The Romance for Impressionism Is Overrated

Plein Air Art Strategies of Monet & More

Plein air art: Gustave Caillebotte was a member of the French Impressionists but painted in a much more realist manner than many of his compatriots.
Gustave Caillebotte was a member of the French Impressionists but painted in a much more realist manner than many of his compatriots.

I used to think so romantically about Monet, Pissarro, and the other Impressionists. Not romantic like Manet is so dreamy; romantic as in idealizing this particular group of painters—thinking they stepped outside of their studios and, snap, Impressionism just happened. Veneration can sometimes blind the mind’s eye to all the toil and planning that goes behind an elegant masterpiece. The reality is that the Impressionists were plein air art strategists, thinkers, and pioneering technicians when it came to the art they produced.

Sure, spontaneity was part of the plein air art experience that these 19th-century artists were drawn to, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t work at it. Caillebotte, Gauguin, and Van Gogh are all known to have worked in a fairly traditional manner—warming up with small studies and drawing an underpainting on the surface of a large canvas to solve problems with composition and perspective. The exercises that most plein air art workshop instructors emphasize today are the same ones the Impressionists performed in their own plein air painting situations.

Monet and others also took advantage of advancements that came along in their day and age, just as many of us do with any new painting techniques or innovations. Tube colors that traveled well and contained vibrant pigments made it possible for them to capture a whole world of colors. They were also riding a wave of new color theory, including innovative ideas about complementary colors and broken color, or how putting two strokes of color side by side creates the illusion of a third color. These ideas haven’t been around forever, and to the Impressionists they were revolutionary. 

Plein air art: Depictions of "controlled nature" were a hallmark of Monet's style.
The rocky cliffs of Étretat as painted by Monet. A hallmark of this Impressionist master’s work is “controlled Nature.”

I try to remind myself of all this when I feel a bit swallowed up by Impressionism intimidation. Knowing the artists used techniques that I can also acquire with a little practice and patience is comforting. I’ve spent a lot of time working on my Impressionist methods–mimicking the Masters’ techniques with pastels–a versatile and accessible medium well loved by the Impressionists and perfect for capturing sumptuous color.

I’ve learned a lot from my own research, but Aaron Schuerr’s Plein Air Pastel Workshop Collection has also given me an incredible amount of great guidance and information. Aaron’s focus is on forward-thinking contemporary practices that make the idea of working with my own brand of Impressionism more of a real and immediate possibility. This collection can bring the Impressionists a step closer to you, too. Enjoy! 

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

4 thoughts on “The Romance for Impressionism Is Overrated

  1. Courtney—

    Here is an article that is written so well and with such authority that none of us has ventured a comment, much less any point of disagreement. You have managed to put subtle feelings into words, speak from your own personal perspective yet relate it the way we all work—and offer encouragement.

    Well, I’ll find something to disagree with. How about your headline? “The Romance Is Overrated”. I saw an old movie the other night with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. Now that was romance—and without impressionistic color. It was black and white.

    1. I agree with your point, Paul. My reaction was similar. Without the romance, much of the delight is removed from of many old masterpieces. I am almost tempted to say “stolen” from them.

  2. This is an thoughtful article. I enjoyed reading and pondering the ideas put forth in it… As a professional artist, artwork judge and instructor, I do think it is safe to say that no one knows what the masters were thinking or how much they struggled. It’s an interesting side road to travel, but in the end, it is really only conjecture.

  3. I just read a biography of Claude Monet titled “Mad Enchantment” by Ross King. Very well researched and gives a detailed portrayal of Monet’s struggles to achieve his vision with his paints. The Impressionist Master struggled his whole life right up to the end attempting to capture the radiance of light. I’ve come to the conclusion that creating art is a lifelong struggle, but oh, what a sweet struggle!

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