John Singer Sargent: the Palette

Take a look at any of John Singer Sargent’s portraits, and you’ll understand why he remains so loved a century after he stopped painting.   In fact, he was the top earning portrait artist of his time.  His subjects glow out of dark canvases with bright, juicy coloured skin.  Add to that his expressive brushstrokes and unconventional settings and poses, and you can see why he is still one of the top regarded masters of contemporary portraiture.

Although Sargent lived in the era of the Impressionists and frequently made use of their style, he is not typically regarded as an impressionist due to his persistent use of black.  For me, adding black onto my palette after thirty years of painting without it was a revelation!

We know a lot about the rest of Sargent’s palette, too!  Here’s how I learned to replicate it at this week’s workshop at the Academy of Realist Art (Toronto):

  • Two yellows:  Cad. yellow light and yellow ochre (we used pale, but any will do)
  • Two reds: Cad. red light and alizarin crimson
  • Two browns: Transparent iron oxide (or burnt Sienna), and Raw umber.  Note that one tends towards red, and the other tends towards green.
  • One green (very little of it though): Viridian
  • One blue: Ultramarine, but cobalt can also be used
  • One black: Ivory.  We were warned against lamp black due to instability issues caused by its slow drying time.  Mars black was also not recommended due to its warmth – Sargent tended to use black as a blue colour.

Note that the two browns are close in value but opposite in hue.  This means that we can mix the two together to make our darks, but then skew the darks towards warm or cool, depending on what we need for our portrait.

Next post I’ll talk about mixing skin colours using this palette.

Til then!



Featured Image: John Singer Sargent master copy by Christy, 11″x14″ Oil on Linen Panel, 2018

Further Reading

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