I recently visited the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. There were many stunning paintings by masters of our craft, some of which I have previously written about on this website.
I will walk you through some of the paintings I saw, as I understand many of you may not be able to make it down to Australia to see the gallery for yourself.
The first thing I noticed was how a photo does not really give a painting justice; you really need to see original paintings in person to fully appreciate them. A photo does not give you a sense of scale, brushwork or craftsmanship that you get from seeing a painting in person.
The other thing I noticed was how art seems to have moved away from the technical craft it once was. The gallery was segmented into different time periods - 18th-century art, 19th-century art, 20th-century art and contemporary. Artists no longer seem to be as appreciated for careful rendering, accurate values or capturing the likeness of the subject. Rather, contemporary art seems to be focused on pushing the concept at all costs. Not that there is anything wrong with pushing the concept, but I do not think it should come at the complete sacrifice of technical display. As Nicolai Fechin once said:
“... a high degree of expertise in technique has always had, and always will have, a predominant place in art. The subject, in itself, has value only according to the mode of the day. Tomorrow it will be superseded by a new fashion or fad. With the passing of time, the subject loses much of its meaning. But the fine execution of that subject retains its value...”
Anyway, here are some of the paintings along with my commentary, starting with some stunning landscapes by Sir Arthur Streeton. I was excited to see so many paintings by Streeton at the gallery, as I have used many of his paintings as examples of fundamental painting techniques in previous posts. To me, his paintings are a perfect blend of abstraction, loose brushwork and accuracy (where it matters).
Arthur Streeton, Fire's On, 1891
Arthur Streeton, Still Glides the Stream, and Shall for Ever Glide, 1890
In the gallery, Streeton's paintings appeared remarkably realistic, despite them being painted with such a relaxed technique (which you can see in the close-ups).
Arthur Streeton, Villers-Bretonneux, 1918
Aurthur Streeton, Cremorne Pastoral, 1895
A key part of Streeton's paintings is how he painted intricate details on top of a rough, colored ground (notice the delicate plants and flowers shooting up from the ground in the close-up below). This adds a level of sophistication to the paintings which is not obvious on first glance.
I saw paintings by many other familiar names, like Eugene Boudin.
Eugene Boudin, The Beach, 1864
I also saw paintings by artists who I was not familiar with which stopped me in my tracks, like A Spring Day by Friedrich Kallmorgen and The First Born by Gaston La Touche. It just goes to show how many brilliant artists there are to discover, both famous and less known.
Friedrich Kallmorgen, A Spring Day, 1889
Gaston La Touche, The First Born, 1887
The three landscapes below are incredibly large, so the photos do not give them justice. They remind me that sometimes you need to paint on a large scale to faithfully render the grand landscapes like these.
Eugene Von Guerard, Milford Sound, New Zealand, 1877-1879
WC Piguenit, Kosciusko, 1903
Wc Piguenit, The Flood in the Darling, 1890
The delicate rendering of the subject below was amazing to see in person. Gordon Coutts created a beautiful contrast between the sharp edges and intricate detail used for the subject and the soft, tinted background which surrounds her.
Gordon Coutts, Waiting, c.1895
I was not familiar with Albert Hanson but I loved the way he captured the glimmering colors through the dark foreground.
Albert Hanson, Pacific Beaches, 1898
When I first looked at A Sailor's Yarn by Henry Scott Tuke I did not even notice the third subject (the man reclining in shadow). This is a great display of how to paint detail in dark areas.
Henry Scott Tuke, A Sailor's Yarn, 1887
James Tissot, The Widower, 1876
I wrote about John Russell not that long ago (you can read the post here), so it was a pleasure to see some of his paintings in person.
John Russell, In the Afternoon, 1891
John Russell, Rough Sea, Morestil, c.1900
Pierre Bonnard, Bust in Profile, Red Background (Study), c.1920
There were several artworks by Sir Peter Paul Rubens at the gallery which were inspirational in terms of drawing.
Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Constantius Appoints Constantine as His Successor, 1622
Tom Roberts, Holiday Sketch at Coogee, 1888
Below is a portrait by Tom Roberts of Sir Arthur Streeton at the age of 24.
Tom Roberts, Smike Streeton Age 24, 1891
The Golden Fleece by Tom Roberts is a classic Australian painting. I remember studying this painting in my high school art classes, though I did not appreciate art history back then.
Tom Roberts, The Golden Fleece, 1894
In the corner of the gallery was a small painting by Vincent van Gogh (the only van Gogh painting in the gallery). I think I prefer his more colorful works...
Vincent van Gogh, Head of a Peasant, 1884
Here is a small study by William Holman Hunt, who I wrote about here.
William Holman Hunt, Study of a Bloodhound, 1848
One of my favorite paintings from the day was by an artist who I had never heard about before, The Sea Hath Its Pearls by William Henry Margetson. The painting is actually circular, with a large, gold-colored frame (I had to crop the photo as it was too large). It was painted with mostly soft, pastel colors and appeared calming, especially when surrounded by the more dramatic paintings.
In this post I walk you through how to mix your own vivid orange using different red and yellow paints. The purpose of this exercise is to deepen your understanding of color mixing, color bias and the limitations of our paints.
Orange is a secondary color. To mix orange, you need to combine yellow and red (primary colors).
If you want to mix a vivid orange, then you need to use a yellow and red which does not contain any traces of blue. Remember, when you mix three primary colors together, you get a tertiary color.
You also need to give consideration to the saturation of the yellow and red you use (you cannot mix a vivid orange by mixing a dull yellow with a dull red).
Paul Gauguin, Still Life With Oranges, 1881
Color Bias - Warm and Cool Yellows and Reds
There are all kinds of yellows and reds you could use to mix orange. Some yellows lean towards red (warm yellows) and some lean towards blue (cool yellows). Some reds lean towards yellow (warm reds) and some lean towards blue (cool reds).
To mix a vivid orange, you need to mix a warm yellow with a warm red; that is, they both lean towards orange on the color wheel (shown below).
Mixing a cool yellow with a cool red, will most likely result in a relatively dull orange. That is because there would be a small amount of blue in the mix.
If you want to learn more about the bias of certain colors, then you should take a look at this color wheel.
What You Need for This Exercise
For this color mixing exercise, you simply need the following:
You could do your mixing on your palette (like I did), or you could paint the colors onto a canvas board or another surface if you want something more permanent.
Mixing Different Oranges
Step 1. Try to predict the outcome of your mixing. Which yellow and red will produce the most vivid orange? Which will produce the dullest orange? Write it down so you can see how you went after mixing the colors together.
Step 2. Take all the different yellows and reds and arrange them on your palette.
The yellows I used on my palette shown below were (from top to bottom):
Cadmium yellow deep
Cadmium yellow light
The reds I used on my palette shown below were (from left to right):
I predicted that my cadmium yellow and cadmium red would produce the most vivid orange and that my yellow ochre and alizarin crimson would produce the dullest orange.
Step 3: Mix all the different combinations of yellows and reds.
Try your best to balance the yellow and red against each other. Just be aware that some colors are stronger than others.
For example, the cadmium lemon (yellow) felt very weak compared to most of the reds. So I needed to use much more of it in the mixtures.
Work your way around until you have mixed all possible combinations. Make sure you do not contaminate each mixture with other colors. The palette knife comes in handy for this, as you can easily clean it between each stroke.
Step 4: Analyse the results.
Below is a photo of all the different oranges I mixed with the colors I had available. I also placed cadmium orange from a tube down the far right for comparison.
The results were mostly as expected. Cadmium yellow and cadmium yellow deep mixed with cadmium red produced the two most vivid oranges. The orange from cadmium yellow deep seems to be just a touch darker and closer to red.
Yellow ochre mixed with alizarin crimson produced the dullest orange. Yellow ochre is actually a warm yellow, but it is also the dullest yellow on the palette by far.
Key Takeaways and Other Tips for Using Orange in Painting
Here are some of the key takeaways from this post:
You will rarely need to use vivid orange in your paintings, but it is still important to learn how to mix your own to develop your understanding of color mixing and what your paints are capable of.
To mix a vivid orange, you need to mix a yellow and red which lean towards orange on the color wheel. The yellow and orange also need to be highly saturated colors (you cannot mix two dull colors and get a saturated color).
Orange is broadly considered a warm color. But don't forget that you could have warm and cool variations of orange.
Cadmium orange from a tube appears to be the most vivid orange we are able to paint with.
Color is relative, so if you need to make an orange seem vivid and strong, then try surrounding it with a dull blue (like in Vincent van Gogh's painting below).
Step 1. Consider Why You Want to Take up Painting and What You Want to Get out of It
Before you go out and buy all your new art supplies and start throwing paint onto the canvas, you should consider why exactly you want to take up painting and what you want to get out of it.
Your answers will determine how you proceed and what you should focus on learning. I don’t believe that there is a static learning path that everyone must follow to master painting. Everyone has different tendencies, interests and natural skills which determine the optimal learning path they should take.
For example, some people do not have the patience to sit down and accurately render every tone and detail of a subject. Therefore, they may be better suited to learn color and brushwork from the Impressionists, rather than the rigorous practices of the Russian academic painters.
Or maybe you have no interest in breaking into the commercial art world and just want a fulfilling hobby. In that case, you may want to take a more relaxed approach to how you learn.
Or maybe you want to become a master realist painter like John Singer Sargent or Joaquín Sorolla. To get anywhere near this goal, you would need to follow a dedicated and rigorous training regime which focuses on drawing and the other fundamentals of painting.
Joaquín Sorolla, Sewing the Sail, 1896
Whatever the case, it is important that you have the self-awareness for why you are doing this in the first place and what you want to get out of it.
If you have not already, take a second to think about it. You may even want to share your answer in the comment section at the end of this post.
Step 2. Pick Your Medium (Acrylics, Oils or Watercolors)
Next, you should decide on a medium to focus on, at least for the short-term. This will allow you to really get a feel for how the medium works, so that you can then pay more attention to the big-picture aspects of painting, like color, composition, value, etc.
The major choices are oils, acrylics and watercolours. There are some other options, like gouache and watermixable oils, but I won’t touch on these in this guide.
But there is no right answer here. Every medium has pros and cons. Here is a crash-course on the different mediums to help you decide which suits you:
Acrylics - The Beginner’s Choice
Acrylics are widely favored by those just starting out with painting as they are easy to use and do not require any special supplies. The downside is they dry very fast.
Acrylics may suit you if:
You are a complete beginner and do not want to worry yourself with the complexities of oil and watercolor painting.
You want an easy cleanup time.
You are painting on a limited budget.
You enjoy experimenting with mixed media.
You are sensitive to the harsh chemicals involved with oil painting.
The downsides of acrylics are:
The paint dries very fast. This means you only have a limited amount of time whilst your paint is responsive on the canvas.
Some colors darken as they dry (the colors which are lighter tend to have a greater change).
I personally started with acrylics many years ago. Below is one of my childhood paintings in acrylics.
I eventually moved to oils, after getting frustrated by the quick drying time of the paints. But acrylics were great for developing a broad understanding of painting whilst I was a beginner.
Dan Scott, Early Painting - Mountain Reflection
Oils - The Master's Choice
Oil paints are the most widely used medium among professional artists for a number of reasons:
They are versatile. You can vary the drying time and consistency of your paint dramatically using paint thinners and additional oil. This allows you to work with a wide range of painting techniques, including blending, glazing and scumbling.
They were favored by the all-time greats of painting.
Oil paintings seem to be held in higher regard by art collectors compared to acrylic paintings (there are of course some exceptions to this).
You really cannot go wrong with oil paints. If you are not sure where to start, I suggest either jumping straight into oils or starting with acrylics with a view of jumping over to oils once you are more developed. There are some fantastic acrylic painters, but many of them paint in a very contemporary style. The traditional painting techniques which were used by the old masters are much better suited to oil painting.
If you think oil painting is too complex for you, then I urge you to reconsider. There are really only a few ‘rules’ which you need to understand in oil painting and the rest is very similar to acrylic painting.
Tip: For those of you who are concerned about the harsh solvents used in oil painting, like turpentine, then check out ordorless solvent. It makes oil painting much more pleasant in my opinion.
Dan Scott, Secrets on the Lake, 2017
Watercolors - The Untamed Beauty
Watercolors are generally considered to be the most difficult to pick up due to the untamed nature of water and the fact you are not able to do much re-working of errors (as the paper can only absorb so much water). However, if mastered, watercolors can produce stunningly elegant paintings.
For this reason, I recommend you start out with either acrylics or oils before venturing into watercolors. However, watercolors are a fantastic complement to your acrylic or oil painting as they train a different skillset.
For example, John Singer Sargent was famous for his meticulous portraits using oils, but he used watercolors to paint impressionist and loose landscapes and portraits. These watercolor paintings probably felt very refreshing for Sargent who would have been accustomed to the lengthy and tedious portrait painting sessions.
John Singer Sargent, Carrara, Working, 1911
Which Should You Go With?
There is no right answer here, but if you are just starting out in painting then I recommend you start with acrylics or oils. But feel free to start with watercolors if you are up for the challenge.
Also, this is not to say you must choose a medium and ignore the rest. I encourage you to try all different kinds of mediums, but have one which you really focus on and get familiar with. It is better to be a master of one medium, than be average at all mediums.
Step 3. Get Your Supplies
It's now time to stock up on art supplies. But make sure you read all of this section first before you start buying every type of brush or every color of paint – you do not actually need that much stuff!
The supplies you get will vary depending on the medium you decide to go with. In a broad sense, all you need is:
Paper towels (for wiping your brush between strokes).
That is it really. Painting can be as simple as you want to make it.
You will be able to find all this at your local art store. If you are an absolute beginner, it may be worth starting with a beginner package which includes most of the basic supplies you would need. You can then upgrade later on.
My main suggestion is to keep it simple and purchase quality where it matters, like your brushes, canvas and paint (a premium quality easel will not make you a better painter).
"If Michelangelo had possessed only a broom and a bucket of mud, he could still have painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and it would have been just as much of a masterpiece!"
As for the colors, I suggest you start with a limited palette which has red, blue, yellow (the primary colors), white and an earth tone like raw umber. Here is a good starter palette:
I go into more detail on painting supplies in this guide.
Step 4. Get Familiar with the Fundamentals of Art
I am a big believer in learning efficiently rather than just putting in time for the sake of it. You could practice for years and hardly improve if you don't know what you are doing. This is where the fundamentals of art come into play - color, value, composition, edges, brushwork and technique.
These are what I consider to be the core pillars of painting. It is important that you get familiar with them early, as they will help you understand what exactly is going on when your brush hits the canvas. Learning these fundamental areas will benefit every stroke you make.
Here is a summary of the fundamentals:
Color: We are all familiar with color, so much so that we take it for granted. Few people fully understand and appreciate what color actually is.
I find it easier to comprehend color in terms of hue, saturation and value. These are the three elements which make up a color.
Hue refers to where a color is located on the color wheel. Red, blue, yellow, green – these are all different hues. Saturation refers to how rich, intense or vibrant a color is. Value refers to how light or dark a color is.
Learn these three terms and learn them well, as you will encounter them with every artwork you create.
Childe Hassam, The Aquarium with Gold Fish, 1912
Value: Value is an element of color, but it is generally considered as a separate fundamental area due to its importance to painting. Every color - red, blue, green, orange, purple - has an underlying value somewhere between white and black. For example, take the following painting my Claude Monet.
Claude Monet, Fishing Boats, 1886
If I take color out of the equation, we are left with nothing but the different values ranging from light gray to almost black. This painting has a strong value structure, as you can clearly make sense of it without color. A strong value structure is not essential by any means (just look at many of the great Impressionist paintings) but it certainly helps in giving your painting a solid foundation. If you paint with accurate values, then you have more leeway with your use of brushwork, color and detail.
Composition: You will hear all kinds of complex terms, “rules” and theories
used to explain composition in painting. Things like…
But really, there are only two questions which are important for
creating great compositions.
What do you want to say?
How are you going to say it?
That is it. None of the other stuff matters all that much.
Let’s dive into those questions a bit deeper…
What do you want to say? In other words, if your painting could
speak, what would it say? If you don’t know, then you are working
Also, this does not need to be some deep and philosophical
statement. It could be as simple as…. “I want to capture the way light is bouncing off the river surface".
But it is important that you know what you want to say - a big idea you want to communicate.
How are you going to say it? Or, how are you going to arrange all
the elements in your painting to work in harmony and communicate
what you want to say. Think of all your individual strokes, shapes, lines, colors and textures as tools at your disposal.
Claude Monet, Etretat the Aval Door Fishing Boats Leaving the Harbour, 1885
Edges: An edge is what separates two shapes. It can be either hard, soft or lost. Hard edges have a clean transition between the two shapes; soft edges have a smooth transition; and lost edges are so smooth you can barely see them.
Dan Scott, Three Boats at Kingfisher Bay, 2016
Brushwork: The physical marks left by your brush (or your palette knife, finger, or anything else you use to paint with). This is an overlooked aspect of painting, which is odd because it is what makes a painting look like a painting. If not for brushwork, we may as well just take a photograph, or practice digital art rather than traditional art.
Dan Scott, Honeymoon Bay, Tasmania, 2019 - Close-Up
Technique: How well you are able to perform certain actions. Good technique will develop over time as you gain experience and become more comfortable with your brush and paints. But you need to be careful of any bad habits which you may pick up along the way. This could be the way you hold your brush, or the types of strokes you make. Bad habits can be incredibly difficult to fix after you have been practicing them for a number of years.
To develop good painting technique, I suggest you carefully watch masters paint. Observe how they hold their brush, how they apply paint to canvas, how they mix colors, and so on.
Step 5. Decide What You Want to Paint First
One of the most challenging aspects of painting happens before you pick up your brush – selecting a subject to paint.
The perfect subject should be inspiring and challenging. You should feel the need to paint it.
Here are some questions to help you determine if a subject is worth painting:
Is there a "big why"? A single idea which makes you want to paint it.
Is there a clear and identifiable color harmony?
Does the subject have an interesting design (think about the arrangement of shapes, forms, lines and colors)?
Is there anything you can do to improve on the subject?
Are you capable of painting it?
Do you have the supplies required to paint it?
What problems will you encounter painting it?
Does the subject provide you with opportunities to challenge yourself and demonstrate your abilities?
Does the subject inspire you?
Can you see a finished painting at the end of it all? If so, do you like what you see?
Ask yourself these questions next time you are not sure if a subject is worth painting.
Note: These questions are not necessarily there to be answered, but rather to make you question and explore the subject before you commit to something more.
As an example, the following photo is something I would like to paint. Here is why:
I love the contrast between the light greens getting hit by light and the foreground in shadow. This is what I would focus on capturing if I were to paint it - my big idea.
The composition is interesting.
There is a pleasing balance between active and quiet places.
Nicolai Fechin was a master Russian artist known for his dynamic paintings and intricate drawings. His art is a stunning mix of academic brilliance and creative exploration.
Nicolai Fechin, Self-Portrait
“Fine painting is simply a matter of putting the right colors in the right places on canvas.” Nicolai Fechin
Key Facts About Nicolai Fechin
Nicolai Fechin was born on 26 November 1881 in Kazan, Russia.
He was introduced to art from a young age, learning how to carve from his father and also creating drawing designs for the construction of altars.
At the age of 13, he enrolled in the newly-opened Kazan Art School, a branch of the Imperial Academy of Arts. Fechin ended up marrying and having a child with the daughter of the Kazan Art School director.
He was subsequently admitted to study at the Imperial Academy with artists like Ilya Repin. I can certainly see similarities between the works of Repin and Fechin.
His final painting whilst studying at the Imperial Academy won him the Prix de Rome, which allowed him to travel and paint through Europe.
In 1910 he won gold at the annual International Exhibition in Munich.
He eventually returned to his home in Kazan to teach at the Kazan Art School, of which he eventually became the director.
He passed away on 5 October 1955 at the age of 73 in Santa Monica, United States.
The largest collection of his work is at the Fechin Center in Kazan.
A Closer Look at Some of Nicolai Fechin's Paintings
Fechin's paintings are a demonstration of his academic training, with masterful use of drawing, value and composition. What makes his art unique is the way he combined his academic mastery with painterly brushwork and a level of abstraction. He was clearly trying to push the boundaries of what is possible with paint and brush.
In his painting below, notice the contrast of the delicate tones and details used for the subject's face, against the painterly brushwork and abstraction for the rest of the painting. The subject's clothing almost blends in with the wall in the background.
Nicolai Fechin, Lady in Lilac, 1908
Fechin used painterly brushwork for the whole painting below, including the subject's face. The solid fundamentals of this painting allowed Fechin to be more rough and expressive with his brushwork. Also, notice how there are two strong value masses - the dark bottom half and the light top half, with a few dark or colorful accents strategically positioned throughout the painting.
Nicolai Fechin, Portrait of N. V. Sapozhnikova, 1915
The level of detail and control used in the painting below is truly remarkable. The girl alone would have been a challenge to paint, let alone the fruit on the table, the flower pots on the window shelf or the detailing of the tablecloth.
Nicolai Fechin, Portrait of Varya Adoratskaya, 1914
The painting below is in stark contrast, with Fechin using abstraction, expressive brushwork and a cluttered composition.
Nicolai Fechin, Pouring, 1914
Here are some of Fechin's elegant drawings. Notice in particular his powerful use of line.
Nicolai Fechin Quotes
The following quotes provide some fantastic insight into Fechin's ideas and mindset about art. I suggest you read each quote as there is a wealth of knowledge here.
“As a matter of fact an artist has to deal with only three basic colors: red, blue, yellow (all the rest are combinations of these fundamental colors). Everyone knows this, but few pay attention to the fact. Thus the first step for the artist to learn to see these primary colors and to distinguish them separately one from the other.”
"To avoid murky results, it is necessary to learn how to use the three basic colors and to apply them, layer upon layer, in such a way that the underlying color shows through the next application. For instance, one can use blue paint, apply over it some red in such a manner that the blue and the red are seen simultaneously and thus produce the impression of a violet vibration. If, in the same careful manner, one puts upon his first combination a yellow color, a complete harmonization is reached - the colors are not mixed, but built one upon the other, retaining the full intensity of their vibrations."
On technique, style and ideas...
“... a high degree of expertise in technique has always had, and always will have, a predominant place in art. The subject, in itself, has value only according to the mode of the day. Tomorrow it will be superseded by a new fashion or fad. With the passing of time, the subject loses much of its meaning. But the fine execution of that subject retains its value...”
"The appearance of a truly new idea in art is always valuable, but only when it aims at fulfilling itself in an accomplished piece of work."
“The more consummate his technique, the easier the artist will find it to free himself from all dependence upon a subject. What he uses to fill his canvas with is not so vital. What is vital is how he does it. It is sad if an artist becomes a slave to the object he seeks to portray. The portrayed object must serve as nothing more than an excuse to fill a canvas. Only when the subject passes through the filter of his creative faculty does his work acquire value for an artist...”
“As soon as an original idea is formed – what the artist wants to portray and by what concrete means – he must begin to structure, to organize. A method for learning the creation of "form" lies in the creation process itself. In my opinion, creation of form cannot be based on distribution of light and shadow alone, as light is constantly changing and it is only an impression of form, but not form itself.”
On learning art...
“No one can teach you how to paint and how to draw except you yourself. You cannot learn how to paint by watching a well-trained master painting, until you yourself, have learned how to paint with some understanding first. Only by the path of much practice and experience can mature results be reached.”
"...the construction of form remains fundamental – of any form, be it natural or imaginary. The principle of construction remains the same, whatever the form. So the artist should begin by studying the construction of form.”
“My way of drawing and painting can be taught only through direct visual perception and it is almost impossible to describe it. An attitude toward painting and a few technical fundamentals can be discussed, however - but always with a warning not to take my observations in an overly literal or rigidly set manner...”
“The artist must never forget that he is dealing with the entire canvas, and not with any one section of it. Regardless of what he sets out to paint, the problem remains one and the same. With his own creative originality, he must fill in his canvas and make of it an organic whole. There must not be any particularly favored spot in the painting...”
"Also for myself, I do not like to use medium. This dissolves the paints too much. The pigments mix up together, do not retain their individual distinctness and thus again lose much of their fresh intensity."
Nicolai Fechin, Flower Girl, 1908
Thanks for Reading!
Thanks for reading and I hope you learned something new about Nicolai Fechin. Few artists have been able to successfully combine academic painting with such clever use of painterly brushwork and abstraction, so there is much to learn from him. If you have any questions or thoughts, please share in the comment section below.
Chiaroscuro refers to the use of light and dark to create the illusion of three-dimensional volume on a flat surface. The term translates to "light-dark"; chiaro meaning bright or clear and scuro meaning dark or obscure.
The term is also used in a more narrow sense to describe artworks which display an extreme contrast between light and dark, like the painting below.
Michelangelo Merisi De Caravaggio, Saint Jerome Writing, 1607
Chiaroscuro can be traced back to the work of Apollodorus Skiagraphos, a Greek painter who used hatched shadows to suggest volume. None of Skiagraphos’ works survived, but examples of his skiagraphia or “shadow-painting" technique can be seen in other Hellenistic artworks such as the “Stag Hunt,” a 4th century BCE carpet mosaic from a wealthy Macedonian home.
Gnosis, Stag Hunt Mosaic, c.300 BCE
Chiaroscuro During the Renaissance
By the 15th and 16th centuries, the interest in all things classical saw Renaissance artists adopt and improve on earlier shading techniques. The first Renaissance master to develop existing shading techniques to achieve a true chiaroscuro effect was Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci brought life and volume to his drawings, starting with the darks on colored paper, then moving toward the lighter tones, and finally adding the highlights, usually with white gouache or chalk. Below is a great example of this. Observe the careful rendering in value from dark to light.
Leonardo da Vinci, Virgin and Child with St Anne and John the Baptist, c.1500 CE
Da Vinci used charcoal or black chalk to sketch the subjects on brown tinted paper. He created the illusion of shadows (in the folds of their clothing, on their faces and necks, etc.) by gradually building up lighter and lighter layers of chalk. He used white chalk to highlight areas of importance, such as the child and the other subjects' faces. If you look at the bottom of the artwork, you can see parts of the unfinished drawing, without any rendering.
Development of Oil Paint
Renaissance artists were interested in reproducing the world they saw around them. Architect Filippo Brunelleschi’s discovery of linear perspective gave artists a formula to create the illusion of depth and realistic proportion on a flat surface. But an equally important discovery during this period was the benefit of oil paint. Before the Renaissance, the most popular medium was tempera paint, a quick-drying medium created from egg yolk. The medium is difficult to blend due to its quick-drying time and it is not suited to layering because of its opacity.
Oil paint, which uses pigments ground in an oil medium such as linseed oil, dry more slowly. This slow drying time, combined with its translucence, make it possible to build up thin layers of paint (known as glazing). This made it much easier for Renaissance artists to blend and build up gradual tones of color - helping chiaroscuro become a viable technique to model realistic forms.
The 17th-century Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio took chiaroscuro to the extreme, often blacking out large portions of the background and brightly illuminating large foreground subjects. This combination of using high contrast with a single focused light source had an incredibly dramatic effect.
In the painting below, the subjects are illuminated from a single light source coming from the right of the painting. The drama in the scene is intensified by the stark contrast between the deep shadows and the warm highlights and midtones. The light focuses your attention on the subjects seated at the table.
Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1599-1600
The use of large patches of black background combined with brightly illuminated subjects is so closely associated with Caravaggio’s work that it is termed caravaggism. Another term for this style of chiaroscuro is tenebrism, which comes from the Italian term tenebroso, meaning dark, gloomy or mysterious.
Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1610
In the painting above, David takes on a luminous appearance as light falls on him from the left of the painting. He was painted with soft tones and edges. Also, notice how the parts of David which are in shadow gently blend in with the black background.
By contrast, Goliath’s severed head, with ribbons of blood still streaming from his neck, is thrust, slightly over-scale, into the lower right foreground. The light falls more directly on Goliath, harshly illuminating the shadows of his hair, his creased brow and his sunken eyes.
With the painting placed just above eye level, a viewer standing in front of it will be looking almost directly into the face of Goliath's green-tinged, oversized face.
Caravaggio’s tenebrism was so successful that many enthusiastic artists began to mimic his style. These artists became known as the “Caravaggisti.” The Caravaggisti used a stark combination of dark and light for several purposes - to model three-dimensional volumes, to draw attention to certain areas of the painting and to create a sense of drama.
Below is an example of Carvaggisti work. The subject, Judith, holds her hand out to block the light that streams in from the left. The result is a stark curve of shadow cast against her own face.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant, 1625
Other artists took a more delicate approach to chiaroscuro - using it to create a calm and reflective mood. The Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn is renowned for his subtle handling of the chiaroscuro technique.
In the self-portrait below, Rembrandt used painterly brushwork to explore the relationship between light and shadow. Unlike many other portraits, most of Rembrandt's face is in shadow, with only one side of his face slightly exposed to light. Also, the background is painted with midtones, rather than deep black like many of the other paintings in this post.
Rembrandt, Self Portrait as a Young Man, 1628
Gerard van Honthorst is another Dutch master who explored the use of chiaroscuro. In the painting below, the subjects are brought forward from the darkness and your attention is focused on the child, who appears to be glowing with light. The other subjects are basked in a more subtle light, with the man in the background only just emerging from the darkness.
Gerard van Honthorst, The Adoration of the Child, 1620
Chiaroscuro by Candlelight
French artist Georges de La Tour often used candles as the main light source for his paintings. In the painting below, he used candlelight bouncing off a mirror to illuminate a seated Mary Magdalene.
Georges de La Tour, The Penitent Magdalene, 1625-1650
In this painting, you can feel the warmth of the candlelight. The paper in the subject's hand glows like burnished gold.
Georges de La Tour, Saint Jerome Reading
There are many other artists who made creative and accomplished use of chiaroscuro.
Joseph Wright of Derby used chiaroscuro when painting scenes of scientific interest during the industrial revolution. In his painting below, an orrery (a mechanical model of the solar system) is illuminated by an oil lamp that is placed at the center of the model to represent the sun.
Wright of Derby, The Orrery, 1766
English artist Sir Joshua Reynolds used chiaroscuro to lend a regal quality to his eighteenth-century portraits.
Joshua Reynolds, Lord Heathfield, 1787
Francesco Goya adopted Caravaggio’s more dramatic tenebrism to depict the tension and heightened emotion associated with modern warfare.
Goya, The Third of May 1808, 1814
Chiaroscuro is also used in a variety of other mediums, such as photography and cinematography.
Some of the shading techniques used for effective chiaroscuro include hatching, shading with parallel lines and layering tones of the same color.
For building up tonal gradations, it is usually most effective to work dark to light.
For more drama, you may want to consider using only one strong light source.
Our eyes are naturally drawn to the lightest areas, so these tend to be the focal points in the painting.
The level of contrast between light and dark helps determine the mood of the painting.
Tenebrism, which refers to particularly high contrasts between the dark and light areas of the image, can be used to create a strong sense of drama.
Compositional choices, such as positioning the subjects prominently in the foreground, can heighten the effects of chiaroscuro.
In this post I take a closer look at one of my favorite paintings, Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet - the painting which gave Impressionism its name.
Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1872
Key Facts About Impression, Sunrise
Impression, Sunrise was painted in 1872, when Monet was 32.
It depicts the port of Le Havre in France, where Monet grew up. It is one of a series of paintings based on Le Havre painted around the same time. Below are two of the other paintings in the series:
Claude Monet, Sunrise, Marine, 1873
Claude Monet, Le Bassin Du Commerce, Le Havre, 1874
The series was exhibited in 1874 at the "Exhibition of the Impressionists". Some of the other artists who exhibited alongside Monet were Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Paul Cézanne, Berthe Morisot and Edgar Degas.
Art critic Louis Leroy wrote about the exhibition in the newspaper Le Charivari and used the term "Impressionism" to mock the loose and relaxed nature of the paintings. But, despite the intended criticism, the artists adopted the term as the name of the movement, Impressionism. Here is an extract from Leroy's article, which takes the perspective of two skeptical viewers discussing Monet's painting:
"Impression I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it — and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape."
Monet named the painting based on his loose depiction of the port. He explained:
"They asked me for a title for the catalogue, it couldn't really be taken for a view of Le Havre, and I said: 'Put Impression.'"
Color and Light
The focus of this painting is almost entirely on color and light. The brushwork is loose, the detail is simple and the composition is fairly basic. But the use of color to depict the light is enough to make this painting work.
Most of the painting is made up of dull oranges, blues and greens, which form the backdrop for the dark green boats and the vivid orange sunset.
In my opinion, the most interesting part of the painting is the use of vivid orange to paint light. The sun and its reflection really jump out from the rest of the dull tones. Before you continue reading, have a think about how light or dark the orange sunset and its reflection are compared to the surrounding colors.
The answer is they are almost the exact same value, as revealed by the grayscale image below. There is basically no value contrast, only saturation and hue contrast. The dark boat, on the other hand, represents a strong value contrast from the surrounding colors.
Whenever we are painting an actual light source (like the sun, a lamp or street light), a dilemma we face as artists is that our paints are not able to hit the same intensity of light itself. The other dilemma, especially for painting a warm light source like the sun, is that our colors tend to get weaker and cooler with the addition of white. What Monet shows with this painting is just how powerful saturation contrast can be.
The brushwork is loose and fluent, as if Monet painted this without hesitation. There is a contrast between the thin paint used for the background and the thick, impasto paint used for bold accents (the boats, the sun and its reflection).
Below is a close-up of the sky. To me, it looks like a build up of thin washes, with some vague details painted on top using (I assume) a wet on wet technique.
The dark green boat seems to have been painted with just a few bold strokes with a relatively large brush (you can see the individual brush marks in the close-up below). More aggressive brushwork is used for the sunset reflection.
Also, notice how sunset reflection was not painted with a solid orange color. There are touches of unmixed white and various orange tones in there. This gives each stroke an interesting, broken color effect.
Monet used a similar technique at the bottom of the painting with the dashes of dark green. This suggests movement in the water and adds to the depth in the painting as they are only present in the foreground.
The brushwork in the sky follows a downward curve which gives the painting a sense of movement and keeps your attention within the painting. Had Monet painted the sky with neat, horizontal brushwork, it would look much more static.
The composition is fairly basic, but there are some important aspects:
The focal points are clearly the dark boats, the sunset and its reflection. Everything else is really just there to create a sense of context and atmosphere.
The focal points are positioned off-center around the middle.
There is an interesting clash between light and dark where the sunset reflection meets the dark green shadows. The sunset reflection represents a strong verticle line in the painting, despite it being made up of short, horizontal dashes. The dark green shadows in the foreground are spaced out and as a whole, represent a loose horizontal line.
The horizon line barely exists. There are just some buildings and faded blue shapes in the distance which suggest where land meets the sky.
The horizon line slightly above center. Many artists avoid placing the horizon line directly in the center as it tends to appear unnatural.
Depth is created by the gradual fading of objects as they recede into the distance. Also, the relatively cool colors used around the horizon line push that area back in perspective, whilst the warm colors used for the top of the sky come forward.
Key Takeaways from Impression, Sunrise
Value (how light or dark a color is) is often taught as being the most important element of a color. But this painting by Monet demonstrates just how powerful saturation contrast can be (just look at the contrast between the orange sun and the dull, surrounding colors).
If you want to draw attention to a particular area in your painting, then simplify the surrounding areas. In this painting, Monet draws your attention towards the vibrant oranges and dark greens, which stand out from the dull and simplified background.
Your initial impression of a subject is a powerful thing. Learn to capture it by painting with instinct. I always try to start my paintings with loose brushwork to capture my first impression of the subject. I then refine from there if necessary.
Sfumato is a painting technique which involves blending the edge between colors so that there is a soft transition. The term "sfumato" is Italian which translates to soft, vague or blurred.
The technique was popularized by the old masters of the Renaissance art movement, like Leonardo da Vinci, who used it to create atmospheric and almost dreamy depictions. Da Vinci described the technique as...
"... without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane".
It is considered to be one of four painting techniques used by the old Renaissance masters, with the others being cangiante, chiaroscuro and unione.
Examples of Sfumato
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most famous examples of the sfumato technique in action, particularly around the subject's face.
Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c.1503–06
In the close-up below, notice the soft transitions between light and dark tones and the lack of hard edges. The result is a very smooth appearance. The opposite of this would be the broken color used by the Impressionists, which featured thick texture and rough edges.
Below is another example of sfumato by da Vinci. The soft transitions in color used around the face depict a sense of youth and innocence about the subject. There is also a powerful contrast between these soft transitions and the sharp edge which separates the subject from the black background.
Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine, 1489-1490
In the painting below, sfumato is used to gently bring the subject forward from the black background.
Giorgione, Youth Holding an Arrow, 1505
Tips for Using Sfumato
Here are some tips for using sfumato in your paintings:
The technique is often used to soften the transition between light and dark areas, but you could also use it to transition between different colors of a similar value.
In the above examples by the old masters, the technique is a key feature of the paintings. But you could also use the technique in less prominent ways, like to create a sense of atmosphere in your background.
It is generally considered an oil painting technique, but you could also use it with other mediums. It just favors oils because of the slow drying time.
For a smoother transition between colors, use a soft-haired brush (preferably natural hair like mink).
Here is the full-sized reference photo if you want to try painting this for yourself.
It All Starts with a Blank Canvas
Every painting starts the same way - a blank canvas sitting on my easel. From the moment I put down the first strokes of color, it starts to take on its own form.
Tip: If you do not intend on framing your canvas and you do not want to paint around the edges, then wrap the edges with craft tape. Once you have finished the painting, you can remove the tape to reveal a clean, professional-looking edge. You can see this in the photo later in the post.
I apply burnt umber straight from a tube to the canvas.
I then use solvent plus a paper towel to wipe it over the surface. Because I am painting a landscape, I am not worried about making the surface smooth and even. A rough, broken surface adds to the appeal of the painting.
I then carved out some of the basic shapes in the wet paint using a clean paper towel dabbed in some solvent.
Blocking in the Major Color Shapes
After allowing the stained canvas to dry for about 30 minutes, I proceeded to block in some of the major color shapes. My goal with this stage of the painting was to capture my initial impression of the subject as quickly as possible, before I started to get bogged down with the smaller details. My brushwork was rapid and my color selections were based mostly on instinct.
I started with the oranges and reds for the rocks and parts of the mountain.
I then moved into the blues, greens and purples. The photo below gives you a glimpse of how rough my brushwork was to begin with.
I gradually filled the canvas with color, leaving the sky until last.
After painting in the sky, the whole canvas was filled with color. Notice how I made some adjustments to the composition by cropping some of the blue sky out of the reference photo at the top and enlarging the cloud on the right.
Below is a photo of the taped edges I mentioned at the start of this post.
Refining and Building up Form
With all the major color shapes in place, I go around the painting and refine the forms. Because I started the painting using mostly instinct, there are of course some errors which needed to be fixed or at least cleaned up.
Below, you can see I started to build up form in the rocks and the mountain in the distance.
Below is a look at my set-up. Here are some things to note:
The paper towel is the unsung hero of my painting supplies. I keep a roll handy at all times.
I also have a cleaning sponge next to the paper towel on the ledge of my easel. I find this handy for wiping any excess solvent or paint from my brush between strokes.
My palette and any other supplies are on a home-made desk which I can move around the studio (you can see part of it on the left of the photo).
Here is a look at the mess of color on my palette.
Adding Highlights, Accents and Finer Details
The final stages of the painting involve adding highlights, dark or colorful accents and any of the finer details.
During this stage, I spent most of the time trying to inject light into the painting (so to speak) and getting everything to work together. If you were a fly on the wall of my studio watching me paint, you would see me constantly stepping back and viewing the painting from different perspectives. I do not spend much time looking at the painting up close.
I am careful not to tunnel-vision the smaller details and lose sight of the big picture. This is always a risk during the later stages of the painting, when I am using smaller brushes and adding the final (and often tedious) details.
I spent a lot of time working on the water, as I really wanted to pick up the choppy mix of blues and greens. I worked my brush around the wet paint, trying to reiterate the ebbs and flows of the water.
I gradually built up layers of broken color in the water, drawing inspiration from many of the great Impressionists. I also made several changes to the mountains and sky to make sure they fit in with the rest of the painting.
Signing the Finished Painting
Whenever I think a painting is finished, I do not sign it immediately; I leave it on the easel for a couple of days. When I walk past the painting, I tend to pick up small annoyances which I change on the spot. I consider the painting complete when I am able to walk past without feeling the need to change anything.
This painting sat on my easel for a good two days until I felt it was complete. I signed the painting in the bottom left corner with a dark orange.
All up this painting took about a week, spaced out over numerous sessions.
Dan Scott, Honeymoon Bay, Tasmania, 2019
Below are some detail shots of the painting (taken on a different camera, so the colors appear slightly different from the photo above).
You will encounter some difficulties of scale when working on larger pieces. First, it can be a challenge to capture your initial impression of the subject because there is so much surface to cover. As Joaquín Sorolla once said:
"The great difficulty with large canvases is that they should by right be painted as fast as a sketch. By speed only can you gain an appearance of fleeting effect. But to paint a three yard canvas with the same dispatch as one of ten inches is well-nigh impossible.”
The second difficulty occurs if you are painting alla prima (wet on wet), you may not be able to finish the painting in a single session and therefore some of the paint may dry between sessions. This means you may need to paint both wet on wet and wet on dry. If you are not careful, your painting may look incoherent due to the different techniques used.
One of the biggest challenges in painting is getting everything to fit together. Painting the perfect mountain, or the perfect wave in the ocean is pointless if they don't fit. In this painting, I made several adjustments to the sky and mountains to make sure they fit in with everything else.
Don't be afraid to adjust the composition as I did with the cloud and sky in this painting.
Thanks for Reading!
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this post! If you have any questions or thoughts, please share in the comment section below.
Anders Zorn was a remarkable Swedish painter known mostly for his nude female portraits painted with virtuoso brushwork and luminous colors. He is often referred to as the "Swedish Impressionist".
In this post I provide some of the key facts about his life and art, breakdown his style and technique and take a closer look at some of his stunning paintings.
Anders Zorn, Self-Portrait, 1889
Key Facts About Anders Zorn
Zorn was born on 18 February 1860 in Sweden.
He demonstrated a remarkable skill from an early age and gained attention for his depictions of horses and human figures which he carved in wood. He initially planned on being a sculptor, but ended up favoring painting.
He studied at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts from 1875 to 1880, but his attendance was poor and he later admitted that he did not have much to learn from the Academy.
In 1880, Zorn exhibited his watercolor painting, In Mourning, which depicts a young girl under a veil. The painting is a sensitive display of colors and brushwork which paved the way for Zorn's prolific career. He was praised for his skill by the public and critics, including leading Swedish critic Carl Nyholm who praised Zorn's work in the Official Swedish Government Gazette.
Anders Zorn, In Mourning, 1880
He went on to paint many of society's leading figures, including King Oscar II of Sweden, Theodore Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland and William H. Taft.
Anders Zorn, U.S. President William Howard Taft, 1911
He is renowned for his depictions of nude female figures. With his soft edges and loose brushwork, the figures seem to dissolve into the surrounding environment.
Anders Zorn, Havsnymf, 1894
At the age of 29, he was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur at the Exposition Universelle (a Legion of Honour at the Paris World Fair).
He gained international success for his watercolors, oil paintings and also etchings. Below is an etching of him and his wife Emma which demonstrates a remarkable likeness with just light and dark tones.
Anders Zorn, Zorn and His Wife, 1890
By his mid-20s, Zorn exuded self-confidence, claiming to have surpassed his predecessors and contemporaries.
“…I never spent much time thinking about others’ art. I felt that if I wanted to become something, then I had to go after nature with all my interest and energy, seek what I loved about it, and desire to steal its secret and beauty. I was entitled to become as great as anyone else, and in that branch of art so commanded by me, watercolour painting, I considered myself to have already surpassed all predecessors and contemporaries…” Anders Zorn (from Anders Zorn: Sweden's Master Painter).
In some of his paintings, he made use of an extremely limited palette which included just yellow ochre, ivory black, vermilion and titanium white (the "Zorn palette").
He established the Bellman Prize in 1920, which is a prize for "an outstanding Swedish poet" awarded by the Swedish Academy. The prize was funded by the Emma and Anders Zorn's Donation Fund Foundation.
In his later years, he suffered blood poisoning and died on 22 August 1920, aged 60.
Anders Zorn's Atelier at His House, ZorngåRden in Mora
Style and Technique Breakdown
Zorn combined loose, virtuoso brushwork with skillful use of drawing, value and edges. His paintings appear incredibly realistic, yet they have a sense of effortlessness about them, similar to the paintings of Joaquín Sorolla and Sir Arthur Streeton.
The painting below has a very painterly feel to it. Here are some things to note:
If you look up close, the strokes appear broad and general. But as a whole, it appears incredibly realistic.
Notice how the edges around the subject's main hand in the middle and his right arm are relatively soft compared to the rest of the painting. This suggests movement as the subject plays the violin.
The dark parts of the subject dissolve into the background.
The vivid red draws your attention towards the subjects head.
Anders Zorn, Musician, 1914
In relation to color, Zorn is renowned for his use of a limited palette of colors. His "Zorn palette" is taught in many of the top art schools to help students learn about color theory and mixing. However, it is a common misconception that he only used these colors. Many of his paintings suggest the use of other auxiliary colors. Either way, his paintings for the most part show a restrained and controlled use of color.
The painting below features a relatively limited palette of yellows, reds and oranges, but he was able to make those colors really "glow". It just goes to show what is possible when you put the right colors in the right places.
Anders Zorn, A Girl with a Dog, 1884
Zorn's compositions often appear natural and organic, with his subjects seemingly unaware of his presence, going about their day-to-day lives. He clearly had an eye for composition and painting in general. Many of his paintings break the standard "rules" of composition, but they still seem to work.
Anders Zorn, Bread Baking, 1889
A Closer Look at Some of Anders Zorn's Paintings
Park Alhambra, 1887
This is a delicate watercolor painting which features a couple sharing a kiss, a wondering cat and an unusual composition. The couple is tucked in the corner of the painting and there is a sense of calmness, unaware they are the subject of the painting. In terms of technique, it seems Zorn laid down general blocks of color then went over the top with the more intricate details (branches, flowers, highlights and accents).
Anders Zorn, Park Alhambra, 1887
Our Daily Bread, 1886
Our Daily Bread is another intricate watercolor painting. The level of complexity shown in this painting led me to believe it was done in oils on first glance. Zorn clearly had a remarkable level of control and eye for detail. The painting features Zorn's mother sitting at the edge of a path cooking potatoes for the harvesters. She appears to have a strained look on her face. Notice how your eyes are drawn towards the mother with the heightened level of contrast, color and detail compared to the rest of the painting.
Anders Zorn, Our Daily Bread, 1886
Emma Zorn Reading, 1887
Here is a portrait of Zorn's wife, Emma whilst she was reading. As with many of his portraits, the subject is just going about her life, seemingly unaware of Zorn's presence. Much of the detail has been simplified; notice how he did not attempt to paint the words on the paper and how the wall in the background is nothing but general color shapes. There also seems to be a fish tank in the background with bright, orange goldfish. This contains your attention on the right side of the painting where the subject is also positioned.
Anders Zorn, Emma Zorn Reading, 1887
Castles in the Air, 1885
This delicate watercolor painting features an unusual, upward look at the subject (Zorn's wife, Emma) holding a Japanese parasol. The couple married in October 1885, so this may have been painted on their honeymoon. The light is shining through the parasol, bringing to life its decorations.
Anders Zorn, Castles in the Air, 1885
Nude Under a Fir, 1892
Here is one of Zorn's many paintings featuring nude female figures in the landscape. The contrast between the lights and darks in this painting are quite stunning; you really get a feel of the bright light from the sun. The subject is painted with soft edges and she seems to blend in with the surrounding environment, rather than stand out from it.
Thanks for taking the time to read this post and I hope you learned something new! If you found the post useful, please share. Also, don't forget to subscribe and get my free Painting For Beginners Guide and read my about page if you want to learn more about my story.
In this post I take a closer look at the Mont Sainte-Victoire series by Paul Cézanne. Mont Sainte-Victoire is a mountain in France which overlooks Aix-en-Provence (the town where Cézanne was born). Cézanne painted it on numerous occasions during his career. The series not only provides an interesting take on landscape painting, but it also documents Cézanne's development as an artist during his lifetime.
“Cézanne was my one and only master... He was like the father of us all.” Pablo Picasso
Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley, 1882-1885
Key Facts About the Mont Sainte-Victoire Series
The series was painted between 1882 and 1906 and features various perspectives of Mont Sainte-Victoire.
It is considered part of Post-Impressionism.
In a letter to Émile Zola dated 14 April 1878, Cézanne described Mont Sainte-Victoire as “beau motif (beautiful motif)”, after viewing it from the train which runs through the Arc River Valley. You can see the train line in some of the paintings in the series (like the one at the start of this post).
The series was painted after Cézanne had become frustrated with Impressionism and sought "to make of Impressionism something solid and durable, like the art of museums."
Cézanne featured Mont Sainte-Victoire in a less important background role in an earlier work, Bathers at Rest, 1977.
Below is a photo of the real Mont Sainte-Victoire, along with one of Cézanne's paintings for comparison.
Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine, c.1887
Here is a photo by Ker-Xavier Roussel of Cézanne in front of his easel (most likely) painting the mountain.
Ker-Xavier Roussel, Photo of Paul Cezanne, 1906
Color and Light
As Cézanne painted this series over many years, the colors he used changed with the different conditions. In the painting below, he made use of ochres and dull greens to paint what appears to be a dry landscape. In many of his other paintings in the series he used richer greens and blues.
In the painting below, there is a pleasant contrast in color temperature between the warm foreground and the cool mountain and sky in the distance. This helps to create a sense of atmospheric perspective. Also, notice the use of common colors between the mountain and sky. If it were not for the outline of the mountain, it would be difficult to tell where the mountain stops and where the sky starts.
Paul Cézanne, Montagne Sainte-Victoire, 1890
Below is one of Cézanne's later paintings in the series. Richer and darker colors were used in this dramatic version. The yellow building is the Château Noir, a place where Cézanne frequently painted as it provided him with a clear view of the mountain.
Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire and Château Noir, 1904-1906
Use of Geometric Forms to Paint the Landscape
Many of the paintings in the series feature an interesting use of geometric forms to depict the organic landscape, particularly the later paintings in the series. The painting below is a great example of this. This emphasis on geometric forms paved the way for Cubism.
Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1902-1904
Watercolor Paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire
Most of the paintings in the series were created using oils, but Cézanne also painted some looser and almost unfinished versions using watercolors. I always find it interesting how much an artist's style can change simply with a change of medium. This is because different mediums tend to favor different aspects of painting. Oils are slow-drying and malleable; whereas watercolors are untamed and delicate.
Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1887
The painting below has a very ethereal feel to it, with the transparent greens and blues. The blues in particular are quite stunning. As with most of his paintings, Cézanne used colorful blues and greens in his darks rather than resorting to browns and blacks.
Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1906
A Development in Style
In my opinion, one of the most interesting aspects of this series is how it shows Cézanne's development in his artistic style. Here is one of his earlier paintings in the series created in 1885. It was painted in a more reserved style with relatively soft strokes, smooth gradations and accurate detail.
Paul Cézanne, The Plain by Mont Sainte-Victoire, View from Valcros, 1885
Cézanne painted the following in 1902. As you can see, the colors are richer and the forms are slightly distorted. But the mountain appears grander and more imposing (which may be closer to Cézanne idea and vision).
Paul Cézanne, Road at the Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1902
By the end of this series, Cézanne painted the landscape with a strong emphasis on geometric forms and bold colors; far from the more reserved paintings he started the series with. Less realistic but perhaps closer to how Cézanne viewed the mountain and landscape.
Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1904-1906 (4)
Here is what appears to be an unfinished painting in the series. It gives you an idea of how Cézanne went about painting the landscape. It seems he started by painting in the darks and midtones using geometric shapes.
Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, Unfinished, 1906
Key Takeaways from the Mont Sainte-Victoire Series
Here are some of the key takeaways from the Mont Sainte-Victoire series which you could incorporate into your own paintings:
Painting the same subject over and over again allows you to explore the way color and light work in different conditions. It also allows you to really dive deep into a certain subject. Claude Monet also did this on many occasions, like with his series on water lilies, haystacks and the Rouen Cathedral.
Try not to trap yourself into a particular style. Always feel free to make adjustments and push the boundaries.
Using geometric forms to paint the organic landscape can produce some very interesting results.
Different mediums allow you to capture different aspects of a subject. If you painted a subject using oils, then also try painting it in watercolors as Cézanne did in this series.
Thanks for taking the time to read this post and I hope you learned something new! If you found the post useful, please share. Also, don't forget to subscribe and get my free Painting For Beginners Guide and read my about page if you want to learn more about my story.