Articles About Art - Impressionist Painting Methods
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Impressionist Painting Methods*
Impressionist methods developed to meet several requirements and the artists also
capitalised an the possibilities opened up by the standardised paint tube and easily
In order to capture the immediacy of the nuoment and the light tonality of the outdoor
environment, the Impressionists abandoned the practice of working on a tonal ground or
producing a tonal underpainting. They worked alla prima, with the standardised
consistency of tubed paint which they applied to a white primed canvas. This enabled
them to utilise the luminosity of the format surface.
They used the ebauche method of covering the whole surface at one sitting, but
employed local colour so that the correct tonality and colour were achieved simultaneously.
A painting was not necessarily completed at one sitting, but the surface was covered,
however loosely, at one sitting, thus establishing the colour, tonal and spatial relationships
of the painting from the outset. The Impressionists sought tones under particular
light conditions and rendered obsolete the old concept of chiaroscuro and tone as a means
of defining the relief of objects.
The term etude refers to a study or preparatory painting. The term, pochade, becomes relevant in the context of discussing impressionism, because the pochade was an etude which concentrated on pictorial effects, but which was a study of the complete theme.
The Impressionists developed the etude and its atmospheric variant, the pochade, as
definitive works and herein lay the radical element of the work they presented for public
appraisal. Boime writes:
"The Impressionists felt that an etude made out of doors in a single session could suffice
as a self-contained work of art. Monet described his initial experiments and those of his
friends as no more than conventional pochade: but gradually he developed the idea of
treating a painting as an etude, and returning to it on successive days. The
Impressionists generally worked on a study for fifteen minutes at a time, and Monet
asserted that no painter could work for more than one half hour on any outdoor effect
and keep his picture true to nature."
In attempting to work rapidly in order to establish the transitory effects of light on
canvas, the Impressionists had to develop methods whereby the effects that they required
materialised immediately and not after a lengthy process. The white qround played an
important role here and Clark demonstrates this by a useful comparison with Courbet's
methods. Clark comments:
"Monet was ... to recall that when he was painting with Courbet in the 1860s, Courbet
used to recommend him to start with a dark ground so as to establish his main masses
in the shortest possible time. Needless to say, Monet did not follow the advice for long;
and I think the attitude of the two painters to this method is somehow significant of a
whole difference of aesthetic. For putting a series of representative marks on a white or
neutral canvas, as Monet does, is a process of-materialization". An object materializes
under the painter's brush; it is an equivalent for something in the real world "outside",
yet because the painter accepts an initial absence of this real world from his canvas he
is still a creator in some magic sense, a conjurer. Courbet is different. When he paints
on to a dark ground his action is in some way closer to a sculptor than to this kind of
painter. Painting on to a dark ground is articulation, the articulation of a matter which
is already accepted as present."
Clark's analysis of' the differences between materialisation and articulation is
penetrating and observant, dealing as it does with differences in the physical act of
painting and with different conceptual attitudes.
The actual method of producing an "Impressionist" painting obviously varied from one
artist to another, but the advice Pissarro gave to a young painter, Louis Le Bail, is a very
sound indication of Pissarro's approach to landscape painting. Although this advice was
written in 1896 - 1897, after Impressionism per se was over as a movement, Pissarro's
methods are still impressionistics.
"Look for the kind of nature that suits your temperament. The motif should be observed
more for shape and color than for drawing. There is no need to tighten the form which
can be obtained without that. Precise drawing is dry and hampers the impression of the
whole; it destroys all sensations. Do not define too closely the outlines of things; it is the
brush stroke of the right value and colour which should produce the drawing. In a mass,
the greatest difficulty is not to give the contour in detail, but to paint what is within.
Paint the essential character of' things, try to convey it by any means whatsoever,
without bothering about technique. When painting, make a choice of' subject, see what
is lying at the right and at the left, then work on everything simultaneously. Don't work
bit by bit, but paint everything at once by placing tones everywhere, with brush strokes
of the right color and value, while noticing what is alongside. Use small brush strokes
and try to put down your perceptions immediately, The eye should not be fixed on one
point, but should take in everything, while observing the reflections which the colours
produce on their surroundings. Work at the same time upon sky, water, branches,
ground, keeping everything going on an equal basis and unceasingly rework until you
have got it. Cover the canvas at the first go, then work at it until you can see nothing
more to add. Observe the aerial perspective well, from the foreground to the horizon,
the reflections of sky of foliage. Don't be afraid of putting on colour, refine the work
little by little. Don't proceed according to rules and principles, but paint what you
observe and feel. Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first
impression. Don't be timid in front of' nature: one must be bold, at the risk of being
deceived and making mistakes. One must have only one master --- nature; she is the one
always to be consulted."
Renoir's methods have been well documented in his son's biography. Jean Renoir
"Renoir began by putting incomprehensible little touches on the white background,
Without even a suggestion of form. At. times the paint, diluted with linseed oil and
turpentine, was so liquid that it ran down the canvas. Renoir called it "juice". Thanks
to the juice, he could, with several brushstrokes, establish the general tonality he was
Elsewhere Jean Renoir notes:
"He always mixed his colours on the canvas. He was very careful to keep an impression
of transparency in his picture throughout the different phases of work."
The composition of Renoir's palette is known to us. His son states:
"Renoir himself described the composition of his palette in the following note which
evidently dates from his Impressionist period:
Silver white, chrome yellow, Naples yellow, ochre, raw sienna, vermilion, madder
red, Veronese green, viridian, cobalt blue, ultramarine blue. Palette-knife, scraper, oil,
turpentine - everything necessary for painting. The yellow ochre, Naples yellow and sienna earth are intermediate tones only, and can be omitted since their equivalents can be made with other colours. Brushes made of marten hair; flat silk brushes.
It is to be noted that black, "the queen of colours", as he was to proclaim after his
trip to Italy, is missing."
It must be understood that Renoir's choice of colours was not inflexible, but he did use
colour economically and he simplified his palette even further after his visit to Italy. He was
a meticulous craftsman and kept his paintbox, palette and brushes in immaculate condition.
Monet's methods of painting had much in common with those of Pissarro and Renoir,
which have been described already. The account written by journalist Georges Jeanniot
after visiting Monet at Giverny in 1888 supports this view. By the late 1880s Monet had
consolidated his ideas, was in full control of' his technique, but had not yet embarked on the
concept of serialisation. He moved from one subject to another on a single outing as the light
altered. Jeanniot said of Monet's work habits:
"Once in front of his easel, he draws in a few lines with the charcoal and then attacks the
painting directly, handling his long brushes with an astounding agility and an unerring
sense of design. He paints with a full brush and uses four or five pure colours; he
juxtaposes or superimposes the unmixed paints or the canvas. His landscape is swiftly
set down and could, if necessary, be considered complete after only one session, a
session which lasts as long as the effect he is seeking lasts, an hour and often much less.
He is always working on two or three canvases at once: he brings them all along and
puts them on the easel as the light changes. This is his method."
Techniques and methods practised by 19th-certury French painters played an
important role in the final appearance of the image in a painting, and the identity of the
painting as an art object. The comments and statements given bove do no more than touch
on a very complex issue. However, by studying the methods and results of academic artists
in the nineteenth century, and by comparing their work with that of Manet and the
Impressionists, it is apparent that a very radical shift has occurred in the concept of a
painting and its function in relation to the viewer. The new identity assumed by a painting
owed much to the material and medium. These in turn influenced the act of perception of
both the artist and the spectator. Modernism, a movement rooted in the 19th century, was
given direction by technique and the process of painting.
* Drawn from notes compiled by B Schmahmann for the University of South Africa