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 . . .


Belinda Lindhardt said...

Wow ! Maggie, you have done a terrific job well done. And you have articulated all the points on JSS so well, they sound like exactly the same lessons i need to / have learnt.

Good luck with the move!

Kathy C said...

Excellent job. I can't wait for the other picture of it. I liked your detailed list of things you learned.

Bravo - I'll keep my eyes open for the next photo and link to it for my three readers to enjoy.

holly said...

Absolutely fabulous, Maggie! You really captured the feel of his painting. And it must be doubly difficult with acrylics. You've got the palette, mood, depth, lighting; eveything. And 'your' part of it is superb as well :-)! Thank you for taking us with you.

Jo Castillo said...

Maggie, this is just super. Very striking in your "bad" photo. I'm anxiously waiting for the better one. Hope the move went well. Thanks, again, for doing all this homework for us. :)

Linda said...

This is absolutely a classic! What a great piece, and a great way to study the masters.