Solving the Mystery of Claude Monet

Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies by Claude Monet, oil painting, 1899.
Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies by Claude Monet, oil painting, 1899.

Mitchell Albala is an inspiring art instructor in the field of landscape painting, and it turns out he’s an awesome detective as well. He did some sleuthing on a rare video clip of Monet in the act of painting (incredible!) and shared his findings with us. Who needs Sherlock?! Watch the clip and then read on to learn Albala’s findings from the video.

December by Mitchell Albala, oil painting on panel, 12 x 16, 2001.
December by Mitchell Albala, oil painting on panel,
12 x 16, 2001.

Monet’s Landscape Paintings

If there were any artist, past or present, whose studio I could magically transport myself into and observe him or her paint, it would be Claude Monet. I have always been intrigued by his painting style, especially the highly textured and complex surfaces of his landscape paintings.

When I discovered the short video of him painting in his gardens at Giverny I was thrilled. Yes, the video is short, in black and white, 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 in detail.

Fierce Observation

As a landscape artist, I naturally expected 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.

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Snapshot from video of Monet painting outdoors (around 1:06)

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, allowing the eye to mix those spots of color at a distance.

In the video, we witness the action that produces these daubs and dashes of “broken color.” At certain moments, the strokes are fairly short “dashes.” Other times 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.

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Snapshot of how Monet holds his brush (around 1:08)

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.

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Snapshot of Monet choosing his brushes (around 1:18)

One brush also appears to be unusual—quite pointy with the bristles forming a triangular shape. Perhaps it was a brush he had custom made or it was a regular brush that had worn down.

Palette and Mixing

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Snapshot of Monet’s palette (around 1:26)

We also get a glimpse of the artist’s palette in the video. 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.

Stance and Orientation

When painting outdoors (or with any subject, for that matter) it is often recommended you put your subject as close to your line of sight as possible. This reduces the amount of head turning necessary.

However, in the video we see Monet 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 him, it would have blocked his view.

Landscape Painting, Claude Monet, Monet Paintings, Artist Daily, Mystery of Monet
Water Lilies by Claude Monet, oil on canvas, 1906

The premier Impressionist, Monet was a keen observer but also embraced with confidence the method of simply painting the way he saw (cataracts and all!).

For more insightful observations and worthwhile lessons in the arena of landscape painting, so you gain that same confidence and joy of the natural world around you, consider The Luminous Landscape in Oil with Brian Keeler Video Download. It’s an inspiring and unique resource, so 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.   

7 thoughts on “Solving the Mystery of Claude Monet

  1. When I paint, I have my easel straight on with the scene. With a large canvas, I suppose he had to turn his head somewhat every 3 seconds, but in this film he was posing for the camera.
    John Ackerman

  2. There really is no mystery with Monet. He painted outdoors on location working on huge canvasses not tiny little panels like most painters do today. He worked on the same canvas sometimes for days, returning to the same location, at the same time of day and weather conditions. This is true plein air painting. He is the quintessential outdoor painter. I had the priviledge of painting in Giverny last summer it was an awesome experience. I felt like I was in a cathedral made by Nature and Monet.

  3. Forgot to add that I borrowed Mitchell Albala’s book, “Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice” from a friend and now I want to order one for my own library. It is a very worthwhile book. I highly recommend it and will recommend to my students to read.

  4. Monet painted the way he saw. He had cataracts. There is a big poster in my catarcts surgeon’s office explaining this mystery of Monet’s paint style.

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