The term Impressionism denotes a style of painting made popular in the late 1800s in France. A critic, meaning to be satirical, coined the term after seeing an exhibit that contained Claude Monet’s painting, Impression, Sunrise. Little did he know that the term would stick and end up defining one of the most, if not the most, popular artistic movements to have ever existed in western culture.
These artists who became known as impressionists broke with the rigid rules of the high academic methods of painting, which relied heavily on the use of line. Natural light became their fascination and with it, a heightened use of color developed. To accentuate the energy pulsation of light and the notion that it contained many colors, they developed smaller fractured methods of applying pigment. These marks weren’t softened and blended like the traditional paintings of the era espoused. Instead, they were left rough and the viewer’s eye did the fusing. This, along with the use of vibrant color and lack of defined edge, accentuated the transient luminosity of sunlight.
They abandoned their studios and worked en plein air, often in everyday settings. This also introduced the public to a new way of looking at the world. Instead of portraying an idealized perspective, as was the fashion up to the time, these artists expressed the beauty in the commonplace, the transitory moment. All of this broke with tradition; the public at first reacted with hostility, but eventually they came around and saw the movement for what it was, a fresh and original vision.
Many of these pioneering artists worked in pastel, enjoying the immediacy of application and vibrancy it had to offer. Most notable among them is the father of modern pastel painting, Edgar Degas. To supply the specific color variations they required, paint manufactures and chemists were enlisted. Many of these fine companies survive today, including Sennelier, Girault and Henri Roché, to name a few.
Whether you currently paint in a more impressionistic style or have both feet firmly planted in traditional realism, the benefits of applying pastel in the fashion of the impressionists will have its rewards. Start by drawing less in advance of applying color. Rely more on value and color variation to define spaces and form. Smudge less and allow the fractured marks of pastel to show. In other words, let the marks of pigment create the scene instead of drawing forms. This may be frustrating at first, but with a little practice and the reminder to step back so you can better see the effect, it will get easier. One thing is for sure—you’ll never see light in the same way.
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