Friday, 5 October 2012

Monet, the impressionists and colour 2

The following is what I have discovered on the subject of the impressionists and colour, mainly from The History of Art, Architecture, Painting, Sculpture eds Myers & Copplestone pub. Hamlyn 1985 London

Claude Monet - various paintings of  Rouen Cathedral

The impressionists (Monet, Renoir, Pissaro, Sisley), made a group around Manet and followed his idea of painting exactly what he saw, using quickly done patches of colour. It had to be quick to capture the effect of light on the subject. They took it further than him, in the direction of wanting to paint the light as it hit their retinas, without being distracted by the objects they saw in front of them and what they knew of them.

'Monet is reported to have said that he wished he had been born blind and had subsequently gained sight, so that he could have begun to paint without knowing what the objects before him were.'

To do this they painted spots of unmixed paints onto white canvas, making the colours brighter and clearer than classical oil painters. They didn't like using black at all. It also gave their work 'a new kind of pictorial unity.' But it also avoided focussing on making the shapes clear, and the result was that contemporaries couldn't see the shapes of what they had painted. 'The spectator had to trust his eyes and ignore his expectations more completely than ever before.'

But it is not possible for anyone to set down exactly what they see without their personal interpretations intruding, which is demonstrated by the differences between even these four first impressionists.

Monet painted series of the same objects (Rouen Cathedral, haystacks, and his watergarden at Giverny) in different lights, to explore this technique in detail. Looking at this I can see the way the dots of different colours make me see the light and shadow and therefore the shape of the architecture. I have 8 different studies of Rouen cathedral in different lights because it shows how much attention and time he spent doing these studies. And also how different the colours are depending on the light shining on it at the time. It is awe-inspiring that he worked so hard on learning how to show this.

August Renoir followed the same style as Monet at the beginning, but with a lighter touch, and used it later in life to paint women.

Pierre Auguste Renoir Nude in the sunlightOil on canvas, Musee de l'Impressionisme, Paris
The body of the woman is painted with patches of pink blue brown and white, which lets me see that she is lit by sun coming through leaves. Some of the patches are so blue that they look a bit like bruises when I look closely. But as a whole she looks beautiful and healthy and sensuous. The background is more roughly painted in, so you can see it was her body that interested the painter. It looks very difficult, but I think I want to try painting skin like this in my sketchbook.

Alfred Sisley's landscape paintings are luminous, perhaps because of his using this technique.

Alfred Sisley The Barge during the Flood, Pont-Marly
Oil on canvas 1876
Musee de l'Impressionisme, Paris
You can see clearly and sweetly how wavelets in the flood water are painted in by changes in colour.

Post-Impressionism: Seurat
'Seurat evolved a scientifically controlled version of Impressionism.' He took each colour he saw, divided it into its constituent colours, and put them down side by side so that they merged and were seen as one colour. This was called Divisionism by him and his followers, but has been called Pointillism since then.

He also controlled the formal content as much as the colour content, and spent a great deal of time doing studies of the landscape, and all the figures, as this scene was most definitely not taken from life. He then meticulously applied the dots of colour in a very controlled way.

Georges Seurat 1886
Sunday afternoon on the Island of Grande Jette
Oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago
Personally I find this painting too much in the head, and not enough in the heart of the painter, and it goes against my romantic idea of the intuitive nature of art to think of anyone doing it so 'scientifically'. But obviously at the time it was a dramatically new way of doing things and has been very influential. I think it would be interesting to try out this dividing of colours too.

Seurat Eiffel Tower
I included this one because the use of red and yellow dots to make the orange/
rust colour of the tower is very clear, and helped me to believe that he really did do this!

PS As I save this page, it strikes me how every image I have on my desktop today as I do this blog page is really beautiful. I think this is the combination of the clear colours, and the delicate texture, but mostly because of the LIGHT.
I want to think about how to get this more into my work in future.  
I suspect a lot of meticulous work will be required.
Starting with avoiding mixing paint colours in the palette (which makes them mucky),
and trying to mix them on the paper or fabric, like these impressionists!

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