If there were any artist, past or present, into whose studio I could magically transport myself and observe him paint, it would be Claude Monet. I have always been intrigued by his painting style, especially his highly textured and complex surfaces. When I lived in New York, I spent many an hour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with my face pressed close to the Monet canvases in an effort to comprehend his handling of paint. I even had a dream about him once in which I tried to pry some information from him about his technique. Sadly, he wouldn’t talk.
So I was delighted when I discovered a short film of him painting in his gardens at Giverny. The film is brief, with just one minute and fifteen seconds of actual painting time. It’s in black and white, of course, and you can barely see the surface of his painting or much of his palette. Yet, this is the only such record of him painting I have ever seen, so I thought it would be interesting to play studio detective and see what I might learn if I studied the film closely.
If you want to track my observations, I’ve keyed my commentary to specific time segments in the film.
1:05 – Fierce observation
Painting en plein air, one would naturally expect Monet to observe his subject. Yet, the constancy with which he observes is astonishing. Except for the time he takes to clean his brush, he turns to his subject every two or three seconds. While I had expected keen observation, this frequency surprised me. Because Monet’s approach to color was so interpretive and imaginative—not at all literal—I imagined that he would have spent more time thinking about the colors on his canvas and less about the colors in front of him. Of course, we can’t be sure what his observations were. Drawing? Temperature? Perceived color? All of the above, most likely. But the real genius, of course, was the translation that occurred between what he saw and what he chose to place on his canvas.
1:37 – Strokes of broken color
Monet and the other Impressionists abandoned the approach of blending colors over large areas in favor of placing individual strokes side by side, and allowing the eye to mix those spots of color at a distance. Here we witness the action that produces these daubs and dashes of “broken color.” At certain moments the strokes are fairly short “dashes.” At other moments he makes longer vertical strokes (1:09). There is no blending or rubbing, just one thrust of the brush. He holds the brush fairly far back along the shaft and extends his arm, reaching to the canvas. After just a few strokes, he returns to the palette for more color.
1:18 – Brushes
Monet pauses for a fraction of a second to choose his brush. Monet thinking—caught on film! He uses four brushes. They appear to be the same size, so almost certainly the various brushes were assigned different colors. One brush also appears to be quite pointy, the bristles forming a triangular shape. This is not a brush type found today, or, according to the examples featured in Anthea Callen’s Techniques of the Impressionists, a type that was used at the time. Perhaps it was a brush he had custom made or it was a regular brush that had worn down.
1:25 – Palette and mixing
At 1:25 we get the clearest glimpse of the artist’s palette. Given how “loaded” with paint the surface of his paintings were, I was a little surprised not to see larger daubs of pigment squeezed out on Monet’s palette. When he mixes [1:57 and 2:09] he picks up little bits of paint in quick swipes, then mixes them with just a few quick swirls.
Stance and orientation: When painting outdoors (or with any subject, for that matter) it is usually recommended that your subject be as close to your line of sight as possible. This reduces the amount of head turning necessary. Here, though, Monet is turning a full 90 degrees to the right to view his subject. This was likely because of the size of the canvas. Had he propped it up in front of himself, it would have blocked his view.
2:32 – Monet’s faithful dog
A little dog follows Monet down the garden path. This, or one of the other dogs, also makes an appearance at the opening of the film at 0:46. (This has nothing to do with his painting, but it is very cute. All those gardens and dogs, too!)
I also found an equally enlightening film of Renoir painting that I’m going to sleuth through sometime in the future. Any observations from the Monet clip that I may have missed? Leave a comment and let me know,
Mitchell Albala is the author of Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice (Watson-Guptill, 2009). He also hosts an educational blog about landscape painting. Find him on Facebook and YouTube.