Learn from Impressionism

Learning from the Impressionists.

The Impressionists changed Art for ever – in the centuries immediately before them, most paintings were created indoors in a studio, so that trees and skies for example were stylised, idealised, sometimes unconvincing. Subjects were historical – eg from ancient Greece or Rome – or  mythological ( nymphs, gods and goddesses), or portraits of nobility or royalty.

Louise XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud
Greek Gods, Alexandre Cabanel
Liberty leading the people by Delacroix

The Impressionists, like the Barbizon painters just before them, started going outdoors to paint directly from Nature. Collapsible metal paint tubes had just been invented which helped them to paint en plein air. They aimed to capture fleeting light effects and an impression of atmosphere.

Monet: The Magpie ( La Pie)
Monet: The Parasol

If you’ve ever tried photographing or painting a sunset you’ll know that the colours and shapes change every few minutes! So to paint a sunset artists like Monet, Sisley, Renoir, Pissarro etc had to work rapidly, make fast sketches, and work from these plus memory. Photography was just in its infancy and not yet in colour, although it did allow the artists to capture a “snapshot” view of models or places, often from an unusual viewpoint.

Monet: Sunset, Westminster

Monet even painted in series, waiting for the light to get back to the correct angle and colour to continue a particular painting. See his Rouen Cathedral series – here are three of the six paintings on this theme. Other themes include haystacks, and rivers.

Monet: Rouen Cathedral, hazy sunlight.

Monet: Rouen Cathedral, evening
Monet, Rouen Cathedral, strong sunlight

As a result, Impressionist works show rapid, visible brushstrokes and livelier colours than paintings before them which, painted indoors, were often darker, smoother, more “perfect.” Critics attacked and rejected Impressionist works as rough or unfinished, as they were used to the perfectly smooth, controlled oils of the previous generations.

Berthe Morisot: In the kitchen
Impression: Sunrise, by Monet

In fact Monet’s painting above, entitled Sunrise, was slated in 1874 as a “mere impression” by Louis Leroy, an art critic of the day. The term stuck, and Impressionism was born.

The Impressionists also followed colour theory recently set out, using the idea of complementary colours to make their colours appear to shimmer. So red and green are complementary colours, and each enhances the other, making it appear more vivid. Similarly yellow and purple are complementaries, and orange and blue are complementaries. Each makes the other sing out.

Monet: Poppies

The Impressionists tended to avoid black, brown and grey for their shadows and instead looked for the colour in shadows, especially blues and purples.

Monet: Antibes

And the Impressionists painted modern life and real, ordinary people. Not for them paintings of royalty, gods, nymphs or historical figures, as in this painting from Roman history by Jacques-Louis David:

Jacques Louis David: The Oath of the Horatii.

Degas painted two hopeless absinthe drinkers; dancers in rehearsal, stretching or scratching their backs; horses at the races; working women ironing; Manet painted a prostitute and a barmaid; Renoir painted working girls and umbrellas in the rain, or ordinary people enjoying a Sunday outing or dance; Berthe Morisot painted children boating on a lake…

Degas: Absinthe
Degas: The dance class
Berthe Morisot: On the lake
Degas: At the races
Degas: ironing
Degas: Washerwomen
Renoir: Umbrellas
Renoir: Moulin de la Galette
Renoir: Luncheon of the boating party

Renoir: City dance 1
Renoir: City dance 2

So to paint like the Impressionists you need to paint at speed, aiming to capture a fleeting moment; let your brushwork show; avoid black or grey in shadows, using more colourful shadows; and use complementary colours eg. To show sunshine: warmer, more golden sunlit areas and cooler, slightly purplish or blue shadows.

Monet: Venice

The Post-Impressionists took these ideas further, and Picasso took them further again. So the Impressionists really were the pivot between traditional art and Modern Art.

If you want your painting to look more current, more modern, use these tips. Draw with the brush as much as possible, let your brushwork show, paint more rapidly, use complementary colours, use colourful shadows, avoid black and grey unless they are needed eg for black clothes seen in shadow. This painting of mine was created along Impressionist principles, entirely with visible marks made by palette knife with oils, using glowing colourful shadows and complementary colours : orange/blue and yellow/purple.

Moroccan archway, palette knife and oils
Jan Calderwood: Into the Medina

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