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Mars Burnell reconstructs John Singer Sargent


John Singer Sargent -

Millicent – Duchess of Sutherland – age 37

What rivets the viewer’s eye into a portrait? It is not the subject.

    What draws appreciation, admiration and exultation to the portrait?
    1- Composition. 2- Composition. 3- Composition
    Outstanding portraits, memorable portraits are like a melody… that once you hear it… you cannot forget it.
    Visually… you achieve such memorable qualities by deliberate attention to composition.
    A rose is a rose is a rose. Ah… but some roses just leave you gasping for air.
    That is what a compelling portrait feels like.
    Getting that mesmerizing feeling into your portraits… should be your goal.
    Those of you who wish to master portrait painting… should come to know John Singer Sargent.
    And Millicent – The Duchess of Sutherland is a good place to start. Sargent painted ‘The Duchess’ in 1904 when she was 37.
    She was ‘a woman of action…waiting for her moment.‘ Ten years later…
    After the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 – she organized an ambulance unit that saw active service in the siege of Namur, Belgium. She returned to the continent in October to direct field hospitals in northern France. She moved with her unit to Roubaix in June 1918. For her war service, she was awarded the French Croix de guerre, the Belgian Royal Red Cross, and the British Red Cross medal.
    Between 1915-1916 the Duchess financed and administered the No 9 Red Cross Hospital, which was recognized for its efficient use of a new, revolutionary treatment of wounds known as the Carrel-Dakin treatment. The total number of patients treated between 12 January 1916 and 20 November 1918 was 5,914.
    Earlier in 1896, she established the North Staffordshire Cripples’ Aid Society, a charity with the aim of training a number of crippled boys in North Staffordshire and teaching them a trade.
    Clearly… the Duchess was no wall-flower.

duchess of Sutherland -

Duchess-Drawing 1

Let’s begin with the eyes.

    Some eyes are watery, unfocused and dreamy. This subject appears to be self-possessed, aware and purposeful.
    In portraiture… some will say… the initial drawing is everything. Mess that up and better keep your day job.
    I say… that is why they have erasers on pencils.
    In any case… I did not set out to ‘copy’ the Duchess. Infringing on another artist’s work is not the aim here. The aim here is discover what the original artist did… and incorporate the methods into your own work.
    So I have chosen another face, changed the hair style into something more contemporary and gone forward.
    The point here is – in this portrait – the purposeful eyes – are everything. Forget that and you miss the essence, the spirit, the force of nature – that this woman represents.
    Miss the eyes … and your portrait loses it’s memorable quality.

Carolus Duran -

Millicent-Carolus Duran

    Sargent’s mentor Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran taught the ‘wet-on-wet’ or ‘alla prima’ – method, contrary to the popular teaching technique of the time, which required careful planning and under-painting.
    So – we brush some water (using a #5 sable round), some aureolin, some rose madder into the hair areas and proceed from there.

Ducess of Sutherland - Millicent-

The Duchess’ hair

    While still wet we just move the color around with our brush.
    Or because we have previously taped our paper to a plexiglass backing board – we just tilt the board and let the color flow where it will.
    Rocking the board gently back and forth while humming “when the wind blows…” seems to put me in the spirit.
    With watercolor… embrace the unexpected… and it allows the ‘alla prima’ method to do marvelous things for your painting. And you get to take the credit for it.

John Singer Sargent - Duchess -

Millicent – Hair & Dress

    Because we know… from our source image that the background will be a luminous dark… we can now set up ‘echo’ luminosity points within the subject’s hair and dress.
    Transparent WaterColors
    I always use transparent watercolors – Rose Madder, Veridian, Transparent Brown Oxide, Cobalt Blue and Aureolin… in these stages of a painting. For a very simple reason. Now is not the time to fall into MUD.
    Transparent watercolors will keep the luminosity going… even when you want to create your darks.

Millicent-John Singer

Dutchess – work in progress

    Of all the possible compositional elements – Portraits demand exquisite play of light.
    Notice how the light dances from left to right – across the face – from highlight to shadow… employing the principles of complementary color, cast shadow and reflected light… especially in the far right cheek.
    The eyes and the lips carry the painting. The eyes follow you…wherever you move. Light sweeps across the lips…the upper in shadow, the lower in bright light… the emotional expression is powerful… yet left to your imagination.

Millicent-Duchess-John Singer Sargent -

Duchess… age 50?

    Muted Lively Background…
    Portrait painters oftentimes let the background steal the show… or it just looks out of place…like an after-thought.
    Balancing the background is not as difficult as it looks.
    Play it with lights and darks.
    As you see here… the muted background colors echo the foreground colors… and the subject herself takes the spotlight.
    We added sparkle to the eyes… and now we have a memorable portrait.
    PS – as you view this portrait – remember – portraits are commissioned work.
    You must please the piper – in this case the subject.
    This is a painting of a forceful woman. A modern day female CEO. She is no demur debutante looking for a beau.
    As I am painting this portrait in 2014 I’m channeling her life into this painting. Taking into account the Duchess has been in field hospitals, nursed the wounded, witnessed the cruelties of war. If her eyes bore through you… or if her expression makes you feel uneasy… rest assured… this is the way she would see herself.
    A likeness is a given in portraiture. The subject must see their face. However…
    To downplay the substance embodied within your subject is pandering. And that is fastest way … not to have a portrait career.

Author – Mars Burnell

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