Thursday, February 3, 2011

"Bedouins"- after Sargent

"Bedouins" - 18x12 inches
copy of John Singer Sargent watercolor
pastel on Strathmore 500-series paper

I've been intending to expand my painting repertoire to include figurative and portraiture work, but have been so caught up in landscapes that I didn't seem to find the time.   The next painting in the Impressions of Winter series is a real head-banger, so I thought I'd take a break and jump into some figure work with a copy of one of the master's of portrait painting - John Singer Sargent.  

I can't remember when I first saw Sargent's work many years ago, but I was immediately drawn to it.  He is probably best known for his portrait work, in oils, of the aristocrats and social elites, such as his very well-known (and scandalous) painting "Madame X" [Madame Gautreau] - a technical masterpiece.  And while I admire these paintings for their brilliant execution, I find his portraits of unknown people, and those done on his travels throughout the world, to be more compelling in some ways.

My local library is a wonderful resource of inspiration and continuing education via its art book section, and there is always a book on a particular artist, art movement or period, or genre, to be found on my reading table.  Currently, it is Painters of Color and Light:  Homer, Sargent and the American Watercolor Movement, by Linda S. Ferber.  Although I don't do watercolor (it scares me!), I love it as a spectator.  The book, in addition to featuring about 150 watercolor paintings at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, goes into the history and development of watercolor as an inexpensive and decorative alternative to oils, and those artists who influenced it.  It's a wonderful book, and one I'll definitely be adding to my personal collection.

I was delighted to see that one of my favorite Sargent watercolors - "Bedouins" - was featured, and the haunting faces of these nomadic tribesmen, along with their colorful robes, made me want to give it a try.  The original painting is 18x12 inches on watercolor paper, so I chose a cream-colored Strathmore paper in the same size.  You can see a rather poor copy of the original here.

For this, I was interested in doing a copy as close to the original as possible, both in detail and palette.   I chose to use an 8-part grid to help with placement and scale, since I have a tendency to sight-size draw, and my drawing skills aren't what they were 15 years ago.  And, luckily, I was able to come close to matching most of the colors with my existing pastels.  

There are still issues, primarily with the faces; they are probably a wee bit too small, and the center man's face is a bit too narrow  Nonetheless, I found this hugely educational and it really forces one into right-brain mode.   I had enough foresight to take some in-progress photos, because I always enjoy seeing those by other artists.

initial drawing, using #HB pencil

Completion of the faces, which was unbelievably difficult at this small scale.  I was able to make some minor adjustments from the original drawing as I started applying the pastel (NuPastel) layers.

More blocking-in.  The packing peanut blending tool was amazing here.  I left certain areas unblended, as Sargent had done in his painting.

The fact that Sargent probably whipped this amazing watercolor out in about 30 min. or less and it took me the better part of 2 days to complete my copy just adds to my sense of awe at his talent and skill.  Thank you, Mr. Sargent, for the inspiration you continue to provide through your amazing work.


  1. What I like is the massing and the intensity of the blues. I always wanted to try a JSS - good for you.

    I look forward to seeing more! Also, you should see all of the razor scrape marks on some of my master copy faces. It is scandalous. I have a hard time getting the French, plump adolescent that was a typical Degas ballerina. I have downloaded and printed out these Frankish faces and have them pinned to my studio walls.

    I posted this twice because of a misspelling.

  2. Thanks, Casey. Yeah, it was those intense blues that really pulled me in! I never (well, seldom) get to use those colors in landscape work, so it was a treat!

    I am so in awe of artists that can make figurative work look so effortless like both Sargent and Degas did. I've had a long-standing love of Degas' ballerinas and even his plain old bathing women. They'll certainly be on my "Masters to copy" list. And then there is this W. Homer w/c figure painting in the same book that I am now in love with...

    Speaking of mis-spellings...I didn't notice until after I took the photo that I had somehow left the "u" out of "bedouins". Fixed now, but good grief!

  3. How cool. Love the intense blues. Yum.

    Sargent is one of my favorites.

  4. P.S. Forgot to say, the sky in the post below (pastel sky) looks really cool.

  5. Thanks, Jala. Those intense blues and bright accent colors are really what grab your attention in the original painting. Pastels really rise to the occasion for such pieces, I think.

    I'm glad you like the sky in the Mormon Lake painting; it's actually more from memory/imagination, since the original looked nothing like that...other than having high, icy clouds.


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