Study of Sargent’s Watercolor

Watercolor partial master copy after a John Singer Sargent watercolor painting, Don West, Artist
12”x12”, watercolor on Arches 90lb. hot press paper.

I enjoy studying John Singer Sargent’s watercolors because he was a bit of a maverick as opposed to being a watercolor purist. He judiciously used wax resist and white gouache in practically all of his watercolors to emphasize highlights and provide uninhibited sparkle as he felt necessary. To great effect, as they are hardly noticeable in his paintings unless one is looking for them. He painted watercolor boldly with strong color and minimal brush strokes. Purists would never use wax or gouache, and few used bold color in his day. He typically painted on quarter sheets of watercolor, sometimes larger. Keep that in mind should you decide to do a master copy to study his techniques. To make the greatest use of your time, copy only a section at the same scale on smaller paper. This will maintain the accurate scale of strokes and color depth he achieved.

In both mediums he was extremely prolific. Painting around 900 oil paintings and over 2000 watercolors in his career. The watercolors were most often done en plein aire while on various travels beginning in his fifties. Other than the murals he was commissioned to paint for the Boston Public Library, he painted watercolors almost exclusively, save for around 100 charcoal portraits he created for insistent clients. Among all of this, there were untold numbers of sketches and drawings in charcoal and pencil.

Most of his work is in private collections and in many museums around the world. Some of it comes up for auction and Sotheby’s has the distinction of selling all of the top ten Sargent paintings sold at auction. The last one being an oil painting at $23,528,000 including premiums in 2004, it was part of the sale of the property of Rita and Daniel Fraad, well known New York (state) art collectors.

Today, Sargent is considered a master in both mediums and there is much to be learned in studying and copying any of his works. The watercolors in particular communicate detail with only a few strokes of the brush. When one studies the faces closely, it is amazing how little is actually there. Likewise with trees and scenery, fountains and architecture. I can’t recommend Sargent’s work enough as study material for the mastery of watercolor painted in the outdoors.