The following is an 8in x 5.25in ink wash sketch made after John Singer Sargent’s painting ‘Venetian Street’. This short tutorial follows the progress of what is really a brief study in values, from the initial outlining of the sketch to building up several layers of black ink wash with a brush.
Earlier in the year, I wrote an article about thumbnail sketching hoping to follow up with a demonstration, which unfortunately is still forthcoming, however this process more than covers the same approach I adopted for thumbnail sketching, except to add a few more details and more range in the mid-tones.
There’s a nice design and composition to Venetian Street. It employs a simple one point perspective, and notice how the vanishing point goes straight to the face of the man. This is a common design ploy. The eye is often drawn to the main vanishing point, so often you cannot go too far wrong by using this as your centre of interest. The top left-hand windows do not conform to the vanishing point, though everything else on the building does. Perspective does not have to be rigid and mechanical (freehand is perfectly sufficiently), and it could simply be a case of a rickety old Venetian building causing a distortion.
There’s a great deal of contrast between the lights and darks that gives the painting a lot of ‘punch’. I haven’t seen this painting in life, so I do not know if the reproduction I’m seeing has artificially darkened areas too much. The face (complete with beard) of our protagonist is very triangular, and with tunic and stance the most simplified envelope creates a sort of Christmas tree. Those strong shapes add a lot to the strength of the design. Although the man takes the predominant position, Sargent interplays the darkness of his female acquaintance against the light of the wall, which in effect vies for the viewers’ attention, with the strongest lights appearing at the end of the street thus drawing you further into the painting. Such compositions aren’t by chance – they are carefully planned and considered and Sargent was a master.
Materials are very straightforward and inexpensive. The watercolour pad is made by Gerstaecker, inexpensive and not at all bad. I bought the 250ml bottle of Jax Ink years ago, and even after spilling plenty over my chestnut floor, and computer keyboard, it's still going strong. You can buy it for less than six euros (that's less than a fiver, or around 8 US dollars). Nibs and holders again are cheap. The nib is a Brause 66EF (most nibs will suffice), and brushes are both Winsor & Newton Cotman sizes 3 and 8. The larger brush was used for the majority of the ink washes. Lastly, I found an old watercolour mixing tray allowing me to mix different ink washes from the very watery, to the all but pure.
I am using a traditional nib pen, with a nib by Brausse, for no other reason than I haven’t tried it before and until you test a nib you never know how you’re going to get on with it. The nib is okay for the most part. There were a number of occasions the ink didn’t want to flow (I had cleaned off the factory finish prior to use, by using a special soap, warm water and a toothbrush – if you skip this stage, sometimes a new nib doesn’t allow the ink to flow), which may not have been helped by the texture of the watercolour paper. The drawing is not a particularly long process. The buildings and street floor all conform to the vanishing point making it easy to mentally trace back the lines to the vanishing point. The figures were built upon the simple design shapes as discussed earlier. I haven’t tried to copy the painting religiously as I find that very restrictive and my small studies are simply to learn valuable lessons in the shortest space of time. The woman is standing closer to the wall, I left out a figure from the background and the abstract light blob on the left (which I took to be a discarded sack or piece of junk), is just that – an abstract blob. Now I look at it again, I think Sargent painted a dog lying down in the street!
Blown up section of the ink sketch
I am using jax ink (because it was cheap and came in a large bottle) which is a shellac ink. It has a nice finish to it, which I prefer over black watercolour paint, , but the shellac does dry to a waterproof finish, so it does make it harder to build up subsequent layers. For this reason I try to finish the sketch with just a few layers, blocking in the larger shapes first. The first wash is a midtone (perhaps 60% water, 40% ink). I use a regular watercolour brush and cover all the midtone and shadow areas as quickly as possible. The ink dries quickly, and you can end up with streaky results, so it best to use an oversized brush and work quickly, though this does make the process of leaving highlights a little trickier. If you go back over an area, it does darken the tone, so I try to avoid it as much as possible. A little graduation was added on the street area by dipping the brush in water.
In the next stage I go straight for the darks. I add some black ink to my watercolour palette and add one or two drops of water so that I can still add some darker accents at the end of the study. If this were a thumbnail sketch, I would have stuck to three values, and left things as they were. The female figure lost her nose which is always the risk with using larger brushes on a small study. Once the ink is down you can’t do much about it, other than try to scratch it out or use white gouache to paint it back in.
The untouched areas that show the paper are too distracting, so some of these are given subtle light washes. The shadow areas under the feet are more soft and subtle by wetting the area with water first and then adding the ink. Such shadows are important as they anchor the figures and provide weight.
From here it is simply a case of adding a few more subtle washes of ink to make the transitions between light and shadow. It’s not possible to achieve the same blending effects as oil paints, but if you work quickly you can soften edges to some degree to try and make it look a little less like an illustration.
I made the face of the man a little lighter in tone than the reproduction where it is in even deeper shadow, and the beard is a little curlier.
Once complete the masking tape comes off from around the edge and the small study is complete.
Blown up and magnified. A few strokes of white gouache were used around the neck, but kept to a minimum.