If you’re familiar with art, you’re probably familiar with the term “impressionism.” From Monet to Renoir, the artists who made this movement famous in the late 1800s were known for their ethereal look and highly saturated color choices.
Pairing this style with watercolor paint seems a strange choice, as the fluid texture doesn’t naturally lend itself to the bold colors and dramatic brushstrokes the impressionist movement was famous for. Most impressionists used denser, brighter oil paints, but there were plenty who strayed from this typical medium to create stunning works of impressionist art using watercolors.
We’re here to show you how you can create your own, along with a few examples to give you some inspiration before you pick up your paintbrush.
What Is Watercolor Impressionism?
The goal of impressionism is to capture the moment in front of the artist, using natural light as a guide. For many impressionist artists, although they were influenced by the natural world around them, they wanted to contrast this in an almost imaginary, other-worldly way. They brought this concept into their work by using thick layers of unmixed or unblended paint straight from the oil paint tube and dabbing or using short brush strokes on their canvas. This technique allowed the colors to remain as bright and saturated as possible.
But while most impressionist artists of the late 19th century used oil paints, the loose and fluid texture of watercolor paints also lends itself well to this style of painting. Up close, impressionist paintings have no defined edges, and the raw, unmixed paint appears messy or unfinished. Colors only begin to merge together to create a full image as you step back from the painting. It can be difficult to tell where one element ends and another begins until you look at the piece as a whole. Using light and shadows to build in contrast, the lack of attention to detail around edges and lines made subjects feel almost dream-like and hazy. Using watercolor paint over oil is simply another way to capture this feeling on canvas.
Examples of Watercolor Impressionism
Still Life with Carafe, Sugar Bowl, Bottle, Pomegranates, and Watermelon (1900-1906)
Although Cézanne was best known for his oil paintings, he gradually moved toward using watercolors as his primary medium by the 1880s. He chose to focus largely on still life works; a stark contrast from his landscapes of previous decades.
Road Running Beside the Paris Ramparts (1887)
The paintings that were to become Van Gogh’s most famous were usually crafted using oil paints. But alongside these are nearly 150 watercolor paintings that he created during his lifetime. Work like Cézanne’s, while missing Van Gogh’s typical erratic brushstrokes, maintain the vibrant colors for which his paintings are known.
In a Levantine Port (1905)
While John Singer Sargent’s work dates to the post-impressionist period, he was heavily influenced by the styles and techniques that these artists used. Many of his watercolors use the bright color palette and unblended strokes that impressionism made popular, including this painting of boats in a port harbor.
Take Your Painting Into the Open Air
Impressionist Watercolor Landscape Painting
How to Paint Impressionist Watercolor Paintings
Now that you’ve seen a few examples of watercolor impressionism, it’s time to work on your own masterpiece. Today, we’re going to be painting a favorite of the impressionist artists—sunflowers!
Step 1: Gather Your Supplies
Before you get started, set up your workspace with everything you’ll need for your painting. Grab your watercolor paints, a glass of water to clean and wet your brushes, and a couple of different brush sizes. You’ll also need watercolor paper or a watercolor canvas.
Step 2: Start With a First Wash
Once you’ve roughly and very lightly sketched out your flowers, grab your biggest brush and lightly paint just water in random areas across the paper or canvas to prepare it for your paint. You can then start to use your colors, starting with the yellow for the head of the sunflowers.
Go over your faint pencil lines with a very wet application of the paint. Since your paper is also wet, this is what’s known as a wet-on-wet application. This will help to give you that loose impressionist style that you’re aiming for. Don’t worry if this feels very messy—that’s the whole point!
Use a dabbing technique by very lightly moving the brush tip up and down on your painting surface. This helps the watercolor paint to spread on your paper and will give you softer, unblended edges. You should see the paint dispersing across the paper or canvas each time you lightly dot the paint onto it. The wetter your paint, the more it will run and create that loose feel. Repeat this process using your other colors for the stems and other flowers in the background.
Step 3: Begin Adding Details
Once your first wash has started to dry, you can add in a couple of details with a finer brush to begin building the vibrancy.
Using a slightly smaller brush, wet the tip and lightly dab color onto your drying first wash. Since this is still wet, the paint will continue to spread, but you’ll find that you have some more control as it begins to dry.
Step 4: Fill in the Centers of the Sunflowers
Using orange paint, fill in the middle section of your sunflower heads using the same dabbing technique you were using before. You can also lightly press the sides of your brush into the center of the flower to let the color run on its own. Aim to cover most of the middle, but remember to keep your hand and brushstrokes light as the color will spread.
You’ll also want to add in some darker blue paint on top of the orange to give your sunflower centers their signature dark color. Again, don’t be too heavy-handed with this. Dab lightly and let the blue spread into the orange before you add more paint.
Wait until the paint is fully dry before moving on to the next step and adding the details.
Step 5: Build Up the Details
Continue to dab darker and richer colors around the sunflower to create individual petals, all while keeping your brush loose to give it the classic impressionist style.
You’ll now be using a technique known as glazing. This is a common technique for watercolor artists, accomplished by taking a transparent paint color and layering it over the top of your dry paint. This helps soften the edges while brightening up the existing colors on the paper or canvas. You don’t have to perfectly match your paint colors to the layers underneath, but keep them as close as possible to enhance the colors that are already present.
Keep using this technique across the petals and stem, building up the vibrancy with darker colors and messy brushstrokes. You’ll soon start to see the classic impressionist look and feel emerging on your paper or canvas as the colors brighten and become richer. Your eyes are naturally drawn to these high contrast areas, which makes the details “pop” and gives them a distinct impressionist flair.
Step 6: Finish With Negative Painting
You may be familiar with the concept of negative space, or the areas around a focus subject. The same concept can be applied to your painting. By using light brushstrokes around the edges of your flowers, the focus subject will start to take on a clearer and more defined look. In this example, you’ll paint the negative space in green around the sunflowers to help the individual petals stand out more.
Let your painting dry completely before you work on this step so that the colors don’t begin to blend into each other.
There you have it, your very first impressionist watercolor painting!
Could You Be the Next Great Impressionist?
Painting an impressionist-style piece using watercolor paints can be quick and easy, even for beginner artists. It’s the perfect opportunity to experiment with a new style or medium, without having to worry about perfect lines or edges. If you’re feeling inspired, it’s time to get painting!
Add Some Vibrancy to Your Watercolor Paintings
Metallic Watercolors: Painting an Impressionist Landscape