What Is Bravura in Painting – What Is Painterly Painting? Focus on the Oil Paintings of John Singer Sargent

For the past several years, I have focused on watercolor painting, but I began my journey as an oil painter, and one of my goals for 2021 is to begin oil painting again.

Watercolor is a fragile painting medium. If you work the painting too much, your color gets dirty, and because I really like to get physical when I paint, watercolor is difficult for me.

But oil is different. A painter can be almost as physical as he wants to be in oil painting, and in some oil paintings, the physicality of the painter becomes a stylistic statement. In my painting, I like to be daring, and in oil, I can be more daring. When a painter paints in a daring, slap-dash way, he is said to have painted with bravura.

define bravura

Closeup of Jacki Kellum Oil Painting

Pink Roses in Blue Delft Vase – Jacki Kellum Oil Painting

When an artist paints with bravura, his brushstrokes have an energy all their own, and segments of a painting can be enjoyed simply because of the way that they are painted, irrespective of the subject matter of the painting.

When an artist paints with bravura, his paintings are said to be painterly.

Although the paintings of John Singer Sargent are realistic, there are passages within his oil paintings that reflect a great deal of bravura.

John Singer Sargent – Detail of a Portrait

John Singer Sargent was one of the most famous portrait painters in history. He was commissioned to paint many famous and wealthy people; therefore, he did have an ability to capture a likeness. Yet, he did not press all of the energy from his work to do so. In the above painting, look at Sargent’s brush strokes in painting the girl’s pinafore.

John Singer Sargent – Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882

When viewed from a distance, the viewer’s eyes pull the strokes together, but upon closer observation, one becomes aware of Sargent’s energy and his absolute joy in painting. Sargent’s work  is alive. From a distance, we can see that the youngest daughter is holding her doll, but up close, there appears to be no doll at all. The youngest child is actually just holding slashes of paint.

Here is another portrait by John Singer Sargent. Notice how the stripes of white dance across the page. Contrast the slabs of color in the hair to the softness of the girl’s face. Sargent painted with bravura only where he could do so and not sacrifice the delicacy that was needed in other spots.

John Singer Sargent – Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose


Detail – Essence of a Lily

Compare how few strokes it took for Sargent to capture the essence of a lily. This is an example of capturing an impression of something, as opposed to painting it in perfect realism. In other words, this is an example of impressionism, which is one of my favorite eras of art.


Detail – Essence of Roses