What Impressionism can teach us about being alive

Impressionism is culture’s blockbuster. Dreamy and oh so pretty, it is easy to forget its rebel roots, and amazing to fathom how the desire for artists to essentially cut class and go out into the sunshine started a chain of innovation that led to abstraction, modernism and onwards.

“Beauty in art is truth bathed in an impression received from nature”  -Corot

"Lesson in the Garden" by Berthe Morrisot
“Lesson in the Garden” by Berthe Morisot

In the late 1800’s, the “Impressionist” artists, including Monet, Cézanne, Morisot, Pissarro, Degas, Renoir and Sissley, were fed up with the authoritarian nature of the Parisian art world. They were disillusioned with traditionalism in art and uninterested in mythological or historical subject matter. These artists were loath to sit inside the Academie’s classrooms and train their skills through mimetic and reverent exercises. To boot, they found the emphasis on minute brushwork and stylistic polish to be a bore.

This motley crew of artists preferred to work outside,“en plein air”, and to let observation be their greatest teacher.

“‘Impressionism’ was the name given to a certain form of observation when Monet, not content with using his eyes to see what things were or what they looked like as everybody had done before him, turned his attention to noting what took place on his own retina (as an oculist would test his own vision).”   -John Singer Sargent

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“Haystacks” by Claude Monet

While rough impressions, or sketches used to be an early step in creating a masterpiece, these artists recognized that the imprints were an end unto themselves.  They saw the vitality in essences and perception and sought to capture the ever-shifting nuances of light, air and color that render one spot endlessly new to observe. They tried to see without commentary, and to let the colors tell the stories.  I love Mallarmé’s impression of Impressionism:

“The idea was that ‘nothing should be absolutely fixed’.. ..so that the bright gleam which lights the picture, or the diaphanous shadow which veils it, are only seen in passing, in the actual moment during which the viewer looks at the scene, which, composed as it is of reflected and ever-changing lights, palpitates with movement, light and life.”  -Stephane Mallarmé

After nearly a decade of being shut out from the official juried art exhibitions, and after many thwarted efforts to get government support for alternative exhibitions, the artists banded together to organize their own show, which they held at photographer Nadar’s studio in 1874. The exhibition caused a stir and attracted a huge audience. Among the works exhibited, the one by Claude Monet, titled “Sunrise, an Impression” garnered the most attention (not all positive).  From his painting and its title, the category of the “Impressionists” sprung, first as a critique, then as an identity, and now as a sacred honor.

"Sunrise, An Impression", Claude Monet
“Sunrise, An Impression” by Claude Monet

This creative exercise is inspired by Impressionism, and in particular by Monet’s wise words about looking and painting:

“When you go out to paint try to forget what object you have before you – a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact colour and shape, until it emerges as your own naive impression of the scene before you.” -Claude Monet

VIEWS FROM THE WINDOW a drawing and observing exercise

  1. Gather paper and markers (I’ve suggested some types below)
  2. Choose a window in your house with your favorite view
  3. Try sketching your impression of the view
  4. Remember to looking out the window more than you look down at your paper
  5. Do this whenever you have the chance, and at different times during the day
  6. Keep your drawings fast and loose
  7. Draw what you see, not what you think you see
  8. Share your drawings with #TCHimpressions or send them to thecreativehours@gmail.com

TIP: Resist the urge to name what you are drawing, hold your pen with a loose grip and most importantly: don’t judge! Just enjoy, observe and feel alive.


Further Reading and Supplies:

MONET, The Triumph of Impressionism Both an insightful biography, and a book of prints, this book shares the wonder of Claude Monet

 

 

IMPRESSIONISM, Reimagining Art  This beautiful book looks at Impressionism on a global scale, from its iconic French masterpieces to less familiar works by Scandinavian, German, British, and North American artists.

 

 

Tombow Dual Brush Pens I LOVE these pens.  Great for impressionistic and lush drawing styles.  This is a secondary color set, which I find beautiful, but there are also primary and portrait sets.

 

 

Strathmore Artist Tiles Bristol is a smooth and lovely surface for letting makers glide and play.  Square paper tiles are a nice proportion for quick impressions.

 

 

Author: Alex Posen

Alex Posen is an artist, writer, designer and veteran creative director. She writes and speaks about creativity, and is available for workshops, private coaching and consulting.