2.2 Lucy Austin

A comparison between two watercolour artists

In this short essay I compare the work of two artists, Lucy Austin and John Singer Sargent. Both use watercolour predominantly in their work but both come from different times, different traditions and deal with different subjects and themes.

As well as exploring similarities and differences, I’m particularly interested in what I can learn or glean from their techniques, tools and processes.

Lucy Austin

On her website (lucyaustin.artweb.com), Lucy Austin describes herself as “… a painter and printmaker originally from the North of England. I make images which resonate with the urban landscape around me.”

She has won several awards and her work has featured in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (2014).

John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent was born in 1856 in Florence Italy to American parents. He started his formal art training as a teenager in Florence and moved to Paris to study under a teacher called Carolus-Duran who taught his students a looser process, encouraging them to break from the past where paintings would be preceded by studies and sketching, to work directly on canvas in paint.

He rose to notoriety as a portraitist in Paris. The turning point was when he showed Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (painted 1885-1886) at the London Royal Academy. This painting demonstrates the influence of Impressionism on his style.

He became friends with both Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. Like Monet he was fascinated with light and this became a defining theme in his watercolour paintings.

During his later years he worked more in watercolour, and between 1900 and 1925 Sargent painted hundreds of watercolours of a range of subjects from members of his family to paintings from his travels around Europe, America and the Near East.

He changed his subject matter in response to the First World War where he visited the Western Front at the request of the British Government who commissioned him to paint a scene commemorating the war. The result was Gassed (1919), which is owned by the Imperial War Museum, and is a picture showing soldiers in horrendous conditions after a gas attack .

It is his portraits of Edwardian aristocrats and socialites that he is most recognised for and it says a lot about how Sargent’s watercolours are viewed in comparison to his portraits in oil, when, at the time of writing, there none of his watercolours on display in the major London galleries; Tate Britain, The National Portrait Gallery or National Gallery.

A major exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2017 (Sargent: The Watercolours) was the first major exhibition of Sargent’s watercolours for nearly 100-years in Britain.

Lucy Austin’s practice

Watercolour painting is central to Lucy Austin’s practice, although she also works with printing, sculpture and installations.

Her paintings are simplified and stylised representations of everyday objects that often stray into abstraction. Paint is mostly applied as flat dense hues in multiple layers with masking fluid used to reveal layers beneath.

Between 2012 and 2014 she made a series of Still Life Drawings. On her website (lucyaustin.artweb.com), she talks about being influenced by the work of Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) and Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) at this time, and how this opened her eyes to the possibilities of watercolour and associated techniques.

In these paintings she was ‘thinking about spatial relationships and perspective’ and describes her use of colour as being ‘very limited to concentrate on the forms in the pictures’.

Lucy Austin - Jellified
Jellified, Still Life Drawings, Lucy Austin, lucyaustin.artweb.com

Duologue is a series of paintings that provide a good demonstration of the different painting techniques that are employed in her work.

Lucy Austin - Duologue Skbk li
Duologue Skbk ii, Duologues, Lucy Austin, lucyaustin.artweb.com

She talks about the objectives of this work on her website: ‘The Duologue series explore making images using layers of watercolour paint, playing with the technical qualities of opacity and transparency’. She goes on to say ‘I used traditional methods of masking (wax, rubber solution) to make drawings, which are then removed to reveal previous layers’.

Lucy Austin was a Printmaking Fellow at Cheltenham & Gloucester College in 1995/6 and I can see a direct relationship between her watercolours and printmaking techniques where masking and layering are a central part of the monoprinting printmaking process.

John Singer Sargent’s practice

The subjects for Sargent’s watercolours can be broadly split into three categories: Cities, landscapes and figures. His paintings from Venice, where he travelled every year between 1900 and 1914, are particularly well known and combine the key themes that repeat frequently in his work; sunlight, water, architecture and reflections.

Most of his 2000 watercolours are from his travels around America, Europe and North Africa, and there is a probably a very practical reason for painting in watercolour; it’s a very portable medium that dries quickly and is soluble in water.

Many of the works are composed of extremes of light and dark, with the dark areas full of vibrant colour.

Jogn Singer Sargent - Corfu the Terrace
Corfu: The Terrace, John Singer Sargent, 1909

He uses a limited colour palette that combine rich hues, deep black and a range of whites. This allows him to achieve a feeling of luminosity and clarity and the colours seem to glow.

John Singer Sargent - Above Lake Garda at San Vigilio 1913
Above Lake Garda at San Vigilio, John Singer Sargent, 1913

His compositions often use geometric positive and negative shapes to create a strong visual hierarchy and depth. In her blog The Gesture of Light in Sargent’s Watercolors, Susan Abbott make an interesting observation that it is usually in the negative spaces that all the expressive brushwork and vibrant use of colour takes place, with the positive space often remaining passive in comparison. This strengthens the image’s visual hierarchy and sense of depth.

Sargent is a master of brush work and a highly skilled draftsman, applying paint directly to paper. He uses larges washes of colour across the paper and combines this with areas of intense brush strokes. Occasionally he leaves large areas of exposed paper where there is no paint applied.

Another technique observed by Susan Abbott is how Sargent concentrates on small areas of light or highlights, and these ‘give his drawing great accuracy’.

A comparison of working techniques

How does their work differ in their use of the medium?

There is a great deal of difference between the way Lucy Austin and John Singer Sargent use watercolour and this largely reflects the core themes they’re working with.

Lucy Austin uses multiple layers of flat paint, often applied at the same intensity and images are built up through a density of layers.

I suspect that the paintings in a sense make themselves in that the artist will respond to happy accidents and try things out, keeping and developing what has potential and discarding elements that don’t.

This is completely different to John Singer Sargent who’s watercolours never appear overworked, and whilst he does use washes of colour and some layering this is in a controlled manner where he wants to achieve a particular effect.

What are the differences in how they respond to their subject matter?

Lucy Austin’s response to her subject matter seems to be quite internalised and thoughtful, using still life subjects as a starting point, and then using a process of distillation and abstraction to focus on a small number of essential qualities. For example ‘spatial relationships and perspective‘ in her Still Life Drawings series, or her Duologue series where each painting has two parts although ‘… they are not necessarily listening to one another‘.

John Singer Sargent’s response to his subject matter seems to be very direct and one of joy. Working in watercolour out on location often travelling with family and friends was a break from his conservative and constrained studio based portraiture where he created large and formal canvasses in oil of high society clients.

He is responding directly to life, painting on location. His themes are consistent; a fascination with light and colour across a fairly limited number of subjects. He is painting and responding to what is in front of him.

Conclusion

The strength and beauty of Lucy Austin’s work lies in its ability to reduce the form of the subject into an abstract simplicity, allowing the multiple layers transparent flat paint and vibrant highlights to direct the viewer’s attention to the relationships between objects and shapes. The qualities of the medium are used as an end in themselves.

John Singer Sargent uses watercolour to describe his subject with incredible craftsmanship and skill. He knows what he wants to say and how he wants to say it and uses the qualities of watercolour as a means to an end.

References

Lucy Austin website: https://lucyaustin.artweb.com/drawings

Dulwich Picture Gallery website: https://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/

Lachlan Goudie, video: ‘John Singer Sargent’s Watercolours: An artist’s view with Lachlan Goudie’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUi43j4uJ4w&feature=youtu.be

Susan Abbott, blog: The Gesture of Light in Sargent’s Watercolors, http://www.susanabbott.com/painting-notes-blog/2014/4/11/the-gesture-of-light-in-sargents-watercolors

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