I have seen several articles that claim to demonstrate the method taught by John Singer
Sargent, however, many of them talk about the fact that he used no lines in the initial stages
of drawing, and then the article goes on to block in the figure with lines.
I am going to show you the Sargent method using a simple shape, a three-dimensional ball. I have taken photos of my progress and I will explain each step. Here, I have taken a piece of white paper and used a 6B pencil to lightly stroke over it. Most masters did not use white paper. I highly recommend using mid-tone colored paper, not too dark. You can use this method also for wet media. (see below)
This tecnique works for all the soft media: pastel, graphite (pencil), charcoal, macchia, red chalk, and other coloring agents that come in powder and can be erased. Here, I am demonstrating something anyone can do with a sketch book and a pencil. Stroke the paper lightly, DO NOT dig in to the paper.
Next, take up a soft cloth, or a tissue, or a paper towel, or a cotton ball and work the
pencil into the paper for a mid-tone background. Spend some time working. It is important
to make the background smooth and even. But don't worry if it's not perfect. Just try to
work out the lines of your pencil.
My own art teachers kept yelling at us for smearing lines. We were taught to draw with only lines. I was a smearer. Imagine my delight when my teacher (a student of a student of Sargent) went on about smearing color into the paper! I was all smiles. However, it is not recommended to use your fingers. Your hands contain some oil. The oil will blend with the powder and stain the paper so that you cannot erase.
Most Manga artists and those who do inking, use cotton gloves with the fingers cut out to keep oil off their drawings, for the ink does not color when the paper is oily. Western artists used a mall stick, a stick with soft tips to keep their hands off the paper. The other danger is getting something toxic in your skin. Use a rag!
Very lightly, using a soft pencil, or your rag loaded with pigment, smear a ball shape into
the toned background. Do not use lines, do not worry about what it looks like. This is the
essence of the method. It is amazing to watch a master just swab on color without much regard
for being exact. Work fast. Do not fuss over what you are doing.
Even in portraiture, a master will walk to the easel, smear on color and then walk back. In oil painting, the artist will smear paint into a colored background. If you are painting, work very fast, and always used a painted background. Never work on a naked background! If your paper is toned, you do not have to tone the background. This method does not work on white paper or white canvas.
Practice with simple shapes to swipe the color on as fast as you can. Speed is not as important as getting past the fussy stage that all artist get into when they are about seven years of age. Trust yourself. Your eye will see if you have done it all right. But there is always a chance to work it over, which is why we work in chalk and not pen.
This is the same drawing showing a kneaded eraser. Erasers will tear up the fibers of the
paper. The most gentle eraser is a kneaded eraser. Some people recommended a ruber eraser
(one of the white kind) used by comic artists to erase after inking. It is not recommended
for this technique.
The kneaded eraser must be clean to work. Work the eraser until it is soft. Swipe at the chalk, charcoal or pencil, and then knead it again. Kneaded erasers are great for fine detail or making a shape to fit what you want to erase. They are inexpensive. But after they have been used for a long time, they get filthy. Buy the large ones and break off pieces.
If you have no eraser like this, use one of those cheap, red ones like you find on pencils. Work very lightly. If the eraser gets oily or dirty, you will smear into the paper and there is no way to get the smear out. Keep the eraser clean and work lightly in little, light strokes going over if you need to.
Erase around your ball shape. This is where the artists tend to get fussy and use
their calipers and rulers to try to "cut" the shapes of light out correctly. Again, try
not to fuss too much. If you are a beginner, practice with simple shapes.
The famous artist N.C. Wyeth wrote that he was bored in Howard Pyle's school at first because all he got to draw was cubes and balls. My own teacher, Elvie, said that the whole of first semester all he got to do was sharpen pencils. Drawing is like a sport. You must train the hand and eye. There is no magic to it. The only way to train is to do these exercises like scales, over and over and over, until you are really sick of it, but good at it.
There is a great myth in art that artists are born. This is just stupid. It discourages anyone who is new. Work with your eraser, dab out an area, look at it, dab some more. Drawing should always be about 80 percent looking if you are drawing from life or drawing from a picture. Practice erasing where you want like making this thin line around the sphere.
This step is very important. Take your rag and work back into your shadow from your background.
This is called "feathering the edges." It is critical in drawing. The idea is to get rid of the
hard edge in the above image.
Why not erase lightly to begin with? Because in this exercise, we are learning to use the "live" background and work the pencil back into our "cut out." This is essential with oil and paint. If your paper was colored, you would simply work the edge of the ball just a tiny bit to get rid of the hard edge. This is called "feathering" after the masters using feathers to ruffle the edge of the paint.
Think of feathers when you push the live graphite back into the cut-out. Use very light strokes as though you were a feather. Work until all but the ghost of the cut remains like you see here in this photo.
For the sake of this demonstration, I have set an arbitrary light. In the next chapter, I will
talk about lighting, a crucial part of drawing that has been lost in illustration. The light is
coming along the arrow and striking the ball from the upper left.
Very gently, take out some of the color on the ball. Feather and rub the edges with your cloth. The tone of the sublight should be the color of the ring around the ball. If you use colored paper, the ring and the sublight will be the same tone.
Don't fuss with this too much. Use a real ball and set it in the light. If the light is at the right angle, less than a third of the ball is lit. You MUST get past our modern way of looking at light. We are so used to flash photos that we expect light to be on the FRONT of objects, not on the side or top. All the masters used this technique. Look at paintings. You will never see a figure or a tree or much of anything lit from the front. Even landscapes follow this rule. Light is attractive. If the entire work is lit, the focus is lost.
In this photo, I have begun to darken the darkest darks. The procedure is as follows:
1) Midtone 2) Sub-dark 3) Sub-light 4) Darks 5) Highlights. The reason for this will become
clearer as we move from shapes onto something more complex like the human face and figure.
I have overlaid numbers on this photo. This is another sequence to memorize: 3,1,2,1. This is the shadow sequence. Highlight, shadow, reflection, cast shadow. Note that the hightlight and the shadow are right NEXT to each other. The way to check your lighting it to check for reflection onto your shaded area on the form. Start to look for reflected light into the shadow causing a mid toned reflection.
Here, although I have numbered the areas, only the darkest shadow on the ball is colored in. In the next photos keep checking for the 3,1,2,1 sequence.
What I have done next, after darkening my shadow on the ball, is to take my eraser and wipe
away areas of a surface for the ball to rest on. In portraiture, no head is ever without part
of the neck and sometimes the shoulders. This gives us a ground for the cast shadow. The only
objects that do not cast shadows are floating in space. Try to always ground your object, even if
it is a silly sphere or cylinder or cube.
Erase in wide swipes, even in the cast shadow area. Don't get too fussy, but try to imagine the surface as something for the object to rest upon. Make your surface extend at least a quarter of the way behind your object, so it doesn't look like it's on the edge of the surface.
Here, again I work into the erased area with my cloth and make it softer up to the edge of the "table." Go slowly, work until the area is smooth and there are no harsh lines.
Now I take my eraser and take out part of the shadow up to the edge of the ball. Reflections
on objects in color are often influenced by the color of the surface on which the object rests.
If your model is wearing a bright orange shirt, often the reflection will have an orange cast to
Be aware that at this stage, drawings often look strange, sometimes wrong. The greatest temptation of artists is to go with what they think they see rather than what is there. But there is also the tempation to paint or draw what looks like is there and is just a distraction. Often an object will reflect several lights. Try to ignore all but the light and reflections that give structure to the oject.
When I put in the cast shadow, suddenly the object stops looking like it's floating in mid-air.
The cast shadow is vital to the reality of the picture. If you draw a tree, draw the cast shadow
on the ground. If you draw a face, draw the cast shadow of the head onto the shoulder and neck.
Work lightly with your pencil at first, darkening as you see you have the shadow correctly placed. Experiment with putting the shadow in different places. You will soon learn that the shadow and the highlight have to match or you get a picture that seems strange. Part of the problem with lighting an object from the front is that you do not see the cast shadow or relection and the object always appears ungrounded.
Work with you shadow's edges, feathering and building up layers of dark with the pencil. It's always easier to go lightly and erase than try to erase a large area of dark!
After all the darks and sublights and sub-darks are in, it it time for a highlight. The intensity of the light affects the intensity of the highlight and the shadows. The bigger and brighter the highlight, the darker the shadows. In bright light, the highlight will not be as intense and neither will the shadows. If your light source is narrow and bright, the background will be dark, the highlight will be intense and the shadows deep.
Now it's time for pencil lines! Wait to do fine pencil work until after the object has
been completely blocked in. There is also the tendency to overwork the object. To prevent
this, work on the background first. I put in some angled strokes on the background and some
winding horizontal strokes to indicate wood grain for a table.
Get creative. This is where you can get all those books on drawing with a pencil and practice your line work. You can also draw a line around the object. It's often way more satifying to work on line work after you have mastered the subject you are drawing. It then feels as if you are finishing a good drawing.
I have seen so many students work and work on one eye of a head, only to mess up part of the cheek or the chin or the mouth. This is very frustrating. With the Sargent method, you use your work to learn to block in, measure, set shadows before you go to all pain of the fine line work (or brush work.)
After I finish the line work, I work on the object itself. For a sphere, used curved lines.
This is normally where most book start. They block in the object and then have the student start
to do line work. This kind of method ignores the fact that most of us have trouble blocking things
in to the point where they look right after they are done.
Using a quick method with a cloth and eraser lets you see if the shadows are right, the pose is right and interesting, the lighting is right, and the subject is done correctly BEFORE you spend hours and hours on line work. I have many pictures I'm too embarrassed to show because part of them is wonderful line work, but the picture was badly composed or part of it didn't work.
Sargent's method, also used by Carvaggio and DaVinci, was developed by people having to do portraits of particular clients. The artists were often under stress and had to work fast and get their patrons painted correctly. They might then go back into their own studios and "finish" the work.