“For me ... a painting should be something to cherish, joyous and pretty, yes pretty!” Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Let's take a look at how to paint like Pierre-Auguste Renoir. I've never been much a fan of Renoir's work. That was until I saw one of his paintings at the European Masters exhibition. A Young Girl With Daisies (see below). It captivated me as a great painting should and it prompted me to take another look at Renoir's work.
This wispy brushwork gives Renoir's work an almost ethereal feel, as if it's part of a dream or distant memory. Chestnut Tree in Bloom is a perfect example. Notice how it goes in and out of clarity and how the sky melts into the trees which melt into the grass which melts into the water. The areas are both distinct yet part of this one dreamy picture.
To execute this brushwork, I imagine Renoir worked wet-on-wet with thin paint and perhaps a rounded brush like a filbert. But this is just my speculation. And he only did this for some of his paintings. As you'll see throughout this post, Renoir was adventurous in terms of style and technique.
The main downside of this brushwork is that it can come off as timid and vague if done poorly. That's why Renoir often paired it with small bursts of detail and clarity, as he did in Reading Girl. This is an effective combination that makes the wispy brushwork appear even more vague and fleeting and the bursts of clarity even sharper by comparison. Renoir also made unusual choices when it came to what areas to give clarity to. For example, instead of painting the subject's face with clarity, he did so for her hat and flowers. It makes you ponder over what the focus of the painting is.
Wispy brushwork plays particularly well into the idea of an overcast day. See Regatta Near Argentea below. Look at how the strokes of blue, yellow, and gray melt together and gradually build up to a concentrated area of light and contrast.
Tip: Certain styles and techniques work particularly well with certain subjects. Like wispy brushwork and a moody atmosphere. Before starting a painting, consider what style and techniques would best convey the subject. The right choice will make the painting process much smoother.
Rich Colors and Tinted Pastels
Renoir used clean and distinct colors rather than relying on blacks, browns, and grays. He typically combined bursts of rich and saturated color with tinted pastels. And he used his wispy brushwork to weave it all together.
Below is a perfect example. Renoir used saturated reds, yellows, and blues for the flowers, the vase, and parts of the background. For the rest, he used tinted pastels. This creates an interesting dynamic. The woman appears to be the focal point given her prominent position. Yet, the flowers and their rich colors compete for our attention.
The Garden in the Rue Cortot, Montmartre vibrates with color. The colors get stronger and richer as they build up to the bright flowers. Like an orchestra building up to a crescendo. There's also a striking temperature contrast, with cool greens and blues against warm yellows, reds, and oranges. So there's a contrast in both saturation (rich against dull) and temperature (warm against cool). Remember, you can always create a sharper contrast by overlaying multiple elements like this.
There's also a pleasing balance between the flowers and the surrounding landscape. The flowers are conveyed with richer and stronger colors but they only take up a small area in the painting. The cool greens and blues are weaker but they take up a much larger area.
Two Sisters (On the Terrace) is a cheery display. The landscape in the background is made up of wispy pastels. It's vague and out of focus. The two sisters are conveyed with relative sharpness and are framed by bursts of color and clarity. Notice how the almost garish garments and flowers make the skin tones appear softer and more lifelike by comparison.
The Piazza San Marco, Venice is a cityscape example of sharp bursts of color amongst tinted pastels. There's also an interesting play between the bursts of vivid red against the bursts of deep blue (temperature contrast). I would usually avoid using vivid red and vivid blue together in the same painting, as it might appear overdone. But it works in this case as they only take up a small area in the painting.
Broken Color and Texture
Renoir took a more typical broken color approach in many of his landscapes. These paintings look much more similar to Claude Monet's or Camille Pissarro's works. He often painted with Monet and I imagine they influenced each other in some ways.
In Bateau and Grand Canal, Venise, Renoir painted the water with dabs and scumbles of distinct color. This is particularly effective for conveying the broken reflections and the tiny contours and movements in the water.
The Seine at Argenteuil features an interesting play between the plants and trees in the foreground and the sky, water, and land in the background. Look at the range of strokes and techniques Renoir used. Thin lines for the branches, punchy dabs for the leaves and dark accents, scumbles of various blues for the water and sky, patches of broken color parts of the land. This variance plays well into the idea of nature and all its detail and complexity.
Piore has a striking color theme, with cool blues and greens against warm yellows and oranges, plus a few dark accents to define the tree.
One of the downsides of broken color is that it comes at the sacrifice of intricate drawing (you cannot paint with dabs of color and match the realism of John Singer Sargent or Joaquín Sorolla). To combat this, you can use dark, light, or saturated accents to define and accentuate key details, as Renoir does here.
Broken color is also particularly effective for capturing dense clusters of leaves, flowers, and plants. Instead of meticulously painting every strand of grass, leaf, flower, highlight, shadow, color, line, and shape, you could use broken color to create an illusion of their appearance.
Renoir also used broken color to help soften the edges between the couple and the surrounding nature. Look at the person on our left. Light greens push into his white sleeves; the off whites of his clothing push into the surrounding nature.
Unlike many of the other Impressionists, Renoir painted with black on his palette and used sharp, dark accents to command attention. This is particularly evident in his portraits, like Portrait of Madame Henriot.
Portrait of Mademoiselle Legrand is a stunning painting and done in a more realistic style than what we would typically expect from Renoir. My only criticism would be that the arms look a tad blocky and rigid.
Tip: When analyzing master paintings, always consider what you might improve on or change. No painter is infallible. And doing this will help you take the masters down from the pedestal and see them as they were: artists who trained, made mistakes, and traveled their own art journey.
Portrait of Jeanne Samary is a more typical Renoir painting. It's an effective combination of small, sharp accents against a large area of tinted pastels and wispy brushwork.
Of course, simplification played a key role in Renoir's paintings, as it did with all the Impressionists. He focused on capturing his impression of the subject, rather than trying to mimic life in all its detail and nuance.
In Rocks in Guernsey, Renoir did just enough to capture the essence of the scene. Each part in isolation looks reckless and sloppy. But as a whole, it works. In those brief moments of first looking upon the painting, you get to experience Renoir's impression of the scene. It's only as you start to scrutinize the painting in greater and greater detail that you see the missing details.
First Departure is an interesting painting. Renoir painted the main person with vague and wispy brushwork, similar to that of the surroundings. This lessons our focus on her and makes it a painting about the event and the atmosphere rather than her identity. That's the point of simplification—it allows you to convey what you think is important and how you want people to view your painting.
Some of Renoir's most famous works are busy compositions with numerous people. He took a more careful approach with these paintings and they showcase his technical abilities. See Luncheon of the Boating Party below.
Renoir adopted a more impressionistic approach for Grenouille. It looks realistic at first glance, despite the vague detail. That's how you know the fundamentals of the painting are strong, particularly the values (how light and dark each color is).
Renoir painted Grenouille alongside Monet. See Monet's version below. I always find it interesting to see how different artists interpret the same scene. It highlights our unique perspective of the world. And I would have to admit this is one of the rare occasions where I prefer Renoir's work over Monet's. Renoir's is more lively and honest.
Other Thoughts on Renoir's Style
- He was inconsistent in terms of the quality of his work, particularly with his portraits (see below). He has been heavily criticized for this, but I think it's better to judge an artist for his best work, not his worst.
- He was experimental with his style, sometimes painting realistic still lifes, fresh watercolor landscapes, and blocky portraits. This might explain why some paintings turned out better than others. Being experimental puts you in a vulnerable position, but it's the only way to keep improving over the long run.
- Wispy brushwork gives Renoir's paintings an almost ethereal feel, similar to that of a dream or memory.
- He wove together clean and distinct colors rather than relying on blacks, browns, and grays.
- He used dark, light, or saturated accents to define and accentuate key details amongst the wispy brushwork and broken color.
- Broken color is particularly effective for conveying water and dense nature.
- He paired sharp accents with light pastel surroundings to command your attention, particularly with his portraits.
- Simplification plays a key role in his work. Instead of painting every detail, color, shape, and line, he simplified the subject down to only the essentials.
Thanks for Reading!
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