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Monday, April 3, 2017

The Copyist Program: Washington D.C.

I had a dream and then I had an adventure. I met new people, faced new challenges and worked hard to accomplish my goal. And through it all I learned so much.

Let me back up a bit and say that for years, each time I had the privilege of visiting the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. I would see the empty easels in some of the gallery rooms neatly placed out of the way but still very noticeable. Each one looked like they were waiting for someone. Curious, I asked at the information desk what the easels were for. That question was the first of many that eventually led me through the application process for their Copyist Program. Once accepted my excitement grew as I anticipated the portrait I had requested to paint. There were so many paintings to choose from but I had always admired and studied the work of John Singer Sargent. In the art world he has long been someone I respected because of his strong brush strokes and ability to confidently paint the likeness of fabric with such efficiency. I knew his portrait of Mrs. Henry White would be a difficult challenge (her life size portrait was quite intimidating) but I decided that I might as well go for it and see what happens.

Setting up my canvas made my heart beat faster. I was surrounded by greatness. To paint in this atmosphere where the walls were adorned with actual historical masterpieces almost took my breath away. My dream was about to come true.

I worked quickly sketching in her likeness with a thin wash of paint.

Once the sketch was done I began painting her face -- using her features as my reference for the rest of the painting. 

My excitement grew as I began studying her dress by laying down paint with values, colors and strokes as Sargent had. My goal was to copy it as closely as possible so that I could learn from Sargent's method. He was my instructor speaking to me through this painting; I tried to pay attention to everything he said.

Time was running out. By this stage I was at the beginning of the last day of my extraordinary adventure. When I chose this portrait my goal was not to do a complete the copy but to see how far I could go with a portion of it. 

Each hour in front of that easel seemed like ten minutes. Visitors from all over the world would come and go, occasionally asking questions and taking photos of me and my progress. I especially enjoyed the groups of school children who politely asked me about my work and the Copyist program.

I was allowed to paint from 10:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. each day. Four o'clock came quickly on my fifth and final day. I wasn't expecting to even begin to paint her right hand so that was an extra treat. Her gold bracelet on her left wrist was also a lot of fun. I loved Sargent's attention to detail when he applied it to her face and jewelry and then surprised me with the light and contrast that brought out the beauty of her satin and tulle dress.

What a an absolute blessing and privilege this was! I can hardly wait to go back and apply what I have been taught to a new painting. Perhaps another Sargent?