Saturday, January 27, 2007

Horses of Roan - After John Singer Sargent

"Horses of Roan" - 30 x 40" acrylic on gallery wrapped canvas.
Copyright 2007 Maggie Stiefvater.
$1600: email me to purchase.

Okay, I think I'm done. Finally. After a month of scrutinizing John Singer Sargent's methods and works, drawing endless preliminary sketches, and doing a full color study before even touching my brush to my giganto 30 x 40" canvas (that's the size of one of the old Mini-Coopers, for those of you using metric), I think I've finally come to the end of my journey. This is a terrible photo, and it still needs a varnish to even the tone and bring out the color saturation, but you get the idea. What a long way it's come from the doodle in the margin of my novel notes!
But I'd like to tip my hat to Mr. Sargent for a very fruitful January. Those of you who have followed my work for any length of time will know that I'm most at home with my colored pencils. Acrylics are a fairly new medium for me and I'm not at all sure what I'm doing when I have them in my hand. Well, on my brush that I have in my hand. So for me to tackle this project with acrylics was pretty gutsy for me and I expected disaster, to tell you the truth. But I think - gasp - that I pulled it off. Of course, you might believe me once I get a better photo of it.

So, what shall follow is an extremely cool and bulleted list of what I learned from ye ol' JSS.

  • with a limited palette of only Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow, Hooker Green, Burnt Umber, Ultramarine Blue, Mars Black, and White, you can create amazing colors.
  • Almost every single color on my canvas includes at least a little bit of ALL of those colors. This was very weird! But it makes it look so complex in person -- and so cohesive.
  • No hard edges between values -- Sargent said that was laziness and I had to work harder than my normal slacking self did to try to get the perfect tone down to fade between the two.
  • Strong value shapes are more important than strong realism. I was emulating the values of his piece "El Jaleo" with its single white-dressed dancer and dramatic shadows. It was more important to set a stage with dramatic lighting that highlighted my white struggling horse than to create a comfy habitat with rolling realistic hills and splashing water and rubber duckies. That meant really fighting my desire to indicate background or obsess over details
  • You would be amazed by how few details you actually need for a scene to make sense. Sargent often stared at his canvases from ten or more feet away, and then dashed forward to make a change. His pieces look realistic at 10 feet and like impressionistic pieces up close. The colored pencil detail freak in me had to know when to stop.
  • A counterpoint to your focal point makes a powerful statement. Okay, that doesn't make much sense. But what I mean is this -- Sargent would show us his focal point/ subject through dynamic use of his lightest light and darkest dark next to each other. And then, in the opposite corner, he would put RED. Red, people. You know, that color that draws the eye and is only supposed to be in your focal point? Yeah, well, putting it in the opposite sweet spot works, if you've made your subject strong enough. Amazing.
  • Black is never black and white is never white.
  • Sargent said to use plenty of paint -- to scrape paint on a canvas to indicate transparency showed a lack of skill. I used so much paint on this, and worked wet in wet (tricky with acrylics, though I did use medium for some of it). And I had to fight the urge to just paint a dab where I wasn't sure. Had to slab it on.
  • And finally, Sargent did plenty of preliminary work on his big pieces: sketches, charcoal studies, color studies, etc., so that when he came to the canvas, he could get it down right the first time, and quickly. I ironed out so many issues with the preliminary work that I'm not certain I would ever do a piece this large without doing that many sketches and studies again.
Thanks, John, for haunting me for the past 30 days. I learned a lot. And I'm sure I could do it all over again in January 2008 and learn more still.

Now that it's the end of the month, maybe everybody who participated in the Sargent project could send me an email with a link to their stuff, so that I can assemble a final page with all of them!

Only I will be moving on Monday, so I might be away from the computer for a few days. Hopefully everything will go smoothly . . .

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Horses of Roan - Color Study

"Horses of Roan - color study" - 11 x 14" acrylic on gallery wrap canvas.
Copyright 2007 Maggie Stiefvater.
Please click here to bid.

Okay, so I was back to the Sargent drawing board today. I decided it was time to tackle a color study. Sargent did several for El Jaleo, the piece that I'm modeling mine after. See here and here for examples.

It turned out to be harder than I thought. First of all, it takes a lot of work to make it look like it's intuitive. I was thinking about the following Sargent principles while I was working:

  • limited palette - I only used the colors that Sargent used (see my first post with my Sargent sketches for a list)
  • Soft edges - Sargent said that a hard edge was a weakness
  • Strong, confident application of color rather than tentative layers of incorrect colors
  • Get the tone right the first time or begin again
  • mimicking Sargent's reliance on dark values to define his shapes.
  • aiming for realism at 15 feet but impressionism at 15 inches
Hard stuff . . . so much harder than I'd anticipated, especially with little or no reference for much of it. To refresh memories, here is El Jaleo again -- see how the white horse is supposed to draw the eye like the dancer. On the final canvas, I need to move that horse a bit to the left to put him in a sweet spot.

I want to end this post by directing you guys to other blogging participants in the project. And keep sending me your sketches and blog addresses -- I want to do a big post at the end of the month with everyone's efforts. All skill levels are welcome to join in! Supposed to be a learning process, right?

Okay, the links:

Katherine Tyrrell's post: "Realism or Impressionism?"

Helene Keough's blog progress on her piece learning from Sargent

It's only the 8th -- plenty of time to join in! And keep those helpful comments and emails coming. I'm only a baby here . . . I need all the help I can get!

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Dream

"The Dream" - 8 x 10" acrylic on gallery wrapped canvas.
Copyright 2006 Maggie Stiefvater.
Please click here to bid.

Today I decided to try a color study to see what I'd be up against with this Sargent project. So out whipped the paints and an 8 x 10" canvas, and this is what I came up with. Sargent said:

  • a perfectly delineated line between dark and light was a fault, and laziness
  • dragging paint thinly across the canvas to create the idea of transparency was no substitute for a thick glob of paint of the exact correct tone
  • to achieve proper facial features/ likeness, the initial underpainting, no matter how blobby, of the head, had to be properly constructed
  • better to scrape off a poor start than constantly try to correct it.
  • make sure you have plenty of paint on your palette and don't try to spare it
So I kept all these things in mind as I worked on this, and tried to ignore the fact that my intended final canvas is 8000 times larger than this little one.

Bring on the comments, folks, I can take 'em. Also, on Sunday I'd would love to post progress from my participating readers, but I sense y'all are still holding back, because I don't have as many as I'd like. Doesn't have to be big, folks . . . email me. portraitswithcharacter @

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Horses of Roan - second Sargent sketch

"Horses of Roan - more preliminary sketches" - 5 x 7" approx. graphite on paper.
Copyright 2007 (still sounds weird) Maggie Stiefvater.

Okay, today I worked some more on my sketches for the John Singer Sargent project, because I read this following passage in his words:

"A sketch must be seriously planned, tried and tried again, turned about until it satisfies every requirement, and a perfect visualization is attained. A sketch must not be merely a pattern of pleasant shapes, just pleasing to the eyes, 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 prearranged line. As a plan is to a building, so must the sketch be to the picture." From:

After reading that, I realized that I had not done nearly enough prep work. I hadn't tried more than two positions on the horses. I hadn't tried different crops, groupings, value patterns . . . No, I'm still nowhere close.

But with the sketch up top you see that I'm closer. A little. I brought them closer together and changed the crop since my intended canvas is a whopping 30 x 40" which is more square. I knew I wanted the two horses farthest away to be darkest but the jury is still out on which horse is going to be my focal point and how to treat the foreground. More study is needed, I think, to see what Sargent would've done.

But there's still a lot of January left, right? I would like to call y'all's attention to my Fine Line Artist friends who have now begun to blog their progress on this project.

Katherine Tyrrell's blog, full of information and a wonderful breakdown on her process.

Nicole Caulfield's blog, tackling a still life in Sargent's style.

I have a few sketches from readers so far, but please, I would love for everyone to try this who has even the slightest inkling, so please, google Sargent's work, get excited, and email me your sketches and blogs! And keep those suggestions and comments coming!

Monday, January 01, 2007

The Horses of Roan - preliminary sketch

"Horses of Roan - preliminary sketch" - 5 x 8"ish, sharpie on paper.
Copyright 2006 Maggie Stiefvater

All right, as promised, today is the first of my more indepth blogs on John Singer Sargent and my first preliminary sketches in my terrifyingly complex concept for my ala Sargent piece.

I dug up this following info from a handful of sources (which I'll cite at the bottom) so I hope no one is offended that I'm disseminating it here! (If any of the article writers are reading this and are both humorless and offended, contact me and I'll take it down . . . possibly replacing with a cartoon face representing your personality).

For me, the pleasure of Sargent's works is in his value pattern, which for those of you who aren't as art geeky as me, means very simply how he places his darks, midtones, and lights. And how much of them he uses. Check out these pieces for instance:

In all these early works, his use of dark values is powerful. Moreover, he uses darkness to simplify all shapes and relationships to bare bones. Realism -- but only barely. To me, a Sargent is a Sargent because he paints the barebones of a subject and combines shapes and subjects into value groupings in order of importance. Does that make any sense? No matter. On I go.

And this piece is the one that I intend to model mine after, well, at least the most closely. This is his famous "El Jaleo," and the part that I want to imitate is the lighting and value pattern. See, he has a bunch of people in this painting, but you would never mistake what the focal point is. And he even highlights the secondary players in the painting without overpowering.

So you've seen my concept up at the top, based on a little two second sketch I did in one of my margins a few days ago. Since then, I've been doing preliminary drawings of the horses because the impression of realistic movement and lighting is going to be crucial in this bugger. I also have to place the horses in such a way that none of them eclipse each other, have a foot in another's eye, or look like they are involved in rude activities. And the light has to hit them all in the same way. This is hard stuff!

Sargent usually did preliminary drawings for his larger, more complicated works, and also for his competition pieces, like El Jaleo and Madame X (the stylish woman above). I've seen these drawings, and you can see some of them here (bottom of the page).

After that, what did he do? The biggest points to learn seem to be that he:

- Worked fast. He would do a portrait in 2-8 sittings, and his portraits were big.

- Worked spontaneously. From an article at "Sargent's bold, physical approach to painting was unusual. He would shout "Demons," rush at the canvas, place a flurry of brush strokes and then retreat to a distance to find out what effect his marks had from this perspective. The easel was set up next to the person being portrayed but he viewed it from afar." or from"...slowly and deliberately recede about a dozen steps from the easel and suddenly,[ pic] the brush lifted ready for action and without ever taking his eyes off of me, make a dash for the canvas on which he then recorded his impression, generally accompanying the act by contentedly humming a little tune.(17)"

- Never overworked. He would rather redo a portrait on multiple canvases than paint over mistakes on one.

- had a limited palette, namely:
-mars yellow
-cadmium yellow
-emerald green
- mars red
-ultramarine/ cobalt blue
- ivory black
- sienna
-mars brown
-lead white (rarelly zinc white)
- a lot of medium

- Worked on mainly gray primed canvases

- Worked with a full load of paint - he criticized a student for being too spare with the amount of paint that he had squeezed onto his palette. His large and evocative brush strokes take a fearless use of pigment.

And finally, my quick sketches that have gotten me to this point. Next is going to be a value study to try and change around the positions of the horses to choose a definite subject and identify it clearly with darks. May be a few days -- I have commissions to be working on.

And my links.

I hope I haven't bored you all silly or been incoherent and I'm still quite silly from this idiotic flu!