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.
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.
you want to track my observations, I've keyed my commentary to specific
time segments in the film.
- Fierce observation
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.
- Strokes of broken color
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
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.
- Palette and mixing
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
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.
- Monet's faithful dog
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.