My Charcoal Study of Helen Sears (original portrait by John Singer Sargent)

After drawing Old Monk, and some encouragement from others, I decided to give more consideration to drawing more portraits, no so much standard straight-forward portraits, but ones drawn with a loose style showing the character of the person and loosely define clothing and backgrounds.  At least this is my goal.

Charcoal and pencil portrait drawings by John Singer Sargent are incredible pieces of art, that are exactly the style I’ve been looking for to study and learn from.  Mr. Sargent used edges like no other, loose and soft for the background and clothing, but conveying accurately the faces.  His combination of light/darks and edges is for me exceptional.  This is not to say that his oil portraits don’t compare, they are tremendous works, but I’m personally attracted to his portrait drawings and have decided to study them.

My first study is of Sargents’ charcoal drawing of Helen Sears, (1912).  I was attracted to this drawing because of how effectively he used lighting and edges to illustrate the darkness of the scene with her bulky hat, heavy clothes and yet we still see someone who is feminine, but proper for the time period.  This intrigued me because of how dark and unforgiving charcoal can be in drawings – his use of charcoal is exciting to me.

My drawing was done in free-hand using charcoal on Strathmore sketch paper (12×9) with a set time limit of one-hour.

My Study of Helen Sears

My Study of Helen Sears

This first study is for Prospero – thanks for the encouragement to draw more portraits!



About Mary

Oil Pastelist
This entry was posted in Drawings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to My Charcoal Study of Helen Sears (original portrait by John Singer Sargent)

  1. Terrific! I love the loose, expressive touch.

  2. Outstanding, especially given the time frame you set, the result is absolutely superb! I must congratulate you on your ability to set goals and pursue them with full steam, you’re just a very special artist!

    • Mary says:

      Hi Eva, you are way too kind – thank you very much. I think the timeframe didn’t allow for much stop and start points during this drawing, perhaps that was a good thing and I drew what I saw. But what I also discovered with this piece, I really like the way charcoal handles for portraits and a fast pace. Thank you for your compliment – means a lot, my next wasn’t quite as (hummmm) successful, but was a good learning tool

  3. ladyfi says:

    Amazing sketch – and it only took you an hour?!

  4. restlessjo says:

    Fantastic, Mary! I have no idea how you pulled this off in an hour 🙂

  5. aFrankAngle says:

    The details an artist delivers with just charcoal has always impressed me. Well done, Mary!

  6. Well done Mary. An amazing first study especially with an hour time frame.

  7. i like your style here, Mary, the work has energy and for me a touch of mystery

    • Mary says:

      Thank you John. My Helen Sears looks a bit too forlorn and stern, so I look forward to what practice and time brings to my work – challenges are humbling and exciting, at least to me.

  8. A.PROMPTreply says:

    I can’t believe you can produce something like this in an hour. Your post had me going to look up the original work online and while yours is a very different tone, you definitely did get her in there. A most impressive study!

    • Mary says:

      Hi A! Thanks very much, glad you checked out Sargents’ Helen Sears – incredible piece of art, right? I really appreciate your feedback and comment – means a lot that you would take the time to analyze this sketch.

  9. Millie Ho says:

    Great job, Mary! Your portrait reminds me of the art from a century ago; there’s a certain classic flair.

    • Mary says:

      Thank you so much Millie. John Sargent’s drawing was done in 1912, so you are spot-on in your assessment of time period. I’ve a long ways to go, but I felt a bit of a break-through today in working with charcoal and freely working the edges. Thanks again!

  10. Painting for Joy says:

    My comment exactly….one hour? Amazing Mary! Love it. Superb work.

    • Mary says:

      Thanks Rhonda – the time limit was a great idea, not enough time to over think what I was doing and the charcoal is messy and unforgiving. Appreciate it!

  11. No end to your versatility, Mary! Bravo! I imagine charcoal has some similarity of “feel” to pastels, but more like the soft pastels in its powderiness? Do you use an eraser?

    • Mary says:

      Hi Cynthia, thank you very much! I got tired of not drawing more loose, especially with the Old Monk. So I figured the only way to change that was to draw more loose and Sargents’ work was just what I needed to study. I drew with a charcoal pencil and a piece of vine charcoal, yes powdery but unforgiving with mistakes (difficult to erase) so the technical challenge was there. I used an kneaded eraser on several areas to make highlighted lines: on the netting veil above her right eye, to the right on the veil opposite of her chin and on the front portion of her clothes. Her face was clear of eraser and the (what I think is) white flower on the left-side – I left those areas empty of charcoal until the very end to control the medium, then smudged the charcoal on in those areas. I read that John Sargent used an eraser sparingly, so I thought well if a Master then I too (sparingly).

      Guess what? I had a ball drawing this piece, can’t wait for my next but I’ve got some rocks to pay attention too.

  12. sefeniak says:

    One hour? You are amazing!

    • Mary says:

      Thanks Susan! There is a lot not right with this drawing, but the one-hour limit gave me a good feel for areas to concentrate on and that which I shouldn’t.

  13. An hour? You, artists are really good. This is a great portrait, Mary.

    • Mary says:

      Hi Evelyne, thank you very much. I see a few areas that could use some work, but I forced myself into a time frame so as not to pay as much attention to details.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s