If You Love Impressionist Painting, These (Renoir-Approved!) Techniques Will Show You How It's Done

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Monet, Degas, Renoir, Seurat: The Impressionists were rock stars. These artists and their peers revolutionized painting and paved the way for what we now know as modern art.

While each of the Impressionists had an individual style, together they created a whole new way of thinking about painting. A signature move was using color and light in fresh new ways.

Practice their techniques yourself, and start creating your own Impressionist masterpieces. Here's how.

1. Play with light and color

Impressionists wanted to capture how it felt to be in a certain place at a particular moment in time. It wasn't about painting every single detail, but about focusing on the overall mood. In the painting above, Renoir captured the effect of flickering light on an everyday scene of working-class Parisians dancing and hanging out in the Montmartre neighborhood.

Now you try it: Squint your eyes as you stare at a scene, so you'll see only the main shapes and colors. Pay attention to the subtle hues you notice, especially in the shadows. Practice recreating that general impression of a landscape without getting buried in the details.

Seeing bright colors everywhere? Run with that. Before the Impressionists, artists painted shadows by adding neutral tones of gray or sepia to other colors. The impressionists started painting shadows with lots more bright colors and variations.

Renoir's "Le Moulin de la Galette" via  Wikimedia Commons

2. Paint outside, and keep it real

Impressionists liked to paint outdoors, "en plein air." Thanks to the invention of paints in tubes, artists could capture natural light at a fleeting moment. But sometimes it would take lots of sessions outdoors, at the same time of day, to nail what a specific scene looked like.

Claude Monet painted 25 versions of haystacks at different times of day while working on Meules, Milieu du Jour (above). Notice how, instead of painting the haystack in one flat and uniform color, he used touches of yellow, green, purple and orange to capture the light.

While people usually associate Impressionism with landscapes, many artists in the genre also painted portraits, with the same priorities: spontaneity and freshness. Instead of creating an idealized version of what they saw, they tried to keep it real, capturing the essence of a person at a particular moment.

Monet's "Meules, Milieu du Jour" via Wikimedia commons

3. Embrace broken colors

Before the Impressionists, artists used glazing techniques to create subtle variations in a color. One of the breakthroughs of Impressionism was a technique known as broken color: That means instead of using uniform brown paint to paint a brown surface, the artist creates nuance with strokes of other colors, like red, blue or yellow. From a distance, the surface appears brown, but look closer and you'll spot all the variations.

Here's another way to think about that technique: You're combining colors on the canvas but using pure, unmixed paints to get that effect, instead of mixing paints on your palette. Experimentation with this method led some Impressionists to a more extreme version: pointillism. Seurat was a pioneer of that style, and if you look at the closeup of one detail in his La Parade painting (above), you'll notice the tiny dots of paint that seem to merge into one color when viewed from a distance.

Seurat's "La Parade" via Wikimedia Commons

4. Be fearless about composition and cropping

Before the Impressionists, composition in paintings was fairly traditional — and predictable: The various elements of a painting would lead your eye to the focal point. The Impressionists put focal points in more unexpected places, and started cropping paintings on the sides — influenced, most likely, by what their photographer peers were doing. See Degas's use of cropping in his painting Rennpferde (above).

Degas's "Rennpferde" via Wikimedia Commons

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Greg Houston
Greg Houston
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If You Love Impressionist Painting, These (Renoir-Approved!) Techniques Will Show You How It's Done