Exhibitions: John Singer Sargent Watercolors

IN CONVERSATION

Our visitors respond to this 30-second video.

  • I am a watercolor artist, and I love his palette. What are the yellows that he typically used? I thought Naples yellow would be one of them, but its not listed. What is the yellow - ochreish color he uses on the wonderful fountains or sails. It looks so great against the ultramarine or purplish shades. A combination of cad yellow and cad orange?

    — Holley

    Toni Owen Senior Paper Conservator replied

    Hi Holley,
    Actually Naples Yellow was used possibly in antiquity and later in the 13th c. but it was rarely used by the 19th and 20th c. perhaps because, vivid chrome and cadmium paints were then available. Sargent used a good number of yellows:
    cadmium yellow, yellow ochre, cobalt yellow (aureolin) and lemon yellow (barium chromate). He often did mix these with other pigments as well. Cadmium orange was also one of the colors found in his studio upon his death so it is very possible he mixed cadmium yellow and orange together.He also mixed yellows and vermilion to get oranges tones. Toni

  • Hi Toni
    I'm here for the fourth time ,, I'm curious as to what brand papers he used, I'm also amazed at how much white he used in so many paintings
    Thank you Rochelle

    — Rochelle

    Toni Owen Senior Paper Conservator replied

    Dear Rochelle,
    Sargent used papers from different mills. Watermarks evident on many of his sheets indicate they were made by the Whatman mill and the Arnold and Foster mill both located in Kent, England. Certain size paper blocks were sold in France and some papers were identified as made by the Fabriano paper mill in Italy. Sargent always choose high quality watercolor papers usually sold in blocks or tablets and he choose fairly white papers with rough textured surfaces. Hope this helps. Toni

  • Some of Sargents church interiors must have taken many hours to paint, other scenes were quick and spontaneous. Do we know how long he spent on his paintings?

    — Erik

    Toni Owen Senior Paper Conservator replied

    There are a number of first hand accounts by friends who describe Sargent's painting technique as spontaneous and rapid though they do not say how long a work took. From what I have seen I do not think he labored long over any work. He probably took several watercolor blocks (pre-stretched papers) with him on any given day so that he could paint a number of watercolors. Accounts also note his industrious nature-rising early and setting out with his painting supplies, pausing for lunch and then continuing work until there was no more light. Toni

  • It is exciting to share your discoveries. Would you please tell us more about what colors he used and any particular discoveries about how he made color choices? Thank you very much.

    — Emily

    Toni Owen Senior Paper Conservator replied

    Hi Emily. The Sargent catalogue has a technical section in which my co-author and I write about the extensive array of colors Sargent used. For example he had at least 5 different yellows in his palette: gamboge, cadmium yellow, cobalt yellow (aka aureolin), yellow ochre and a variety chromate compounds such as lemon yellow (barium chormate) and chrome yellow (lead chromate). For blue he consistently used ultramarine, cobalt and Antwerp or Prussian blue. He loved viridian green but sometimes achieved green by combining yellow and blue. He also used:zinc white (sold as Chinese white), cadmium orange, burnt sienna, brown pink, Van dyke brown and a range of red and scarlet colors such as vermilion, scarlet vermilion, rose madder, carmine lake and alizarin crimson.
    With such an extensive palette he could make color choices based on the subject matter, for instance brown, and blues predominate in the Bedouin watercolors; and blues, red/browns yellows and tans in the Quarry pictures. In many watercolors scenes however (the Alps, Italian gardens, Boats and Venice) Sargent made full use of his extensive palette.

  • Don't you think that all of the X-rays and infra red and forensic analysis detracts from the lush, sensory impressions that Sargent intended? Like giving away a magician's trick?

    — David

    Toni Owen Senior Paper Conservator replied

    Hi David, thank you for your question. I think discovering the choices an artist makes in terms of methods and materials lends excitement to a work of art and adds to the general body of knowledge about that artist. In the case of Sargent, the more I discovered about his materials and techniques the more I stood in awe of his talent and abilities. As a conservator part of my job is to identify the structure or ‘parts’ of an art work, to determine how these parts are put together and if they have changed over time. I like this type of art investigation (like CSI but without the blood) so for me the analysis doesn’t detract from Sargent’s accomplishments. The information is there, but one can certainly skip it if so desired.