John Singer Sargent's passing, the Honourable Sir Evan Charteris wrote a biography on the famed artist. As a friend of Sargent, and of Sargent's sister Emily, Charteris was given unprecedented access to Sargent's studio and his correspondences - and to his students as well. Though Sargent may not have been able to elucidate his methods, his pupils were. Charteris succeeded where Collier had been blocked, and those methods and thoughts of this painting master were finally set down on paper.
Reprinted below are some descriptions of Sargent's technique and advice as remembered by two of the artist's pupils, Miss Heyneman and Mr. Henry Haley. Though the information is brief, it is probably the most important record of Sargent's methods, and has been reprinted many times over in subsequent biographies of the man.
The full book by Charteris is available online, and can be read at the Internet Archive website.
When he first undertook to criticise Miss Heyneman's work he insisted that she should draw from models and not from friends.
"If you paint your friends, they and you are chiefly concerned about the likeness. You can't discard a canvas when you please and be- gin anew — you can't go on indefinitely till you have solved a problem." He disapproved (Miss Heyneman continues) of my palette and brushes. On the palette the paints had not been put out with any system. "You do not want dabs of colour," he said, "you want plenty of paint to paint with." Then the brushes came in for derision. "No wonder your painting is like feathers if you use these." Having scraped the palette clean he put out enough paint so it seemed for a dozen pictures. "Painting is quite hard enough" he said "without adding to your difficulties by keeping your tools in bad condition. You want good thick brushes that will hold the paint and that will resist in a sense the stroke on the canvas." He then with a bit of charcoal placed the head with no more than a few careful lines over which he passed a rag, so that it was on a perfectly clean greyish coloured canvas (which he preferred) faintly showing where the lines had been that he began to paint. At the start he used sparingly a little turpentine to rub in a general tone over the background and to outline the head (the real outline where the light and shadow meet, not the place where the head meets the background) — to indicate the mass of the hair and the tone of the dress. The features were not even suggested. This was a matter of a few moments. For the rest he used his colour without a medium of any kind, neither oil, turpentine or any admixture. "The thicker you paint, the more your colour flows" he explained. He had put in this general outline very rapidly hardly more than smudges, but from the moment he that began really to paint, he worked with a kind of concentrated deliberation, a slow haste so to speak holding his brush poised in the air for an instant and then putting it just where and how he intended it to fall. ... To watch the head develop from the start was like the sudden lifting of a blind in a dark room. . . . Every stage was a revelation. For one thing he put his easel directly next to the sitter so that when he walked back from it he saw the canvas and the original in the same light, at the same distance, at the same angle of vision. . . . He aimed at once for the true general tone of the background, of the hair and for the transition tone between the two. He showed me how the light flowed over the surface of the cheek into the background itself.
At first he worked only for the middle tones, to model in large planes, as he would have done had the head been an apple. In short, he painted, as a sculptor models, for the great masses first, but with this difference that the sculptor can roughly lump in his head and cut it down afterwards, while the painter, by the limitations of his material, is bound to work instantly for an absolute precision of mass, in the colour and outline he intends to preserve. Economy of effort in every way, he preached, the sharpest self-control the fewest strokes possible to express a fact, the least slapping about of purposeless paint. He believed, with Carolus Duran, that painting was a science which it was necessary to acquire in order to make of it an art. "You must draw with your brush," he said, " as readily, as unconsciously almost as you draw with your pencil." He advised doing a head for a portrait slightly under life-size to counteract the tendency to paint larger than life. Even so, he laid in a head slightly larger than he intended to leave it, so that he could model the edges with and into the background.
The hills of paint vanished from the palette yet there was no heaviness on the canvas; although the shadow was painted as heavily as the light, it retained its transparency. "If you see a thing transparent, paint it transparent; don't get the effect by a thin stain showing the canvas through. That's a mere trick. "The more delicate the transition the more you must study it for the exact tone" The lightness and certainty of his touch was marvellous to behold. Never was there any painter who could indicate a mouth with more subtlety, with more mobility, or with keener differentiation. As he painted it, the mouth bloomed out of the face, an integral part of it, not, as in the great majority of portraits, painted on it, a separate thing. He showed how much could be expressed in painting the form of the brow, the cheekbones, and the moving muscles around the eyes and mouth, where the character betrayed itself most readily; and under his hands, a head would be an amazing likeness long before he had so much as indicated the features themselves. In fact, it seemed to me the mouth and nose just happened with the modelling of the cheeks, and one eye, living luminous, had been placed in the socket so carefully prepared for it (like a poached egg dropped on a plate, he described the process), when a clock in the neighbourhood struck and Mr. Sargent was suddenly reminded that he had a late appointment with a sitter. In his absorption he had quite forgotten it. He hated to leave the canvas. " If only one had oneself under perfect control," he once said to me, "one could always paint a thing, finally in one sitting." (Now and then he accomplished this.) "Not that you are to attempt this," he admonished me, "if you work on a head for a week without indicating the features you will have learnt something about the modelling of the head."
Every brush stroke while he painted had modelled the head or further simplified it. He was careful to insist that there were many roads to Rome, that beautiful painting would be the result of any method or no method, but he was convinced that by the method he advocated, and followed all his life, a freedom could be acquired, a technical mastery that left the mind at liberty to concentrate on a deeper or more subtle expression.I had been taught to paint a head in three separate stages, each one repeating — in charcoal, in thin colour-wash and in paint — the same things. By the new method the head developed by one process. Till almost the end there had been no features nor accents, simply a solid shape growing out of and into a background with which it was one. When at last he did put them each accent was studied with an intensity that kept his brush poised in mid-air till eye and hand had steadied to one purpose, and then . . . bling ! the stroke resounded almost like a note of music. It annoyed him very much if the accents were carelessly indicated without accurate consideration of their comparative importance. They were, in a way, the nails upon which the whole structure depended for solidity.
Miss Heyneman subsequently left a study she had made, at Sargent's studio with a note begging him to write, "yes" or "no," according to whether he approved or not. He wrote the next day:
"I think your study shows great progress — much better values and consequently greater breath of effect with less monotony in the detail. I still think you ought to paint thicker — paint all the half tones and general passages quite thick — and always paint one thing into another and not side by side until they touch. There are a few hard and small places where you have not followed this rule sternly enough." . . .
A few days later he called. Miss Heyneman's usual model had failed, and she had persuaded her charwoman to sit instead; Sargent offered to paint the head of the model.
This old head was perhaps easier to indicate with its prominent forms, but the painting was more subtle. I recall my astonishment when he went into the background with a most brilliant pure blue where I had seen only unrelieved darkness. "Don't you see it?" he asked, " the way the light quivers across it ?" I had not perceived it; just as, till each stroke emphasized his intention, I did not see how he managed to convey the thin hair stretched tightly back over the skull without actually painting it. He painted light or shadow, a four-cornered object with the corners worn smooth, as definite in form as it was idefinite in colour, and inexpressibly delicate in its transitions. He concentrated his whole attention upon the middle tone that carried the light into the shadow. He kept up a running commentary of explanation, as he went, appraising each stroke, often condemning it and saying: "That is how not to do it ! . . . Keep the planes free and simple," he would suggest, drawing a full large brush down the whole contour of a cheek, obliterating apparently all the modelling underneath, but it was always further to simplify that he took these really dreadful risks, smiling at my ill-concealed perturbation and quite sympathizing with it.This second painting taught me that the whole value of a portrait depends upon its first painting, and that no tinkering can ever rectify an initial failure. Provided every stage is correct a painter of Mr. Sargent's calibre could paint for a week on one head and never retrace his steps but he never attempted to correct one. He held that it was as impossible for a painter to try to repaint a head where the under- structure was wrong, as for a sculptor to remodel the features of a head that has not been understood in the mass. That is why Mr. Sargent often repainted the head a dozen times, he told me that he had done no less than sixteen of Mrs. Hammersley.
When he was dissatisfied he never hesitated to destroy what he had done. He spent three weeks, for instance, painting Lady D'Abernon in a white dress. One morning, after a few minutes of what was to be the final setting, he suddenly set to work to scrape out what he had painted. The present portrait in a black dress, was done in three sittings.
He did the same with the portrait of Mrs. Wedgwood and many others. Miss Eliza Wedgwood relates that in 1896 he consented, at the instance of Alfred Parsons, to paint her mother for £250. She sat to him twelve times, but after the twelfth sitting he said they would both be the better for a rest. He then wrote to Miss Wedgwood that he was humiliated by his failure to catch the variable and fleeting charm of her mother's personality — that looked like the end of the portrait. Some weeks later he saw Mrs. Wedgwood at Broadway, and struck with a new aspect he said: "If you will come up next week we will finish that portrait." She came to Tite Street, a new canvas was produced, and in six sittings he completed the picture which was shown at the Memorial Exhibition.
Miss Heyneman continues:
"Paint a hundred studies," he would say, "keep any number of clean canvases ready, of all shapes and sizes so that you are never held back by the sudden need of one. You can't do sketches enough. Sketch everything and keep your curiosity fresh." He thought it was excellent practice to paint flowers, for the precision necessary in the study of their forms and the pure brilliancy of their colour. It refreshed the tone of one's indoor portraits, he insisted, to paint land- scape or figures out of doors, as well as to change one's medium now and then. He disliked pastel, it seemed to him too artificial, or else it was made to look like oil or water colour, and in that case why not use oil or water colour. . . .
Upon one occasion, after painting for me, he saw one hard edge, and drew a brush across it, very lightly saying at the same time " This is a disgraceful thing to do, and means slovenly painting. Don't ever let me see you do it. ..." I have also seen the assertion that he painted a head always in one sitting. He painted a head always in one process, but that could be carried over several sittings. He never attempted to repaint one eye or to raise or lower it, for he held that the construction of a head prepared the place for the eye, and if it was wrongly placed, the underconstruction was wrong, and he ruthlessly scraped and repainted the head from the beginning. That is one reason why his brushwork looks so fluent and easy, he took more trouble to keep the unworried look of a fresh sketch than many a painter puts upon his whole canvas.
The following extracts from Mr. Haley's account of Sargent's teaching at the Royal Academy Schools, 1897-1900, throw- further light on his method:
The Significance of his teaching was not always immediately apparent; it had the virtue of revealing itself with riper experience. His hesitation was probably due to a searching out for something to grasp in the mind of the student, that achieved, he would unfold a deep earnestness, subdued but intense. He was regarded by some students as an indifferent teacher by others as a "wonder"; as a "wonder" I like to regard him.
He dealt always with the fundamentals. Many were fogged as to his aim. These fundamentals had to be constantly exercised and applied.
"When drawing from the model," he said, "never be without the plumb line in the left hand" — Every one has a bias, either to the right hand or the left of the vertical. The use of the plumb line rectifies this error and developes a keen appreciation of the vertical.
He then took up the charcoal, with arm extended to its full length, and head thrown well back; all the while intensely calculating, he slowly and deliberately mapped the proportions of the large masses of a head and shoulders, first the poise of the head upon the neck, its relation with the shoulders. Then rapidly indicate the mass of the hair, then spots locating the exact position of the features, at the same time noting their tone values and special character, finally adding any further accent or dark shadow which made up the head, the neck, the shoulders and head of the sternum.
After his departure I immediately plumbed those points before any movement took place of the model and found them very accurate.
A formula of his for drawing was " Get your spots in their right place and your lines precisely at their relative angles."
On one occasion in the evening life school I well remember Sargent complaining that no one seemed concerned about anything more than an approximate articulation of the head upon the neck and shoulders. The procedure was, to register carefully the whole pose at the first evening's sitting of two hours. The remainder of the sittings were devoted to making a thoroughly finished tone drawing in chalk, adhering to the original outline, working from the head downwards, thus the drawing was not affected by any chance deviation from the original pose by the model. Sargent could not reconcile himself to this, the method he tried to inculcate was to lay in the drawing afresh at every sitting getting in one combined effort a complete interpretation of the model. The skull to articulate properly upon the vertebras. The same with all the limbs, a keen structural easy supple, moveable machine, every figure with its own individual characteristic as like as possible, an accomplishment requiring enormous practice and experience with charcoal, but taken as a goal to aim at very desirable, a method he followed in his own painting. To the student it meant a continually altered drawing, to portray the varying moods of the model.
In reference to these drawings he would frequently say: " Draw the things seen with the keenest point and let the things unseen fuse themselves into the adjoining tones."
In connection with the painting, the same principles maintained, "Painting was an interpretation of tone. Through the medium of colour drawn with the brush." "Use yourself to a large brush." "Do not starve your palette." "Accurately place your masses with the charcoal." "Then lay in the back ground" about half an inch over the border of the adjoining tones, true as possible, then lay in the mass of hair, recovering the drawing and fusing the tones with the background, and overlapping the flesh of the forehead, then for the face lay in hold by a middle flesh tone, light on the left side and dark on the shadow side, always recovering the drawing and most carefully fusing the flesh into the background, painting flesh into background and background into flesh, until the exact quality is obtained, both in colour and tone the whole resembling a wig maker's block. Then follows the most marked and characteristic accents of the features in place and tone and drawing as accurate as possible, painting deliberately into wet ground, testing your work by repeatedly standing well back, viewing it as a whole, a very important thing. After this take up the subtler tones which express the retiring planes of the head, temples, chin, nose, and cheeks with neck, then the still more subtle drawing of mouth and eyes, fusing tone into tone all the time, till finally with deliberate touch the high lights are laid in, this occupies the first sitting and should the painting not be satisfactory the whole is ruthlessly fogged by brushing together, the object being not to allow any parts well done, to interfere with that principle of oneness, or unity of every part; the brushing together engendered an appetite to attack the problem afresh at every sitting each attempt resulting in a more complete visualization in the mind. The process is repeated until the canvas is completed.
Sargent would press home the fact, that the subtleties of paint must be controlled by continually viewing the work from a distance, " stand back — get well away — and you will realize the great danger there is of overstating a tone — keep the thing as a whole in your mind. Tones so subtle as not to be detected on close acquaintance can only be adjusted by this means."
When we were gathered in front of our display of sketches for composition awaiting some criticism Sargent would walk along the whole collection, rapidly looking at each one, and without singling out any in particular for comment, he would merely say "Get in your mind the sculptors view of things, arrange a composition, decoratively, easy, and accidental," this would be said in a hesitating manner and then he would quietly retire. On one occasion, when the subject set for a composition was a portrait the criticism was "not one of them seriously considered," many we had thought quite good, as an indication of what might be tried while a portrait was in progress. That would not do for Sargent. A sketch must be seriously planned, tried and tried again, turned about until it satisfies every requirement, and a perfect visualization attained. A sketch must not be merely a pattern of pleasant shapes, just pleasing to the eye, just merely a fancy. It must be a very possible thing, a definite arrangement — everything fitting in a plan and in true relationship frankly standing upon a horizontal plane coinciding in their place with a pre-arranged line. As a plan is to a building, so must the sketch be to the picture.
His general remarks were: "cultivate an ever continuous power of observation. Wherever you are, be always ready to make slight notes of postures, groups and incidents. Store up in the mind without ceasing a continuous stream of observations from which to make selections later. Above all things get abroad, see the sunlight, and everything that is to be seen, the power of selection will follow. Be continually making mental notes, make them again and again, test what you remember by sketches till you have got them fixed. Do not be backward at using every device and making every experiment that ingenuity can devise, in order to attain that sense of complete- ness which nature so beautifully provides, always bearing in mind the limitations of the materials in which you work."⁴
¹ Collier, John, The Art of Portrait Painting, (Cassell and Company, Limited, New York, 1905), p. 75.
² Charteris, Evan, John Sargent, (Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1927), p. 222.
⁴ Charteris, pp. 181-188.