Monday, January 15, 2007

JSS and my gondola - a work in progress

Sargent's gondola - a work in progress
14" x 11" coloured pencil on Arches HP
all images copyright Katherine Tyrrell

I've been working on a piece for the John Singer Sargent project. This gondola was at right angles to where I was sitting when I was drawing plein air in Venice in May 2005. I kept looking at it when I wasn't looking at my subject matter. I've had a reference photo of it which I've been musing on for some time trying to work out how to do it. I'm certainly finding trying to get inside the head of JSS helpful to the process of developing my gondola.

The thing I noticed most about about JSS's watercolours of gondolas in Venice (he did a lot of them!) was that he was very clear about giving them a defined shape and tended to emphasise the contrast between dark and light values - which is not the same as saying that everything had a hard edge - as it didn't. The canal water was also very simplified and he often used candle wax (or some other form of wax resist to preserve highlights under watercolour washes for the water.

He also liked the dynamics of the diagonals of the poles used by gondoliers - but in my example we have a stationary gondola - so I tried to work out how the stakes might be used to add interest to the overall design.

I thought it might be helpful to the people following this project if I generated some images for different stages.

First of all I cropped my photo to the same size as the image I wanted to produce - in this case 14" x 11". Although I'm not aiming for a photorealistic finish, with an image which has some odd perspective issues I find it helpful to be able to locate key lines. This is probably the most difficult aspect of working outdoors - sizing the image you're trying to portray relative to your page or support. I wonder whether this is the reason why Sargent often went for smaller fragments of scenes - and whether he used a 'viewer' to determine the edges of his picture plane. I often use my camera now to work out where I want the edges to be. This generally involves taking a couple of photos and inspecting them and then taking some more having worked out how best to frame the shot. In this instance my reference photo is the third one I took. In working in the 14x11 format I had to shave a bit of both sides.

After that I did a thumbnail to work out the value design. My version of a thumbnail is to do it in my A4 sketchbook and then put it on the opposite side of the room - at which point I have a thumbnail! I do this as I just find it easier to adjust and work from larger value ketches.

I was trying for three values - darkest, lightest and inbetween. This is what I produced.

Next I drew out the main structure on a 12x16 pad of Arches HP paper. I tend to grid and then find the main lines (eg tops and bottoms of buildings - but not the windows or doors). In this instance I'd never drawn a gondolas from this perspective before and was somewhat perplexed about doing it totally freehand. I'd have been perfectly happy to 'eyeball' this gondola and draw it free hand in real life when I would have had a lot more information on which to base the drawing. The grid helped to locate the correct lines and helped me to 'know' that the weird shapes produced were actually 'true'. However, you can't beat drawing something again and again to be confident about weird shapes. I knew from life drawing class that foreshortening - as in this instance - can make people look very odd - so I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised!

I then began to add colour. these two images are 'before' and 'after' I added Zest-It solvent to the coloured pencil - using a cotton bud to move it around in a controlled way. I didn't use it everywhere and was basically using it to help get a good foundation for the darks - which otherwise can take rather a long time in coloured pencil.

[Note: Zest-It is an environmentally friendly, non-flammable,non-toxic, biodegradable, alternative to 'turps' and white spirit,made from the zest of citrus fruit, and it dissolces coloured pencil. It can be shipped world-wide.]

I then worked on it some more - basically building up the value of the buildings at the rear, suggesting the shapes of the windows and arches and defining some of the shapes and values in the water.

You can see where I've got to at the top of this post - I'm basically writing this post while I ummm and ahhhh about going back in with some more Zest-It in places. And then there's the candle wax - do I want an authentic JSS touch? Wait and'll be returning very soon!

John Singer Sargent Project Update

Nicole Caulfield has been trying her hand at mini JSS portraits. I love her one of Lady Agnew!

Belinda Lindhardt has had a breakthrough in terms of how to look at values and design when looking at reference photos which she explains in her post "Is there life after JSS?" - and then proceeds to put into practice!

John Singer Sargent Project Links:


  1. This is the most informative read ,yet, on the JSS project. And I think an awesome picture going on.
    Do you want a composition suggestion? If not, unmoderate this. If yes, I will post one next.

  2. I was troubled, after first being pleased by the drawing overall, by the gondola being "too" centered.
    Then I noticed in your preliminary sketch, that it was well placed to the left.
    I frequently lose my composition when going onto the final work. Sometimes I grid, sometimes I project my sketch, and sometimes I just give up!
    Why is it that my first sketch is always so right, and my purposeful final work is not?
    This is a great work, Katherine!
    Sorry to be a busybody - forgive me!

  3. Casey - take another look at all the images. I have got it more or less where it is indicated in the thumbnail sketch ie left of the centre mark

    I suspect what you have spotted is a values problem which needs to be addressed

    Also note the power of red! And I have been thinking of calling it "The Red Seat".......... ;)

  4. Katherine . . . I think Casy's right!

  5. Is it very common to have someone critique your work here? Maybe on Wet Canvas, it is common, but for some reason I thought I was in the same type of environment. I feel awful for having commented on the center line business, because it is just a great, great work.
    The boat is rendered just right, by the way.
    Also, I fairly often put my subject dead center (in the vertical plane), but then I do some interesting things with the other lines to make it work.
    Yours, embarrassed, KC.

  6. Some people are more sensitive than others to getting critiques on their work on the internet. I'm very happy taking critiques Casey from people like you - and I usually invite people to comment and then moderate out those awful trolls.

    It's fine - and what you said made me take a very close look at it again! And then Maggie went and had a look too and she agrees with you.

    Obviously I can't move the gondola at this stage but I've definitely got to take a look at the values again.

  7. Can I just emphasise to readers - in case anybody for the wrong impression - the vast majority of comments come from people like you and Casey - but I do get a few from really weird people (I've had one today already - very very weird!) which I don't want posted on the blog and then stay there for a bit before they are deleted - hence the moderation.

    Sensible comment from sensible people - like Casey - is always welcome.

  8. thanks for showing your process. Watercolor is such a mystery to me. I'm going to Venice in September, can't wait.

  9. Thank you for the insight into your journey on this one, Katherine. One of my favourites to date. The water is so true to the lagoon and the background palaces just lovely. I'm going to have to ban myself from opening your blog of a morning - I just get lost in it and the links for far too long!

  10. Noooooo!! Don't do that - you're one of the few people who are up and around when I'm writing my blog post in the morning and one of the reasons I get to the end of it!

    Wait until you see the next one.......... ;)


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