The art of matching


Dear Artist,

There’s a marvellous painting by John Singer Sargent called An Artist in his Studio. It shows a balding man in obviously reduced circumstances, his canvas half onto his mussed bed. He’s attempting to match colours from what appears to be a postcard.


“An Artist in His Studio” c. 1903
oil on canvas, 22 x 28 inches
by John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925)

The painting is bitter-sweet and, in a way, sad. By the window’s clean light, the old fellow is trying to get it right. It’s even sadder when we realize that these days “trying to get it right” is in danger of becoming a lost art. We are in the days of anything goes. Verisimilitude is often suspect, and many artists bend toward fashion, decoration and expediency. In times such as ours, matching suffers.

In one of my earlier incarnations I took a flyer at ornithological art. Birds. In those days I laboured over found kills — “road pizza” — the remains of falcons or bluebirds. Pinning out the wings I attempted to match the colours of nature. There was the miraculous gray-blue of a heron’s breast and the iridescent head of a mallard drake. Local colour aside, this sort of work is complicated by the colour of the ground, and nearby colours reflecting their light on the subject. I can tell you that the job turns decent young chaps into incoherent babblers. Maybe that’s why bird artists are such odd ducks.


“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” 1885–86
oil painting by John Singer Sargent

But what lessons these efforts hold! What an education is in the wings of a teal. I don’t regret a feather. Next time you’re looking over your subject — a head of sandy hair, a sandbar, a Sandhill Crane — ask yourself, “How do I match that colour?” Nowadays you have your choice — you may not have to get it right. But it’s good to know that you can.

How? Patience. Trial and error. Going to bed with your tubes. Like the old man in the Sargent painting, getting by the window-light and looking — back and forth — really looking and seeing. Mixing and matching. Did I mention patience?


“Reconnoitering” 1911
oil painting
by John Singer Sargent

Best regards,


PS: “Any ground subtracts its own hue from the colors which it carries and therefore influences.” (Josef Albers) “Drawing is feeling. Color is an act of reason.” (Pierre Bonnard)

Esoterica: Many artists have realized that you can match most of the tones found in nature with a variety of pigments, from a variety of directions. Furthermore, some ingredients seem to simply disappear in the brew, and yet they make their contribution. Bright cadmiums are surprisingly useful for neutralizing and sophisticating earth tones into luminous grays.

This letter was originally published as “The art of matching” on June 3, 2003.


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“They’ll sell you thousands of greens. Veronese green and emerald green and cadmium green and any sort of green you like, but that particular green, never.” (Pablo Picasso)



  1. That’s an interesting interpretation by Robert of that painting which I had never considered. I had always assumed it was one of Sargent’s traveling buddies and they were on a plein air trip. It could even be Monet, though the subject matter doesn’t look like his style. But once in the country, the choice of lodgings would likely have been minimal, simple. The artist has at least four canvases out, at least three of which have cows on them, so a series is suggested. I had always assumed that the artist was putting finishing touches on the plein air works in his “hotel” room just as almost everyone I know (that paints on the road) does.

    • This painting along with the others shown here were used in a Table top book of Paintings that Sargent made throughout his life of his friends and fellow artists. I am not sure when the book was published but I read it this past winter, it is a beautiful book. As I recall you are correct, the room is a rented one, used while the artists were on a painting trip together. The artist in the painting was a friend of Sargent’s. I don’t recall his name, he isn’t as well known as Sargent (it wasn’t Monet, though they were friends). Sargent was a very sociable artist, who had many friends, and seemed to love nothing more than painting trips where he would meet up with those friends. I gather Sargent was usually accompanied by his Sister and/or Mother after the death of his father. Doesn’t negate Roberts comments, we moderns are still too likely to not take the time to get things right. But it does put a different slant on the painting.

  2. The Man in the painting is indeed one of Sargent’s’ painting buddies. He was an Italian painter and quite well known at the time. He often painted with and was painted by Sergeant many times. His name escapes me but he is in the book Sargent in Italy.

  3. One of the best things am Artist can do for him or herself is to learn to See.
    There are so many nuances happening in your subject in the light & shadows, and you miss so much when you can’t seen all the colors. I have often said that I enjoy “seeing” almost more than painting,
    There’s a book titled “How to See Color and Paint It” by Arthur Stern,
    It’s a work book and I find that most folks don’t want to take the time & do the work,
    I’m here to tell you that it’s worth the time
    Most artist’s just want to add white to change value, when there is a color that will do this and they are missing out.
    It’s hard work to learn to “see”, but it’s so very worth all the work.

  4. I love Robert’s interpretation of John Sargent’s painting. He expresses my feelings about modern paintings. Anything goes these days. The old paintings, where colors, etc., have to be right, are really art. Wish I could paint like the Old Masters!

    • Too many students went through art school just painting their feelings. No composition or color theory classes. It’s hard work which doesn’t fit in with those who like saying that they are an artist. Maybe Get a color wheel, if you can’t wrap your brain around it!

  5. Richard Gagnon on

    Dear Sara,

    I was amused by this letter because it reminded me of my parents. My Dad was excellent at drawing. He could reproduce anything, except colour. It frustrated him greatly. My Mum on the other hand could replicate any colour with such ease that it drove my Dad up the wall. Eventually when he retired they were able to team up and produced some pretty good stuff that the children, grandchildren and the great-grandchildren when they are little older all appreciate. Unfortunately when my Dad passed away some thirty years ago, Mum gave all the painting stuff away and has not painted since.

    Fear of getting wrong must slow people down incredibly. If we all just adopted a child’s curiosity and got into it we would be far ahead of the game. I, fortunately, inherited both of their abilities and am somewhat infantile however if I ever get into trouble matching colours I can still call Mum.

    Have a wonderful day,


  6. Your posts brighten my art learning. My favorite wisdom from this post…”Did I mention patience?” Assemblage art …deconstructing no-longer-usable typewriter…gave the gift of patience-practice and joy of admiring the amazing skills the created the rusted machine (like your study of road kill).
    Thank you for reflections!

  7. Sue Stevens on

    Just want to let you know how much I appreciate these letters-even though I rarely comment. Thank you.

  8. I saw Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose in person once. Talk about yummy colors! It is delicious! Perfect late afternoon color. I heard that he actually RAN to the garden every afternoon at a certain time getting his little models to come too , to paint this large masterpiece. I have forgotten haw many days he took with it. But he went to great trouble to catch that particular early evening light. It lasts only a few minutes and then it is gone until tomorrow, if you are very lucky. I could hardly stand to leave it! Donna Veeder

    • How I envy you, Donna. That painting has long fascinated me, perhaps more than any of Sargent’s other work. Many qualities of the piece appeal to me, but mostly the ambient light – late afternoon or early evening – and the lantern light on the children’s faces. Maybe one day I’ll have the good fortune of observing it in person, too! – Vicki Jones

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