Solving the Mystery of Monet

4 Mar 2012

The Water Lily Pond by Claude Monet, oil painting, 1899.
The Water Lily Pond 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. Recently, 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?!

***
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 the highly textured and complex surfaces of his landscape paintings.

When I discovered a 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.

Monet painting, observing his subject.

1:05 - 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.

Monet's brushstrokes

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." 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.

Monet's brushes

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 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.

Monet's palette and color mixing

1:25 - Palette and mixing

Here we get a 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.

Stance and orientation: When painting outdoors (or with any subject, for that matter) it is often recommended that you put your subject 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.

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December by Mitchell Albala, oil on panel, 12 x 16, 2001.
December by Mitchell Albala, oil on panel,
12 x 16, 2001.
Albala credits Monet for being a keen observer, but Albala is none too shabby himself given all that he gleaned and shared with us about the premier Impressionist's process. For more insightful observations and lessons from Albala, take the opportunity to explore his book, Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice. Enjoy!

P.S. If you want to do your own sleuthing, check out the Monet video on your own and share what you learn by leaving a comment with us.

 


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Comments

on 5 Mar 2012 6:40 PM

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

on 6 Mar 2012 7:52 AM

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.  

on 6 Mar 2012 7:56 AM

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.    

Yabut wrote
on 7 Mar 2012 7:11 AM

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.  

Oldschool72 wrote
on 11 Mar 2012 9:01 PM

Interesting very interesting about the

Cataracts

vega1art wrote
on 14 Mar 2012 9:29 AM

What an absolutely awesome clip. Amazing.