White lie


Dear Artist,

John Singer Sargent painted Two Girls in White Dresses between 1909 and 1911 while on a trip in the Italian Alps. The painting shows the same model twice, fresh and study-like, foreshortened and sprawled in a zigzagging swoosh across a patch of alpine meadow. Along with electrifying brush-flashes and satiny dress-folds, it embodies Sargent’s late-life retirement from formal portraiture in favour of outdoor work. I call this the wild and rhythmic culmination of the Golden Age of White.


“Two Girls in White Dresses”
by John Singer Sargent

White, the non-colour — without colour, colour of light, colour of limestone and virginity — is the painter’s go-to for sunlight, snow, milk and the christening gown. It’s the painter’s equivalent of too much light — the blinding blow out, the burst — or the formal study of nothingness. Or is it? Oysters and a mountain col, the shepherd’s spring lamb, a bleached beach at magic hour — these things aren’t really white, are they?

As painters, we must resist the urge to lay in what we think we see, and instead allow white’s neighbours to fill in the blank. In this case, white is cast with local or reflected colours. Mix in a pinprick of yellow for a warm highlight or magenta for a cool one. An adjacent complement will make the light brighter, lighter — whiter. Opacity and transparency in white, thick or thin, signals the eye and the imagination. Scumble it tinted over textured colour and let the colour go to work for you. White brings along her fresh-start meanings, nestled between ocular rest and excitement.


“White Painting” 1951
latex paint on canvas
by Robert Rauschenberg

In the case of Sargent’s two girls, billowing skirts attach to our hearts and roll around with us in the Italian sunlight, his exquisite sleight of hand disguised as realism. Thirteen years before the girls, Sargent painted 22-year-old London socialite Caterina Vlasto. She’s leaning in the low light against Sargent’s Bechstein piano. Her skin, her silk, the ivory piano keys deliver the promise of white in all its perfection. The flash of the fan she holds is even whiter, brighter. It’s golden.


oil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches
by Sara Genn


PS: “The snow goose need not bathe to make itself white. Neither need you do anything but be yourself.” (Lao Tzu)

Esoterica: In the 1950s, the New York School jumped on the white-wagon and gave us formal studies like Robert Rauschenberg’s White Painting, 1951 — three adjoining canvases painted in flat white latex, open to the relentless trickery of the individual eyeball for shadow-play and reason. In my own work, I’ve often been asked about the meaning of paintings that appear to be all white. I see these works as something between the attachments and rescue of the dress folds of my heroes, and the technical eye-massage feats of the mid-century. Light, raking across ambling brushwork, soaked passages and moments of sheen, bouncing warms and cools and non-whites impersonating whites are part of the meditation. The fluidity, the quiet, the sleeper, the underdog, the thump of infinity: “Where do you get your metallic paint?” asked a recent studio visitor — an artist, aged 12.  I couldn’t help myself and glowed.

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Still an Orange by Pat Deputat, Alberta, Canada

Still an Orange


oil on canvas, 14 x 18 inches
by Pat Deputat, Alberta, Canada




  1. A wonderful and aptly-put piece, containing so much useful information in such concise, descriptive terms… can’t wait to go play with white in the studio. Thanks once again for your inspiring insight and imaginative words, Sara!

  2. Great letter. White can add that glorious little kick to a painting, in the same way that black can add soul. I’d love to spend a whole year exploring white, but I don’t know if I have the self-restraint.

  3. Sara, your writing is terrific. It has color, texture and fluidity. And your abstract painting is luscious, intriguing, makes me want to look closer. It does have a glowing metallic white-light to it.

  4. Easy for you to say Sara [ not to mention how artistically said] …. I have been working on a series of 11 x 14’s to try and find that magical light as well as energy in the brushstroke – I repeat these “rules” and others …… one of my struggles is with values generally and I just keep painting trying to learn from the last when I move to the next – as Robert would say – after I paint a thousand more maybe I will have learned something – but in the meantime the process is so much fun

  5. great letter Sara, when used right , white is magical , too much can make a painting chalky . warm light / cool shadow . cool light / warm shadow . I find this helps add interest .you right like your father Sara ,thanks for keeping us all connected

  6. I must state, besides the letters being a constant inspiration, your writing is excellence! Thank you for continuing these priceless pieces and sharing the best there is in the finest examples. I certainly look forward to the new Painters Keys. All the best

  7. I paint a lot in the winter. Arm chair art critics remark “How tough can that be? Snow is white.” “Grrrrr” I say. Great letter Sara although “White Painting” and the “Pensive Snowstorm” in the popular commercial leave me cold.

  8. White is a fascinating study. The Owens Gallery at Mount Allison University recently had an exhibit of some of the works of William Blair Bruce which greatly illustrated the magic of white in his paintings. Viewing this exhibit, a total of three times, i was deeply amazed at his ability in the use of colours to illustrate what the eye perceives as “white”. — Timely post, and thank you for carrying on your father’s inspiring letters.

  9. My white on white on white guru is Georgia O’Keefe. I am so happy to see your work up there Sara. For those of us who paint representationaly, it is important to be challenged. This work of Sargeant’s is also wonderful to behold, because he has let go of his formal style for something more spontaneous and flowing, makes me feel like there is hope yet.

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