Portraits and Watercolours with John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent, Artist in the Simplon, watercolor, c. 1909.

John Singer Sargent, Artist in the Simplon, watercolour, c. 1909.

Last fall I talked about one of the most famous or infamous profile portraits in art history: John Singer Sargent’s Madame X.

I’ve been interested in Sargent’s work for a while now. In some ways conventional, but a little hard to pin down: portraitist to the gentry, an expatriate American at home in France and England, he was a friend and painter with the Impressionists, as well as a war artist. These are all part of Sargent’s allure perhaps, but it’s not just his formal work, it’s his watercolours.  During his travels, Sargent painted for himself constantly, with a fine eye for simplicity of wash and superb brushwork – his images invariably look fresh and underworked. Sargent was one of the truly great watercolourists of his day.

Next Saturday, April 14th, is all about Sargent and his influence. Whatever your media, join us for the start of the Spring Break-a-Brush! Workshop Season.

John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood, Oil,1885

John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood, Oil, 1885


All abuzz at the Shenkman

David Kearn Vernissage-1The Opening Reception for my exhibition “The Descendants” was a great event. France very effectively curated the exhibition and the visual impact and flow she achieved is stunning. A wonderful job that ignites interest in the exhibition space.

Thanks to everyone who came out to celebrate with us and also, to all of you who I know have or will see the show.  You have offered so much encouragement.

The Shenkman Arts Centre was abuzz on Sunday, with 4 galleries having their opening receptions, sponsored by Beau’s Beer to boot as a “Beau’s Art” event.

Interesting coincidences connect each of the galleries. “The Descendants”, is also the title of a couple of works by Sarah Anderson in the adjoining gallery. My exhibition’s tag line “What do you see?” is the title of an exhibition in the AOE Gallery by Nath. As a final coincidence, at the Ottawa School of Art gallery, the Montreal artist, Peter Krausz’s “(No) Man’s Land” fills the entire space with just 2 massive panel paintings – so big by the way, that it was a close call as to whether each panel would fit in the center’s elevator!

All of this art-action plus some photo nostalgia from the rock photographer Ethan Russell,  “Best Seat in the House” (lots of Beatles and Stones, finishing soon, 2 April) and the ever-interesting Promenade Arteast exhibit adds up to a not-to-be-missed extravaganza of art at the Shenkman Arts Centre.

David Kearn Vernissage-14 David Kearn Vernissage-2 David Kearn Vernissage-8 David Kearn Vernissage-12David Kearn Vernissage-11



I am delighted to say that my new exhibition, The Descendants, opened as planned today at the Shenkman Arts Centre. Many thanks for all the help I’ve received from the City of Ottawa’s Mike Taylor, AOE’s Cristiane Doherty, my spouse France and many others.

The exhibition is arranged so that the viewer can engage with both the new abstracted paintings “The Descendants” and the earlier portrait works “The Ancestors”. This encourages the viewer to associate the images and feelings between past and present approaches. By exploring the gallery and observing from a range of vantage points, a complete perspective emerges.

Tomorrow (Friday 21 March) I’ll be interviewed by CTV TV (at 9:25am), which is sure to be great exposure. Click here to view.

Look forward to seeing many of you this Sunday at the Opening Reception, (1-3 pm, Trinity Gallery A).

I’ve also arranged to give an Artist’s Talk on Wednesday, 26 March at 3:30 pm in the gallery.

See you soon!



Coming shortly:

Kearn - The Descendants - Post Card - Final frontThe last while has been a particularly busy time and it’s hard to believe it’s almost a month since I last wrote.

We have run 5 workshops so far this year and I’ve been teaching at the Ottawa School of Art, both downtown and in Orleans. What’s made it an especially exciting time though, I’m pleased to announce…..is my upcoming exhibition, “The Descendants”, debuting later this month at the Shenkman Arts Centre in Orleans. The opportunity came up faster than expected, so I’ve been busy painting in preparation. There’s nothing like a deadline to focus the mind.

The Descendants is a series of second-generation paintings, flowing directly from previous portrait works of family. I challenged myself to explore different approaches to these images. I saw new paths to be traveled: less a history of time, place and form, and more a resonance of personality.

Does personality reside in form? With altered focus and resolution as well as new scale and medium, these fresh paintings are abstracted, some to a limit of determination. Up close and at distance, I see the people I know and love. What will you see?

Please join me for the vernissage, Sunday March the 23rd, 1:00 to 3:00pm.

Hope to see you there!

Kearn - The Descendants - Post Card - Final back


Making Mud from Red and Blue…

TonesIn my art classes this past week, the focus was on colour and colour mixing. There’s always some great discussion and the endless possibilities of colour amaze. I was reminded of a question my friend John had asked not long ago. He’d just finished reading the book “Yellow & Blue don’t make Green” by Michael Wilcox, and wrote me:

“Here is a puzzle for you: Yellow paint is yellow when illuminated by white light. Why? Because it absorbs all other constituent colours in the white light, and reflects only the yellow frequencies back to your eye. Likewise, blue is blue because it absorbs all colours but blue. Black is black because it absorbs all. So if you mix blue and yellow paint, you should get black and not green. It should be black because the reflected yellows from the yellow pigment should be all absorbed by the blue pigment, and the reflected blues in the blue pigment should all be absorbed by the yellow. So why does it make green? The book explains this, but can you?”                          

A fine real-world versus theory question.

A yellow surface looks yellow because the reflected spectrum is centered on the yellow…the spectrum being reflected is modified from white because less (not all) in the red and blue range are reflected. In the real world a relatively broad spectrum of wavelengths is always reflected: if you could concoct a “pure yellow” (single-wavelength) reflector (not an ounce of red nor blue) and combine this with a “pure blue” reflector (not one whit of yellow nor red), this would, indeed, in theory, look black!

I got the Wilcox book from the library and it explains this well, noting that colours do not “mix” to form a third. It’s just that the resultant reflected spectrum is centered on the wavelength of “mixed” colour. That is, the yellow and the blue still exist in the green, but  they don’t somehow morph into green.

Now if this all sounds like mud, let’s try making purple. Why is it that almost any yellow and blue will “make” a usable green, but usable purples are far more elusive. Use the “wrong” red (an orangy-red) and you’ll be stuck with a muddy mess.

To answer this, I may need to wade into the dreaded debate over red-yellow-blue primaries versus the cyan-magenta-yellow (CMYK) model.

Sparks could fly…more to follow!

Artists, Architects and Artisans…

NGC DSC00224

Many of you have, I’m sure, had the opportunity to visit the relatively low-key but extensive “Artists, Architects and Artisans: Canadian Art 1890–1918” exhibition at the National Gallery. If not, there’s still time – the exhibition is on until 17 February.

No blockbuster exhibits here and that’s partly why I like it. The breadth of work is great and all set in a particular historical context, an important time in Canada’s development.  I particularly like the paintings by the Quebec painter Ozias Leduc (1864 – 1955). Leduc was never really part of any school of painting and he made much of his living on church commissions, living a quiet life in St Hillaire, Quebec. He left us some wonderful unassuming paintings that are not to be missed. One of those is “L’enfant au pain”, featured on banner on the right above. As may often be the case with great works, it’s small but blows up superbly to banner size. (On the left, by the way, is a painting by George Reid. In the exhibition you can check out his furniture too!)

Ozias Leduc, L’enfant au pain (1892–99), oil on canvas, 50.7 x 55.7 cm. NGC

Ozias Leduc, L’enfant au pain (1892–99), oil on canvas, 50.7 x 55.7 cm. NGC


The year that was!

13.0924_AE-16crscaledTwo years into this blog concludes a very active 2013!

A major development was the launch of “Break-a-Brush! Workshops” in February. After running 16 successful Saturday sessions, France and I are once again looking forward to our 2014 program. Thanks again to everyone who participated and also to those who gave us such great positive input for the 2014 program. You’ve validated our efforts!

DSC07498The highlight of the plein-air sessions this year was definitely our sortie to Rockcliffe outlook. with a maximum temperature of about 5 degrees and rain. The frigid conditions didn’t stop our intrepid group of die-harders! Congratulations all.

DSC07633Teaching a couple of Art Summer Camps kept me on my toes again this year, especially when I was asked “post modern” questions by 9 year olds interested in the nature of abstraction and whether randomness constitutes art.

DSC08328scaleWhat of my own art? I’m often asked how painting and teaching mesh and I’m pleased to say this all works out very nicely for me. Working with other artists enhances my own work in the scheme of my practice. I must admit I have a good deal more “work-in-progress” than finished pieces but then as Eugene Delacroix effectively said “paintings finish themselves in the corner of the studio”.

France and I would like to wish you all Seasons Greetings and the very best for the new year.

Here’s to 2014!

David & France




A tale of two demos…

Meeting the Arteast club in September. Photo courtesy of Greg Abraszko

I recently participated in painting demonstrations with a couple of great art groups here in Ottawa: I was invited to Arteast in September after which I look part in the Ottawa Watercolour Society’s portrait evening last month.

I worked in watercolour at both and I find the medium lends itself to demos quite nicely. Partly because my style is probably not that conventional and it gives me an opportunity to talk about some good-sense practices – practices which I think work well in any medium. If I had worked in oil or acrylic the watercolourists might think, with some justification: “that’s fine and dandy but will that really work in watercolour”.

I often get feedback that my marks initially look arbitrary and only later come into focus. From a demo point of view, this is good of course, eliciting the “Ah hah!… that’s where he’s going” response part way through. Here are a few points I keep in mind:

Do just enough drawing to keep on track and then get painting quickly:

Photo courtesy Greg Abraszko

Get the Values right first – I build Form with a very limited palette:

Photo Renate Hulley

Leave some abstract marks as these often add to the image, especially with studies:

Portrait Painting at Wallacks,2013 OWS 029

Use colour sparingly, strategically: a flash to bring it all alive:

Portrait Painting at Wallacks,2013 OWS 041DSC08841scaled

….and most importantly:

Photo courtesy of Greg Abraszko

Have fun!





“I’m half an hour late, I’ll come back tomorrow.“

Impression Sunrise wiht quotes This Fall’s series of “Break-a-Brush!” painting workshops featured the Impressionists as our inspiration. Sprinkled throughout the workshops, some of their words, as well as their paintings, kept us company. Here’s a personal, perhaps somewhat quirky, list of favorites they are purported to have said:

Claude Monet

“Colours pursue me like a constant worry. They even worry me in my sleep.”

“I am only good at two things, and those are: gardening and painting.”

“I’m half an hour late, I’ll come back tomorrow.“

Edgar Degas

“Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.”

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

“So that’s the telephone? They ring, and you run.”

Pierre-Auguste Renoir

“Why shouldn’t art be pretty? There are enough unpleasant things in the world.”

“The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”

“It is after you have lost your teeth that you can afford to buy steaks.”

Mary Cassatt

“I have touched with a sense of art some people – they felt the love and the life. Can you offer me anything to compare to that joy for an artist?“

“If painting is no longer needed, it seems a pity that some of us are born into the world with such a passion for line and colour.”

“I think that if you shake the tree, you ought to be around when the fruit falls to pick it up.”

 Berthe Morisot

“A love of nature is a consolation against failure.”

“My ambition is limited to capturing something transient.”

“Real painters understand with a brush in their hand.”

Paul Cezanne

“We live in a rainbow of chaos.”

“It’s so fine and yet so terrible to stand in front of a blank canvas.”

“The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.”

Not, perhaps, a comprehensive review of what was a very disparate “group” of painters, however one might define “Impressionist” (Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat etc being post-impressionist). Certainly missing some other names including Manet (who never actually exhibited with them eh!) Pissaro, Caillebotte, Bazille, Sisley, the list goes on.

Who’s your pick of the crop? Let me know your favourite quotes!


Sargent and that profile: Madame X

Sargent in his studio

Sargent in his studio

John Singer Sargent’s 1884 portrait of Madame X, has to be one of the most famous profiles in the history of art. Perhaps second to the bust of Nefertiti (attributed to the sculptor Thutmose), but that’s sculpture, not a painting of course.

Madame X was actually Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, an American expat and socialite, wife of one Pierre Gautreau, a Parisian Banker. Sargent did not paint her portrait as a commission – he pursued her somewhat for the opportunity. While the work was in progress, Virginie was enthusiastic,  but then quickly changed her tune when the painting first appeared at the Paris Salon, the preeminent exhibition of the day.  Although we find no difficulty today, for those times it was a bit risqué, as a portrait, anyway. People were shocked and scandalized. Sargent maintained however, that he had painted her “exactly as she was dressed, that nothing worse could be said of the canvas than had been said in print of her appearance”.

Interestingly, other portraits of  Mme. Gautreau have quite a different feel and nothing like the drama and impact of the Sargent masterpiece. Contemporary photographs of her certainly don’t show a glimmer of the painting. We cannot see what Sargent saw: the attitude, the facade, the forced show. Madame X is not a very sympathetic painting, perhaps a bit too clever and contrived, but you notice it. This painting could never have been conceived as anything other than a profile.

A profile with attitude.

Madame X and Virginiemadame_x