I went to the De Young museum today with my mom having no idea what was actually in it and ended up spending a good hour in a room with a couple of Sargents. I don't know if this nerdery will interest anyone but me, but you guys seemed pretty excited about that Adam Hughes observation I made so here's another of my rambling thought processes!
One of the paintings was this one- www.artrenewal.org/artwork/187… which I never really took the time to examine before. I admired the colors and general mood but, as always, seeing a painting in person is quite a different experience. His bright, not-quite-white highlights are slapped on chunkily and they come out quite far from the canvas. And they "pop" in a way no highlight has any right to- they're super juicy and effective.
When I got up really close, (this is a totally unjustified flight of fancy here guys) it looked as though he had waited for the highlights to entirely dry, and then had used a translucent layer of some sepia color, probably with lindseed oil or similar medium, and literally wiped it over the highlighted areas. Where they were raised, they were not effected, but it gave a negative halo around the edges of the highlights.
So, without any actual science to back this up, Sargent's (wildly fantasized) technique, is based off a natural phenomenon of vision. Where there is an edge of a bright object against dark, our eyes/brain heighten the contrast right at the border. So right where they meet, the bright looks brighter and the dark looks darker. This sounds totally nuts but I swear it's true, look at a white piece of paper on a dark cloth and you'll see what I mean. Knowing this to be the case, Sargent sharpened those highlights using a super simple, super self-conscious (in the best way) post-production technique. Basically, Photoshop.
Now, I don't have any immediate plans to get back into oil paintings, but I gotta say, regardless of your medium, that is pretty darn cool.
<edit> Here's something cool! The knowledgeable alexandergras points out that this phenomenon is called "Lateral Inhibition" and you can read up on it here! en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lateral_… </edit>