Left: one in a series of pages from my journal showing notes and diagrams I made on a recent trip to the Minneapolis Art Institute. Click on the image to see an enlargement.
My friend Tom is working with his photographic portraits in Painter (a “natural media” painting software program that mimics oil painting, watercolor, charcoal, etc. depending on the tool selections you make). I visited his studio the other day and looked over his samples. We chatted about filters which rendered things automatically and about making adjustments manually and how best to make those adjustments. It was clear to me right away that we needed to see some oil paintings (the technique he was working on, and a painting medium in which I don’t work).
So we looked at our calendars and agreed to meet in a few days at the Minneapolis Art Institute. That day I went right to the information desk with a plan: Do you have any Sargents? Yes, they had two. The Birthday Party—my heart sank, that was a lovely painting in which everyone’s eyes were downcast or blurred by the glowing candles. I didn’t recognize the other painting’s name, in fact, when we got to the gallery where it hung the painting turned out to be a cityscape that was of no use to us.
However, right around the corner (or two, it’s kind of like a maze in there) we found a Manet that was to die for. In my journal I have written down The Smoker and now don’t recall if that was the actual name or simply what I called it because the man depicted was smoking a pipe.
Manet can always be counted on for applying a few deft strokes to define value and volume. Just what we wanted. We leaned forward and dissected the strokes, chatting all the while, me scribbling notes, eyes trying to focus at impossibly close distances!
And so it went. We scoured the galleries to look at other portrait works by mostly 19th century painters who were working in a realistic style, yet loosely.
What’s the point you wonder? Well it’s always helpful to learn from the masters. It’s always great to see what color choices they made. It is useful to see how their editorial eye reduced the complexities of the physical eye to one or two strokes, yet managed to convey the entirety; managed to show us in 2 dimensions, what we yearn for in 3; managed to show us the whole, yep, more than the entirety: soul also.
I recommend it. Go and look at one thing only. Think of it as adventures in art, or art forensics. Oh, yeah, you can be seduced by the fleshy glow of a Bouguereau cheek as you zip through a gallery where one hangs, but don’t stop for more than a moment (he was too exacting on eyes for our purposes). Stay on task, see what others are doing. Make sense of what their approach was. Maybe it won’t be right for you but now you have one less option to consider, or one option to start from as a springboard.
You can go visit the Bouguereau another day. (And you should: flesh with such a healthy glow that it should be featured in a vitamin ad.)
Our trip lasted exactly 1 hour. We left (missing a cookie opportunity as the cafeteria had closed; note to self about planning!) and each returned to our respective studios where we put into action what we’d observed.
And if your art institute doesn’t have any Sargent’s (or suitable Sargents) or any modern (enoughs) that fit the bill of what you’re looking for what can you do? Well for $6.95 you can purchase a wonderful book from Dover, Sargent Portrait Drawings: 42 Works by John Singer Sargent, selected with an introduction by Trevor J. Fairbrother.
This slim but delightful book presents a range of drawings from quick and unfinished to polished. Did Sargent know any ugly folks you wonder? He sees the line, the shape, the shadow, the form, with such concrete rightness that it all is served up as a new variation on beautiful. It’s like being in a bakery where everything is made with real butter.
If you are interested in rendering portraits this will be the best $6.95 you ever spend.
If acquiring more books is out of the question right now, check out Sargent on line at the ArtCyclopedia. There you'll find lots of listings you can peruse. My favorite is the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where they have some of the drawings from the book I mentioned! You can work your way around the site to little drawing tours. Have fun. Learn a lot.