Saturday Studio: First Impressions

Galeena Gephart, FWMoA High School Intern

Today in the Studio, we are highlighting an artistic style that is currently on view in our galleries! Impressionism was popular beginning in the 19th century, and still is used commonly today. This movement made a very distinct style that consisted of small, thin brushstrokes full of different colors that, ultimately, come together to make a picture. Most of the Impressionists would paint in the open air (en plein air) to truly capture the lights and the darks of the subject. This would force them to work very quickly to capture the fleeting light and scene. This movement was founded in 1874 by a group of French artists led by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, and many others. American Impressionism: Treasures from the Daywood Collection features U.S.-based artists who incorporated the tenets of Impressionism in their own work, notably the attention to the changing effects of light and the tendency to paint en plein air. Most, but not all, of the American Impressionists also avoided the use of black in their paintings, like their French counterparts. How, then, did they paint shadows?

Three men struggle to heave a burden from their boat that is ashore. Behind them, mountains and trees meet the blue and purple river. In front, a grassy knoll dotted with stones and trees.
John Fulton Folinsbee, American, 1892-1972. Shad Boat. Oil on canvas, 1927. On loan from the Huntington Museum of Art, Gift of Ruth Woods Dayton. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Look closely at the painting above. Although we often think of shadows as being gray or black, they’re more often darker, more cool-toned versions of the original color of the object. This depends, of course, on many factors like the time of day and original light source, as well as the surroundings. Observe the face of the woman below.

The pale, blushed face of a woman looks at the viewer. Her brown hair, parted down the middle, is pulled back. Her cheeks and lips are a pale pink. Behind her, decorative floral wallpaper with purple flowers and a green background.
Ivan Olinsky, Russian-American, 1828-1962. Leonore in Evening Gown (detail). Oil on canvas. On loan from the Huntington Museum of Art, Gift of Ruth Woods Dayton. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The shadows are green in places due to the reflected light from the wallpaper behind her! It might sound crazy, but the result here is actually fairly subtle. Sometimes, however, Impressionists would exaggerate the effects of light that might be more subtle in real life.

There are many snowy, winter scenes in American Impressionism, and there may be no better subject for illustrating the effects of light than (seemingly) pure white snow. The snow in John Costigan’s Woman, Boy, and Goats, below, appears generally white from a distance, but look closer! There are swirls of pink, blue, and yellow running all through it. Notice how the brightest areas of sunlight are painted with warm yellow tones, while the shaded spots are mostly cooler blues and purples. Even the clothing of the subjects, while probably gray and brown in real life, contains all kinds of bright colors up close that visually mix together at a distance.

Before we try our hand at some Impressionist techniques, let’s first look around a bit! Take a walk outside. Look for the subtle warm or cool tones in the landscape and buildings around you. If it’s a sunny day, especially late in the afternoon, the highlights probably have a bit of a warm, golden tinge, while the shadows are probably cool. Is there reflected light from the surrounding objects? We took a walk around with a white coffee mug to illustrate a few examples.

Notice the green tones on the right side, and the really cool blue shadows inside the mug.

Notice the reflected red light along the right side, cool blue tones in the main part of the shadow, and slightly yellow highlights.

Now let’s try it! We will be creating a mini Impressionistic piece using any item found around the house (or museum, for us!).

Materials:

-Any item suitable to draw

-A piece of paper

-Pencil

-Paints, oil pastels, chalk pastels, crayons (you can choose which medium! We each used a different kind of pastel.)

Process

Start by testing out different techniques to complete this work. Begin with a scrap piece of paper and begin experimenting with strokes of the desired medium. Play with different combinations of color, placing small strokes of each color next to each other.

Now choose an object to work with. We used a white object to see the colors more easily, but you may use whatever you can find!

Once you’ve chosen a medium, put your black crayon, paint, pastels, etc. to the side (remember that Impressionists did not use black!). In place of this color, you can try multiple others: Purple, Blue, Green, Brown, combination of complementary colors.

Take the object and place it near another item. You can go outside and photograph it next to a leaf, flowers, etc. Be creative! Brighter objects usually bring out the best lighting!

Look closely at the object and lightly sketch the outline using pencil on your paper (keep your lines light–the pastel tends to pick up and mix with the graphite!). Notice faint streaks of color all over the object.

  1. Start first by filling in the darkest shadows. This will help determine the placement of the lighter values. Using the colors on the object, (and even some that aren’t there) start putting small lines or blobs where the color is seen. 
  2. Move to the lighter areas of the subject, being sure to notice highlights of reflected color from the surrounding environment. Work from large, general areas to the more specific details, but remember that this is Impressionism! We’re not worried about minute details, but the overall feeling and impression of the scene.
  3. Keep adding more colors until the object is completed!

Here is how ours turned out! We really emphasized the colors we noticed. Are they Impressionism? Maybe not exactly, but this shows how you can start with a style or technique and make it your own!


Don’t forget to share your work with us! Either here on the blog or on our social medias: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.

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