One of the most difficult aspects of painting is how to begin. When I look at paintings in a museum, where one only has the result to look at, I try to fathom where the artist began- how did he or she initially lay-in the painting. Sometimes it is helpful to look at studies or incomplete work or late work where the artist was less concerned about his public. Last week I went to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and I had a chance to examine Sargent’s mural decorations for the rotunda in the museum. They are studies and are part of his late work. They have a wonderful brevity to them in part because they would eventually need to compliment the architecture but also because Sargent knew well how to begin and how each piece would be resolved.
What struck me about the studies was the limited scale of value. There appeared to be only two values on the light side and two values on the shadow side. Unity of value was paramount. But what was also interesting was that the two values had opposing temperatures. There was a warm tone and a cool tone on the light side as well as the shadow side. And this seemed to be the key to achieving form and a sensation of luminosity. Sargent appears to have blocked- in the painting laying in a warm tone on the shadow side and then adding a cool tone for the shadow edge or core shadow; And on the light side laying-in a cool tone and then warm half tones. The lay-in seemed to keep temperature a priority.
When examining the study of Perseus, another aspect became evident and that was Sargent’s use of colored edges. These colored edges also had opposing temperatures. Sargent used a red edge (an edge that was within the confines of the figure) on the light side of the figure running along the cool flesh tone, so that the cool tone was heightened by the warm red edge. On the shadow side he used a cool blue colored edge running along the warm reflected light to heighten the sense of form. This colored edge was also of a deeper value which also aided the form by turning it quickly into the background much like Manet’s technique to turn a form. Much of this more obvious technique was applied in a more subtle fashion in the final mural paintings. But it was also evident in one of Sargent’s most beautiful nudes, Nude Study of Thomas E. McKeller ,which was hanging in the lower rotunda. This painterly piece carried the same hallmarks of the mural studies.
On the upper level of the rotunda hung one of my favorite paintings by Abbot Handerson Thayer, Caritas depicting a young woman with arms outstretched and two children below her. This completely worked painting contained similar traits as the Sargent’s. Observing the two children, one could see that Thayer layed-in the figures, maintaining a unity of value with opposing temperatures. The male child was blocked-in in two temperatures on the light side and two on the shadow side- On the light side a cool green and a warmer pink (complimentary tones) and on the shadow side a green and a deep ocher. Thayer also used colored edges but not quite like Sargent. Thayer used a cool viridian edge (this edge being part of the background) running along the figure on the cool light side acting as a halo effect rather than as a way to heighten the temperature through opposition (this is especially evident on the young woman’s left shoulder and arm). On the shadow side he used a deep warm red edge (this edge being within the figure like Sargent’s) to heighten the cool reflected light (this is evident on the young woman’s extended right arm and hand). These edges of red and green were complimentary. On the female figure all was completely worked out beautifully and on the children with the utmost brevity, the two extremes evident side by side, each heightening the sense of the other.
These paintings provided much reflection on how one should begin a piece and carry it forward. Robert Henri hinted at similar things concluding that temperature had a greater functioning power to achieve the sensation of light as opposed to a constant change of value. Henri states in The Art Spirit, “the effect of brilliancy is to be obtained principally from the opposition of cool colors with warm colors, and the opposition of grave colors with bright colors.” (The Art Spirit, p.57; see further discussion on Henri’s sense of temperature in my piece titled, Color Temperature and the Super Color, and A Theory of Colored Edges)