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Painting Techniques: Watts,PreRaphaelites,Sargent,Whistler


Painting Techniques: GF Watts

"Before beginning a picture he would often paint over his canvases with some colour which would be opposed to the tone he intended the picture to have . . Watts dried the oil out of his colours by putting them on blotting-paper, reducing them to a texture like putty by keeping them under water. His colours, when he used them, were nearly as dry as pastel, but without, of course, the crumbling quality.

Quite new brushes were, he said, almost useless to him. He would wear the outside bristles down on a background, or by merely rubbing them on a hard surface till they became a stiff little pyramid the shape of a stump used for chalk drawings, and then they became great treasures. He said he believed the worst thing to paint with was a paint-brush except the wrong end!' He would use a paper or leather stump or the handle of an old tooth-brush filed down to a point, but the best of all, he thought, was the finger.

When the putty-like pigment which he put on the canvas in distinct touches was nearly dry, he would sometimes take a paper- knife, and, using the flat part, would rub it over the touches, smearing them together.

He would not touch the painting again till the smeared surface was quite dry. Then he would work parti ally over it. In this way he contrived to get a bloom of atmosphere into his painting, a quality which he invariably aimed at . ." (From 'England's Michelangelo',Wilfred Blunt,London 1975)

portrait painting G F Watts

portrait painting J S Sargent

Painting Techniques: John Singer Sargent

The studio was ready for sittings at the beginning of October, and was opened for a series of entertainments the following month. On Friday, 5 November he unveiled his home to Broadway - "(by invitation) and it was a great treat", Lucia Millet wrote to her parents four days later. "The rooms are large and beautifully arranged and decorated. Then too he has many wonderfully pretty things." (The American sculptor Daniel Chester French was also invited.) And less than a fortnight later he gave a lunch-party for eight, and more people came in after: "a great success", Lucia remarked.'The move from Paris was complete. For many years a long portiere hung over the door at 33 Tite Street and for many years John managed to get entangled in it. He had arranged the contents of the studio to line the walls, leaving the room uncluttered, which, to the unobservant, made the studio appear bare. It had to be: John's energetic approach to painting was closer to fencing. With a brush in one hand, palette gripped by the other, a cigarette or cigar smouldering in his mouth, he backed away from the sitter and canvas with slow but deliberate steps, further and further. His eyes were fixed on the sitter and canvas throughout this withdrawal. He stopped, then lunged at the canvas. Over and over again he performed this ritual dance.

He once calculated he walked about four miles a day in the studio. By retreating he was able to make the model and the canvas equal before his eye,

and was thus able to estimate the construction and values of this representation. He drew with his brush, beginning with the shadows, and gradually evolving his figure from the background by means of large, loose volumes of shadow, half-tones and light, regardless of features or refinements of form, finally bringing the masses of light and shade closer together, and thus assembling the figure. He painted with large brushes and a full palette, using oil and turpentine freely as a medium.'

"Always use a full brush and a larger one than necessary," John told Frederick Sumner Platt, the collector and amateur painter in August 1890. "Paint with long sweeps, avoiding spots and dots ('little dabs'). Never think of other painters' pictures ... but follow your own choice of colors with exact fidelity to nature."

He painted briskly, covering a lot of ground. When the subject was more or less transferred, he stayed close to the canvas, humming or whistling, but he rarely sat down. Or sometimes he would ask the subject to supply the entertainment: Sir George Henschel sang passages from Tristan und Isolde. john's studio routine intrigued his sitters, who liked this show of eccentricity. Sir George Sitwell, for example, enjoyed the spectacle of John "rushing bull-like ... and shouting"." For him such behaviour was appropriate in an artist, and he felt that he was getting his money's worth. To John, however, it was simply a matter of technique, a way of not getting bogged down by detail. Details, he was convinced, would take care of themselves. He once advised a student: "Do not concentrate so much on the features. Paint the head. The features are only like spots on an apple."

John never relied on any gimmicks or short cuts or unusual equipment. His materials were, if anything, extraordinarily usual. "The arrange- ments for painting", Julie Heyneman (a Californian art student who was introduced to John by Charles Deering in June 1892) observed at Tite Street, " - Mr. Sargent would probably have called them the'instruments of torture' - were of the simplest, the most practical kind. The palettes were weighted, and a zinc fence prevented the wet paint from slipping down to the sleeve....>

He used colours of the most ordinary variety and quality. He had no favourite paintbox - in the country he used a fruit- basket - or palette or brushes, no special tools or sacred procedures.

He could paint anywhere, in almost any conditions.(From 'John Singer Sargent' by Stanley Olsen,B&J,London,1989)

Painting Techniques: The PreRaphaelites "Wet White" Method...

"his fellow Brotherhood artist, Millais, had separately devised a technique for producing a particularly notable brilliance of colour. Hunt explains this technique as follows: ",. . . on the morning for the painting, with fresh white (from which all superfluous oil has been extracted by means of absorbent paper, and to which a small drop of varnish has been added) spread a further coat very evenly with a palette knife over the part for the day's work, of such density that the drawing should faintly show through. Over this wet ground, the colour (transparent and semi-transparent) should be laid with light sable brushes, and the touches must be made so tenderly that the ground below shall not be worked up, yet so far enticed to blend with the superimposed tints... " This method only works well ,in my experience, for those parts of the picture which are >very high in tone.And it's troublesome if the lead white dries faster than you can complete the part in question...You lose your work,or have to leave it half finished.

portrait painting J E Millais

portrait painting J A M Whistler

Painting Techniques: Whistler

" As to Whistler's technical methods, I have been given some very interesting notes of his practice by a person who worked for some years in his studio. "He put the picture side by side with the sitter. He objected to figures actually life-sized; by as much floor as was in front of the feet, by so much did he suppose his sitter retired from the frame, and to that amount he made him smaller. The canvas had a grey preparation made with black and white mixed with turpentine. He did not use a palette,but had a table near him on which he mixed the tones he was going to use. This was a very important part of his practice; before actually painting his picture he mixed with great care a quantity of the tones he would- require such as background colour, floor colour, coat-colour in the light, ditto-in the half-tone, ditto in the shadow; flesh-colour in the light, in the half-tone, and in the shadow; hair-colour in the same way, etc.

He had a mixture of oil and turpentine in a saucer standing on the table. Using this as a medium, he covered thinly the whole canvas with these prepared tones, using house-painters' brushes for the surfaces, and drawing lines with round hogshair brushes nearly a yard long (he said that Carlyle was much struck by these big brushes, and laughingly approved of them as well fitted for their purpose). His object was to cover the whole canvas at one painting- either the first or the hundredth.

I remember his pulling up Lady Archibald Campbell for saying that, at the last sitting, he would 'touch up' her portrait. Not 'touch it up,' he said, 'give it another beautiful skin.' This contains a complete statement of the quality that he aimed at.

When a thing was incomplete he did not try to patch it; he did it all over again and again and again-till it was finished-or wrecked, as often happened, from the sitter getting tired, or growing up or growing old.

"It was certainly not a recipe for one-down-t'other-come-on portrait painting, to be delivered in time and depended on.

He would put the mixtures in little gallipots of water round the table that served as a palette, so that he could depend upon taking up the same tone another day."

From "The Art of Portrait Painting" by John Collier,Cassel & Co,London,about 1910(?)

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