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When you look at some paintings up close, all you see are random strokes of paint—but when you step further back, they blur together into a vibrant, cohesive image. That’s a very specific art style: impressionist painting.
What is impressionism painting? It’s an art movement that focused on capturing how light changes the appearance of a subject. It’s characterized by vibrant colors, visible brush strokes, and thick layers of paint.
Learn more about the impressionism style of painting, the history of the movement, and the artists who popularized it in this guide.
What Is Impressionist Painting?
Impressionist painting is a 19th-century art movement that started in France. Impressionist painters depicted the appearance of a subject using small dabs or brushstrokes of bright, pure colors—which, when viewed as an entire composition, would imitate natural, reflected light.
And that’s exactly where the term “impressionism painting” comes from—the painters weren’t trying to create a true-to-life illustration of a subject; rather, they created an impression of how the subject looked from their unique perspective.
Impressionists also changed the way artists worked. Prior to the movement, artists would typically paint landscapes from inside a studio, resulting in a picture-perfect but imaginary scene. Impressionists often took their work outside, painting from real life. They saw how the light could change the appearance and colors of a scene. Because they were outside, they had to apply paint quite rapidly, which resulted in the visible brushstrokes that are common in an impressionist style painting.
Some of the most well-known impressionist painters include:
- Claude Monet
- Edgar Degas
- Berthe Morisot
- Camille Pissarro
- Mary Cassatt
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir
How to Identify Impressionism in Painting
You can identify an impressionist style painting by looking for a few key characteristics. Most impressionist paintings are comprised of small brush strokes or dabs of unmixed paint. This results in a painting that might not “make sense” when viewed close up—but once you step back, the colors merge together and you can see the image more clearly.
This is common in Claude Monet’s work. For example, from afar, Monet’s “Water Lilies” looks primarily blue and green—but take a closer look, and you might be surprised at the multitude of colors that make up the composition.
The impressionism style is also characterized by visible brush strokes and thickly layered paint. You can essentially see movement and texture within the painting, whereas, in a traditional style painting, the brushstrokes become nearly imperceptible.
And perhaps most importantly, impressionist painters strive to emphasize natural light. In fact, in some paintings, the light is the main subject of the composition.
Impressionist Painting Styles
Impressionism painting styles vary from artist to artist, but there are a few common themes that you can see throughout most impressionist works.
Ordinary Subject Matter
Impressionists often painted ordinary subjects—people engaged in day-to-day activities like strolling through a meadow, walking down the street, or sewing. They aimed to capture scenes of contemporary life.
In part, this was a reaction to the growing popularity of photography. Impressionists didn’t want to create perfect replications of a scene, since a photo could do that—so they focused on expressing their perception of a moment.
Not all impressionist paintings include human subjects. Many depict landscapes: mountains, meadows, farms, beaches, and bodies of water. In fact, it was Claude Monet’s painting, “Impression, Soleil Levant”—a painting of the sun rising above a harbor—that served as the inspiration for the name of the impressionist movement.
Impressionists typically worked with bright, vibrant colors as they sought to accurately portray light. Just as important, they often used complementary colors in their palettes to create visual contrast. For example, in Monet’s “Impression, Soleil Levant,” the harbor is depicted in mostly greys and blues, while the sun is a vibrant orange. This brings the focus away from the boat—which, in an academic style of art, would likely be the subject of the painting—and up to the sun.
Impressionist Painting Techniques
There’s something about the beauty and spontaneity of impressionist painting that makes you want to try it yourself. Will you become the next Monet or Renoir? Who knows—but you can certainly try. Use these impressionism painting techniques to replicate the beautiful colors and brush strokes of impressionist painting.
Just Getting Started With Impressionist Painting?
Introduction to Oil Painting
With this technique, you apply paint in small, short strokes without blending it. This allows the color to blend optically—in other words, it merges together when you view the entire painting from a distance. When using a traditional painting style, on the other hand, you would carefully blend paints, either on your canvas or on a palette, to achieve an exact hue.
Impressionists generally preferred soft edges between colors within a painting. To achieve a true impressionism style of painting, don’t let your brush strokes dry between layers. Instead, use a wet-on-wet technique to avoid hard edges.
Impressionists used short, quick brushstrokes to add thick layers of paint—also known as the impasto technique. This allows the brushstrokes to remain visible and adds texture to the painting. While This technique also enables you to mix the paint directly on the canvas, impressionists typically kept mixing to a minimum.
Effets de Soir
This technique (which translates to “effects of evening”) refers to the effects caused by light in the early evening. For impressionist painters, using this technique means capturing light and shadows with blues and purples. Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” is the perfect example of this technique in action.
Made an Impression?
Impressionist painting styles are mesmerizing, bringing light and movement to ordinary landscapes and everyday moments. Uniquely beautiful up close and from a distance, impressionist paintings are unmistakable. So if these artists have inspired you, don’t be afraid to grab your paint, go outside, and capture a beautiful moment.
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