Thursday, March 8, 2007

A Look at Drapery with Sargent

Study of a Seated Man (1895)
John Singer Sargent

How are your skills at handling cloth and drapery in your drawings and paintings?

I looked through many of my art books last night and searched the net for the artist I would like to use to show a command of drapery, and John Singer Sargent's works kept calling me, because of the lovely way he rendered it.

John Singer Sargent, though born to American parents and a US citizen, lived most of his life in France, and later, England. He was born in Florence, Italy, and in France, until he was rejected by the 1884 Salon, at age 28, for his painting of Madame X, which was considered scandalous at the time. He was schooled in France, and was heavily influenced by his teacher there, Carolus-Duran, and by Velazquez, Frans Hals and the French Impressionist painters. Sargent was loved by many for his work prior to his showing at the Salon of 1884 and its ensuing controversy over the Madame X painting. He took the rejection at the 1884 Salon quite hard, and left shortly after to live in England. He traveled extensively all over the world and painted artists, people of the streets, US presidents and American tycoons. He is best known for his portraits, but was an accomplished landscape painter and and watercolorist as well.

The whole Madame X incident is pretty interesting, and there is a lot written about it that you can check out if you wish to, but in a nutshell, it was thought that her pose was sexual in nature, and too revealing. There was also flack about her pasty white skin, which was not accepted in that time. It might be a little easier to understand some of the controversy, if you glimpse at what the actual painting looked like when it hung in the salon, because one of her straps was falling off of the shoulder. Later, Sargent repainted that part, and the famous portrait as we know it has the straps up on her shoulders as it hangs in its spot in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Well, enough of the background! I am here to get you excited about drapery today.

I have chosen two examples of Sargent's depiction of drapery. In the drawing at the top of the post, titled Study of a Seated Man, he has rendered the model and the drapery in the scene in a very quick and deliberate manner. Take a look at how he has differentiated the planes of the fabric as it folds, by the use of light and modeling. It is almost abstracted in its shapes and with its limited number of tones used.

On the other hand, in his oil painting titled Fumee d'Ambre Gris (Smoke of Ambergris), the tonal shifts are more careful and subtle. I chose this example out of many good drapery examples of Singer because they look achievable to do in a fairly short time frame, and when we work in our sketchbooks or art journals, the idea is to work each day for a short time- 15 minutes to one hour at the most)- and try to work a little every day if you can.

Today, try your hand at a small scene with some drapery. I highly suggest setting up a small still life with a cloth napkin or something similar included in the scene. Keep the number of folds to just a few to keep this less complicated. How will you draw or paint it? Will you choose to do a quick, bold rendering like Sargent's drawing above, or paint it more slowly and carefully?

Since we were talking so much about her, here is the famous Madame X portrait. She has some drapery you can look at too!

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