How to Paint Like An Impressionist

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Impressionism is reputed to be the most recognizable painting style in the history of art. In addition, some believe it soothes the nerves and can give a sense of comfort. Further, some might even go so far as to say it offers a sense of discovery and transcendence.

If you wish to paint like the Impressionists, you should strive to create overall visual effects, rather than technical detail. Painting like the Impressionists can be relaxing, but it should not be equated with sloppiness. Special attention should always be given to accurate drawing and composition. Also, there must be a willingness to paint ‘en plein air’ (outdoors).

While some of the content of this article will be familiar to experienced oil painters, it has been written to help the beginning oil painter understand the basic tools, materials, and techniques of the Impressionists. Images that will be referred to can be accessed on the internet.

In addition to the techniques described in this article, beginning oil painters are encouraged to read books about Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, and Camille Pissarro. These artists are considered the purest Impressionists in their persistent pursuit of an art of spontaneity, sunlight, and color.

Monet, in particular, is important, because he is the most consistent and prolific practitioner of the Impressionistic philosophy as it related to expressing one’s perceptions before nature, especially as it applied to ‘en plein air’ landscape.

These artists chose simple subjects: flowers, realistic scenes of modern life, landscapes, cityscapes, and seascapes. Their goal was to awaken feelings in the viewer and guide his or her eye through and into the painting. In short, leave more to the human imagination.

1. Tools of the trade

A painting knife is an artist's tool with a flexible steel blade used to apply paint to the canvas
Three oil paints, one of which is mixed with wax (© Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0)
4 "vine" charcoal sticks and 4 compressed charcoal sticks. Drawing materials of the Impressionists.

Most of the materials that the Impressionists used are still being used today and are available at most art supply stores.

Oil Paint (tubes) – titanium white, cadmium red, cadmium yellow, and cobalt blue (As a beginner, you might want to stick to three colors. From these three, you can produce many colors. As you probably learned in elementary school, red, yellow, and blue are primary colors and when two primary colors are mixed, they create secondary colors, e.g., red + blue = purple, blue + yellow = green, and red + yellow = orange. Tertiary colors are formed by mixing a primary color with a secondary color, e.g., red/orange. The Impressionists did not use black oil paint or any clear glazes.)

Charcoal Sticks (The Impressionists often made a quick sketch of what they wanted to paint.)

Brushes – hog bristle (short flat, long flat, and round -sizes 4, 8, and 3)

Palette Knife

Pre-primed canvas (12” x 12” or small enough to be easily carried)

Gesso (If the canvas is not primed, apply at least three coats of gesso to the canvas with a large inexpensive utility brush. When the surface dries, lightly sand away any rough spots.

Cover the white canvas with a light paint, preferably light yellow. This will lessen the glare on the white surface.

Easel (foldable box that contains a section to hold the canvas, drawers for paints, and a palette)

Easel Stool (This is optional. The Impressionists preferred standing up.)

Large Brim Hat (This is optional. The Impressionists wore them to guard against a glare from the sun.)

Miscellaneous (sunscreen, insect repellent, bottled water)

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2. The technique

Bazille's 'Scène d'été, or Summer Scene', 1869. The human figures were drawn in his studio and then he painted the background en plein air
Monet's famous Haystack series. He was captivated by how 'en plain air' trying to capture different lights on the same object.
'Poppy Fields near Argenteuil' by Claude Monet, c. 1875

The Impressionists had different techniques. They all started out studying realistic painting as defined by the academies, but they became disillusioned and shifted to impressionism.

Some combined the two. Frederic Bazille was a peer of Monet, Sisley, and Renoir. He died in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and didn’t get a chance to help advance the Impressionistic Movement. In his painting, Scene d’ete, the human figures were drawn in his studio and then he painted the background en plein air.

However, for the most part, the Impressionists began and finished their paintings outside and reportedly finished a painting in one day. Step One – Try to choose the right subject matter. Decisions need to be made as to where to go, what to see, and what time of day. The time of day will determine the lighting conditions. It need not be a grandiose endeavor. A scene in a park, garden, beach, lake, etc. is perfectly acceptable. Light was important to the Impressionists.

Monet was fixated with light. He painted a series of water lilies and haystacks at different times of the day to capture the changing light. He loved sunsets and twilight. To him, this time of day provided the dramatic light that he relished.

Step Two – Use your charcoal stick to lightly block in your composition. Draw basic shapes and keep it simple. Have some idea as to where you want everything to go. Avoid trying to include everything. If something is not essential, leave it out.

In Monet’s painting, Red Poppies at Argenteuil, the composition is easily discernible. The canvas has been divided into two sections and the bottom section has been divided into two parts.

Step Three - Squeeze each color onto your palette. The Impressionists mixed their colors on the canvas rather than on the palette. This saved a step. Step Four – Begin with the sky. Skies are not a bland blue. Use a large brush and move the brush across the canvas with dash strokes. Use different colors and allow the bottom color to ‘peak through.’ Dash strokes or hatching (closely spaced parallel lines) will enable the eye to see purple tones when red is painted over blue, or orange tones when red is painted over yellow. This is often referred to as ‘broken color.’ Do not blend the colors. Your colors will ‘optically’ blend together when viewed from a distance. Pile one color on top of the other. Your palette knife can also be used to add texture. In Monet’s painting, Twilight in Venice, you will notice myriad broken colors.

Step Five – Work on the bottom section of the canvas. Grass is not a bland green. Using the same approach, use your blues, reds, and yellows. Notice the composition and the treatment of the grass in Monet’s The Cliff Walk – Pourville. The dark colors are made by mixing the three colors together. Once again, use a large brush and crosshatch (lines placed at an angle to one another). Another excellent treatment of grass is seen in Camille Pissarro’s Bazin Court – Sunset.

The grass is a mixture of cool (blue/green) and warm (red/orange) colors. In your painting, choose a dominant color and then accent it. In Pissarro’s painting you will notice that blue is the dominant color. Also, notice the shade areas. They’re blue as well. Step Six - Painting objects (people, trees, flowers, boats) can be intimidating. The good news is that the Impressionists were not concerned with details in their paintings. Their intent was to give an ‘impression’ of the object.

Notice how Monet handled painting the trees in Red Poppies at Argenteuil. They’re very simple. Also, the details of the two figures in the middle ground and foreground are not discernible. The eye is drawn to the red poppies (the title of the painting). The ‘impression’ of poppies is achieved by ‘stippling’ (small dots). It should be noted here that Monet’s treatment of the poppies should not be confused with Georges Seurat’s technique of ‘pointillism.’ He was a ‘post-Impressionistic’ painter. Also, Vincent van Gogh used bold strokes, but, he, too, was a ‘post-Impressionist painter.’

The figures in Camille Pissarro’s cityscape The Quays at Rouen are not detailed drawings. Once again, an ‘impression’ of a person is painted. Berthe Maricot’s painting, Wheat Field, is another example of how figures can be treated. They are not stick figures, but rounded or elongated forms.

Step Seven – Step back from your painting and study it. Ask yourself if you’ve captured the light or does the painting draw you in. If you’re satisfied, give your work a title. This helps the viewer.

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3. A final word

Monet's world-famous 'Sunrise' painting from 1874, depicting a Le Harve port landscape.
'The Quays at Rouen' (1883) by Camille Pissarro
'Panorama d'Auvers sur Oise' (1873–1875) by Paul Cezanne

Depending upon whether one is a masochist or a glutton for punishment, some paintings can be downright painful to view. When this happens, an art museum goer will usually shake his or her head and say, “I don’t understand art, but I know what I like.”

The impressionists created a model for freedom and subjectivity that promoted artistic freedom.

Their goal was to get the viewer to ‘feel rather than understand.’ Louis Leroy was the art critic who originated the word ‘Impressionism’ when he saw Monet’s painting, Impression – Sunrise, in 1874, depicting a Le Harve port landscape.

He coined the term because he felt that the painting submitted by Monet was not carefully composed or life-like, in keeping with tradition and the Parisian taste.

You can become ‘proficient’ in your endeavor to paint like the Impressionists, but it will take time and practice to become ‘good’ at painting like the Impressionists. In the meantime, as Paul Cezanne states, “Don’t be an art critic, but paint, there lies the salvation.”

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