The Impressionists' brushstrokes

24 Feb 2009

Q: What mediums did the Impressionists use to paint such soft, colorful strokes?

A: The long strokes have more to do with technique than a particular medium. It is often said that artists are products of their age. This adage is particularly true of the Impressionists. By the 1850s the chemical industry had produced an array of new pigments that changed the nature of oil paint, making it more reliable and more brilliant in color. For the first time oil paint was available in tubes, which was not only more convenient but also quite portable. Even more significant was that the paints were of a new consistency, thanks to the widespread use of mechanical grinding and poppyseed oil, among various other additives. All of this contributed to the alla prima techniques of pronounced brushstrokes and heavier applications of paint.

The Impressionists used a rapid technique that was suited to plein air painting and was necessary to capture changing light and weather conditions. Generally working on a white ground, often with no preliminary drawing, they placed the brushstrokes side by side, not on top of one another, using medium-size brushes, long flats, and small brights, leaving the characteristic square brush-marks visible. What is deceptive is the appearance of long brushstrokes, which are in fact made with a springy touch, a slight twist of the wrist. The artists introduced more and more brush marks until the whole of the canvas was covered. When modeling was necessary, they dabbed on darker tones in a similar manner. The result is a shimmering effect of continuous light and color and the long, soft strokes you admire.

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