Impressionism might be the most recognisable painting style in the history of art. Because the first exhibition of the Impressionists was this month in 1874 (and there was a major exhibition at the National Gallery at the time of publishing of this article), I thought I would take a look at Impressionism. I had a general idea of what it was but as I looked further into it I found out more about why these artists were pioneers and what they were trying to achieve. I thought I would see if I could paint in the style of the Impressionists by following their philosophy and the Impressionist painting techniques.
What the Impressionists Were Trying to Achieve
Many art historians consider Impressionism to be the first distinctly modern movement in painting. It started in the 1860s in Paris and the ideas of the movement spread throughout Europe and eventually to the United States. Instead of the photo-quality realism of a highly blended finish with invisible brush strokes that was the accepted manner of painting at the time, Impressionists aimed to capture the momentary, fleeting effect of a scene on the eye, especially the effects of light. Because they were interested in light these artists left the studio and began painting en plein air. Because they painted outside, the Impressionists had less time to mix colour and painted quickly to keep up with the ever-changing daylight. This resulted in work with loose brushwork that looked un-finished or messy compared to the accepted work of the time.
The work was so different to what was considered accomplished artwork at the time that they were ridiculed. The term ‘Impressionist’ was first used as an insult by an art critic at the exhibition of new paintings in Paris in 1874 referring to a work by Monet which was entitled ‘Impression, sunrise’ and a reviewer of the first exhibition described the painters as ‘lunatics’. It makes me think of people today who complain that contemporary artists have no skill or are trying to put one over on the public, radical ideas and change require time to be accepted.
Some of the most famous artists associated with the Impressionist movement are: Claude Monet, Eugene Boudin, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne, Auguste Renoir, Berthe Morisot, and Mary Cassatt. They were interested in painting everyday reality instead of monumental scenes. The Impressionists redefined what it meant to capture reality to mean: to capture a specific moment. This moment of light now, as compared to the moment of light in an hour from now. There was also the idea of painting the impression of a first glance at something. When we look at a landscape, or a crowd of people, we do not instantly see every face or leaf in detailed focus, but as a mass of colour and light. Impressionist painters tried to express this experience. They were affected by the scientific discoveries of the time about optics and light. They were interested in visible light reflected from a surface, and wanted to show the surface of objects.
The Techniques of the Impressionists
The painting techniques that they used to achieve their ideas were fairly consistent:
- Impressionists strongly emphasised the effects of light in their paintings.
- They used short, thick strokes of paint to capture the essence of the object rather than the subject’s details.
- Quickly applied brush strokes give the painterly illusion of movement and spontaneity.
- A thick impasto application of paint means that even reflections on the water’s surface appear as substantial as any object in a scene.
- The Impressionists lightened their palettes to include pure, intense colours.
- Complementary colours were used for their vibrant contrasts and mutual enhancement when juxtaposed.
- Impressionists avoided hard edges by working wet into wet.
- The surface of an Impressionist painting is opaque. Impressionists did not use the thin paint films and glazes that were popularised by Renaissance artists.
- Impressionists often painted at a time of day when there were long shadows. This technique of painting outdoors helped impressionists better depict the effects of light and emphasise the vibrancy of colours.
- They used Optical Mixing rather than mixing on the palette. Broken colour refers to the effect of blending colours optically rather than on the palette, eliminating perfect coverage and smoothly-blended transitions. The Impressionist painters used layers of colours, leaving gaps in the top layers to reveal the colours underneath. The technique is achieved through hatching, cross-hatching, stippling, drybrushing, and sgraffito (scratching into the paint). Mixing of brighter colours is done directly on the canvas to aid in creating the broken colour effect and only darker colours are mixed on the palette.
Painting in the Style of the Impressionists by Following Their Philosophy and Painting Techniques
I needed to incorporate the key features:
- Plein-air (outdoor) painting
- Subject is landscape, everyday scene or still life of everyday items
- Rapid, spontaneous, short, loose brushstrokes
- The realistic depiction of the light and shadow of a particular moment, which will change when the light changes
- Use opaque paint mixed optically on the canvas in broken colour
- Use brighter colours and mix less on the palette
- Thick impasto paint
- Capture that moment by capturing the light of that moment, not the detail
I wanted to use materials used by the Impressionists. Most of the materials available to an oil painter today were available to them.
- Oil paint in a tube.
- Hog bristle brushes, usually short flats (brights) and long flats. The hog hair brushes that were developed in the 19th century allowed the thick application of paint seen in Impressionist works. The durability and thickness of hog hair is perfect for moving large amounts of thick, heavy paint. Also the pointed wooden end of the paintbrush doubles as a sgraffito tool.
- A brown, wooden hand-held palette.
- Primed canvas on stretcher bars or canvas on a panel.
- A crank-handle palette knife. The bent handle keeps the artists knuckles off the surface. Used for mixing on the palette and also for painting in a loose style.
- A field easel.
My Attempts at Impressionist-style Painting
Materials I used:
Sennelier Oil Colour (from France)
Escoda Hog Bristle Brushes (from Spain)
RGM Palette Knife (from Italy)
The only thing I used that they didn’t have at the time is Fast-drying Oil Painting Medium. I think they would have used it if it had been invented.
Read about Glazing an Unfinished Wooden Palette
I painted the afternoon light on my neighbour’s garden. Two paintings on two afternoons. I chose a subject with lots of colour and light and squinted to remove the detail. I used short brushstrokes, didn’t blend, and layered colour thickly one on another.
I think in both of these it is the tree that I failed to observe very well, and that lets the rest of the painting down. The areas where I concentrated on the light on the object were much more successful, yielding a result I would not normally get in my usual painting.
I will be incorporating some of these ideas into my painting practice. I think it was a worthwhile exercise.
I think some of their philosophy might be useful to many painters of others styles. Having a ‘project’, a reason for painting, some guiding principles, helps most artists in their practice.