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What is Impressionism? The Basics

Updated: May 4, 2022

If  like me you struggle to make sense of all the different styles of painting,  let’s take things back to basics. Starting with Impressionism, what is it and what sets it apart from other styles?

Impressionism, is an art movement that began with a group of Paris based artists in the mid 1800’s. Art at the time was fairly traditional. Painting was conducted inside studios, was posed and very structured. Impressionism, on the other hand was often painted outdoors and captured the immediate effect of light and colour, embracing the idea of movement being depicted in art.

Widely panned by traditionalists this style of art gained it’s name after a written criticism of Claude Monet’s work, entitled  Impression, soleil levant (see main image).

Water-Lilies after 1916 Claude Monet 1840-1926 Lent by the National Gallery 1997

Up close Impressionist works can appear quite messy and distorted, being characterised by short, quick brush strokes designed to capture the essence, rather than the intricate details. However, if you step back the colours are blended together so that subjects appear recognisable, pleasant and uncomplicated and even, as if it is coming right out of the canvas.

Impressionist art works are characterised by:

  1. Short, thick brush strokes often with paint applied impasto. This is where paint is applied very thickly and the strokes are visible. In this way, paint is mixed on the canvas and provides texture.

  2. Capturing real light and reflections is paramount, leading to many Impressionist painters working in the evening and paying particular attention to the reflection of colours from object to object.

  3. Painting surfaces are opaque and do away with the use of thin paint films or glazes of earlier artistic styles.

  4. Paints are applied side by side and with minimal mixing. The mixing of the colours is actually achieved by the viewer of the art.

  5. Impressionists avoid the use of black paint, preferring to create darkened tones by mixing complementary colours.

  6. Wet paint is painted onto wet paint, no waiting for previous applications to dry. This process creates softer edges and an intermingling of the colours.

Big Walnut Tree at Eragney

Well known Impressionists: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Edgar Degas.

To learn more about Impressionism please visit the Impressionism at Tate Gallery, UK

Take a look through our Galleries to get a feel for the style that appeals to you.

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