|Le Parc Monseau by Claude Monet, oil painting, 1877.|
Interestingly enough, technology played a major role in influencing the course of art history in the mid-1800s. Among several notable technological revolutions was the invention of the metal paint tube, which made paint portable, and the railway system, which made getting out into the scenic countryside easy and affordable. These two innovations helped pave the way for artists to begin painting en plein air.
Particularly in France, several artists began outdoor painting, studying the effect of light on the land. Perhaps most famous among these artists—who eventually became known collectively as the Impressionists—was Claude Monet (1840 – 1926). Monet's paintings are drenched in light and color, possessing all the freshness and spontaneity that are the hallmarks of Impressionism. Many of us today still aspire to capture the kind of beauty Monet and his friends infused into their paintings.
So what can we plein-air artists take away from studying this hugely popular artist? How can we learn to create paintings that sparkle like his? For me, there are several important lessons to be found.
First, Monet always worked on a canvas primed with white, not a toned ground. Second, he did not have any black on his palette. I think these two factors are a major reason why his paintings look so fresh and bright—there's nothing to deaden the colors. It's certainly easy enough for us to follow suit.
|Le Bassin aux Nympheas by Claude Monet,
oil painting, 1899.
|La Maison du Pecheur, Varengeville by Claude Monet,
oil painting, 1882.
But here's another fascinating fact about Monet's technique: Unlike many of today's plein-air artists who paint "alla prima" (all in one go), attempting to finish a painting in a single two-hour session, Monet would typically work on a canvas for less than an hour. Believing it was essential to only work from the subject if he could see it in the same light as when he began the painting, he'd return another day to continue working on the canvas at the same spot under the same light and weather conditions, again for less than an hour.
|Meule, Soleil Couchant by Claude Monet, oil painting, 1890-91.|
He'd often do this four or five times until he had developed the image to a fairly high degree. In fact, on his first trip to Italy, the light and colors were so different from France that he had to work on several canvases for six or more sessions to get them right. This approach is not always feasible, but it would be a fantastic way to work en plein air without feeling rushed to finish and always having your original subject—the real thing, not a photo—available for reference.
I'm curious if any of you have ever tried this approach or maybe even work this way routinely. Anyone? And if you're a fan of Monet like I am, what have you learned from studying his work? What inspiration have you drawn from this master?