Wednesday, October 9, 2013

John Singer Sargent Watercolors at the MFA Boston

It was quite a revelation to see John Singer Sargent's spectacular watercolors at a member preview of a major show at the MFA yesterday. These works are some of the most important watercolors in the history of art - and at the Centennial mark they all look to have been painted yesterday with bold color, lively and loose brushwork, spectacular command of lights and darks.

The MFA's exhibit website

Sargent's apparent joy at the opportunity to work outdoors, en plein air, as a man essentially on vacation shows in every image. He was taking time away from the commissioned portraiture and mural work that dominated his painting in oils at the time - using the time and freedom that this work afforded him. The Italian Alps, the deserts of Africa, Corfu, Carrara; a formal garden, an alpine river, a Bedouin tent - he is able to take you to these places because he was so fully there himself.

But it is in the details that his watercolor technique can leave an aspirant slack-jawed with wonder and no small measure of envy. Click to enlarge...

Melon Boats (detail)

In A Levantine Port (detail)

Simplon Pass: Crags (detail)

Simplon Pass: Mountain Brook (detail)
Port of Soller (detail)

Brook Among Rocks (detail)

Carrera: Little Quarry (detail)

Simplon Pass: Avalanche Track (detail)

In A Medici Villa (detail)

Arab Gypsies in a Tent (detail)

Every one of them has cool blues, greens, purples lying down beside warm reds, yellows and ochres making the color, space and light modulate. Extremely bold colors, rich darks, the high contrast of wax resist under the paint or the use of open paper or opaque gouache mixed with 'chinese white' on top, the phenomenal 'dry brush' swatches skipping across the textured surface of his rough, pebbled paper. The fast, flowing brushwork combines an extreme confidence with a will to experiment and just SEE and convey the scene. There is a huge immediacy and spontaneity that comes through (along with the well-placed patience of a watercolorist who knows his medium). It's clearly not magic, but... his quiver full of options is just huge. 

I can see some of how he does it, but I can't always think my way through it with a brush in hand, and certainly can't just do THIS without thinking when I'm on site. But I tried my hand at copying some of these details, to see whether I've learned what I think I've learned so far.

I tried to go at this rapidly, and got closer than I imagined I might. The drawing/brushwork comes naturally for me, but the more 'painterly' lessons of color use, the warms/cools in combination don't come as easily - at least not when I'm working from life. There's a big difference between doing this from nature and doing it from a Sargent detail that you can study! He has already made all the hard choices for me. There remains some sort of nearly-impenetrable fog of mystery hiding the core differences between what he does and what I can do. There is no secret formula, of course - not in art making, music making, or anything else really - but it is important to absorb techniques, to make them your own so that you are not taken out of the moment while painting. Especially for conveying this sort of illusion of light and sparkle, speed and freedom, you need to be bold and confident. 

That fog doesn't lift very often, but exercises like this can help. The presence of a master is so humbling... and yet so inspiring.