I am a John Singer Sargent fan. When I first saw his portraits, I thought they were not only expressive, but also accessible – Sargent’s use of broad brush strokes seemed like a style that was within reach for this would-be-painter.
To learn how to paint more like him, I wanted to look at his portraits up close, to see how he put paint on the canvas. Unfortunately, the de Young Museum in San Francisco only has a couple of Sargents on display, but earlier this year, the Legion of Honor hosted an exhibition by Anders Zorn, one of Sargent’s contemporaries, someone who also employed a healthy dose of bravura while laying down his paint. On the last day of the exhibition, I went to the museum in order to convince myself that, with a little practice, I too could paint like Sargent and Zorn.
I took my eldest son with me, and before we left the house, he said, “Can we bring our sketchbooks?”
I thought the exhibition would be crowded, which would make sketching difficult, but I said, “Sure, that’s a good idea.”
So I grabbed our sketchbooks and some pencils, and off we went.
I was most interested in seeing Zorn’s large oil paintings: his portraits, and the paintings in which he captured Swedish life in the late 19th century. I had heard his watercolour paintings were also stunning, but I wasn’t prepared for what we encountered when we entered the show.
Fiskmarknad I St Ives (courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons)
My response to seeing Zorn’s watercolours was similar to Emmet’s reaction when seeing Wyldstyle for the first time in The Lego Movie – “Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhh” (although my son enjoys visiting fine art exhibitions, he also likes going to children’s movies). I was speechless. Controlling water on paper is difficult even for the most accomplished painters, but Zorn’s techniques go beyond what I thought possible. In Portrait of Cristina Morphy (my son’s favorite), the details of the lace on the girl’s right shoulder are so fine that I felt like reaching out to make sure it wasn’t real (I would have included a picture of the painting in this post, but the online images don’t come close to doing justice to the real thing). And even after staring at a few landscapes, I still can’t grasp how Zorn captured the water’s surface and its reflections.
Summer Fun (courtesy of www.anderszorn.org)
It wasn’t long before I thought my view toward the “accessibility” of Zorn was beyond naïve. But when we walked into the second half of the exhibition, where Zorn’s oil paintings hung, I gained renewed confidence.
Zorn’s oil paintings are impressive, particularly his self-portraits, and Midsummer Dance, which is a Swedish national treasure.
Self-portrait in red (courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons)
Midsummer Dance (courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons)
Unlike the river of visitors who strolled through the exhibition, stopping for only a handful of seconds to view these paintings, I crept up as close as the security guards would allow, to study the brush strokes of each one (here I must commend my son that after an hour and a half of such behavior, he never once asked me to leave or quicken my pace). I saw the thick layers of paint. I saw the different brush sizes that Zorn used to paint the faces and the clothing. And after seeing touches of similar colour throughout a painting, I gathered that Zorn did not always clean his brush between strokes. I was inspired, and I left the exhibition feeling the artistic thermals push my wings outwards and upwards.
After leaving the show, I figured my son would be ready for lunch, so I was surprised when he said, “Can we sketch now?”
So for the next hour and a half, we strolled through the rest of the Legion of Honor, and periodically sat down to sketch a sculpture that caught my son’s eye.
Finally my son said, “Can we go now?”
I was as impressed with my son’s staying power, and his genuine desire to draw, as I was with Zorn’s paintings. I didn’t want the day to end, but after three plus hours of walking through the museum, I was also ready for a cheeseburger. So we left, and over a plate of fries, we looked at each other’s sketchbooks and talked about drawing and painting. In this post are a few of our sketches from the day (frankly, I like my son’s better than mine).
Later that night, after our boys were asleep, I told Stacie that I was going to the back room to start a portrait. Zorn was fresh in my mind, and I wanted to get down to what I knew would be my best painting to date.
Zorn makes it look easy – he lulls you into a false sense of confidence that once you squeeze paint onto your palette, magic will flow. That night, after only two brush strokes, I realized the foolishness of my thinking. Zorn and Sargent are special, and no one should assume that he or she can paint like them.
I don’t paint like Anders Zorn. I paint like me, and with practice, I will improve. But artists like Zorn and Sargent motivate me, so I will also keep visiting museums and galleries to seek inspiration, particularly if it means I can sketch with my boys, and share a cheeseburger and fries with them afterwards.
P.S. Although the Anders Zorn exhibit at the Legion of Honor has come and gone, the exhibition is currently on display at the National Academy Museum in New York City. But it ends on May 18th, so if you are in New York, make the time between now and then, and go see Anders Zorn’s works in person.