“I must have flowers, always, and always.” Claude Monet
In this post, I take a closer look at a pleasant landscape painting named The Poppy Field by Claude Monet. It depicts four people (probably including Monet's wife and son) strolling through a poppy field at Argenteuil, Paris.
Unlike many of the other paintings I write about, there is no hidden meaning or controversial history with this painting. With that in mind, I will be addressing mostly the technical aspects of the painting, namely color, value, edges, and composition.
(If you want to learn more about landscape painting, make sure to grab my free Landscape Painting Starter Kit).
Use of Color
Color appears to be the main feature of the painting, with a split-complementary color scheme of reds, greens, and blues. The greens and blues are restrained, allowing the reds to dominate (which is appropriate given the name of the painting—The Poppy Field).
Going back to basic color theory for a moment, red and green are complementary colors. That is, they have a striking contrast when placed next to each other. Monet was clever to restrain the greens and allow the reds to dominate. Otherwise, the two colors would compete for attention and it might be jarring to look at.
If you look closely at the red poppies, notice how two different red tones are used: one weak tone and one strong tone used mostly as an accent. This, of course, adds variance, depth, and form to the poppies.
A more subtle observation is how the weak red tone creates a link between the poppies and the surrounding weak greens used for the grass—both colors are around the same in terms of saturation and value.
There is also a subtle link between the poppies and the red used for the distant building. Take note of the diagonal positioning of these two elements, as it is a common theme throughout the painting.
To me, the blues in the painting play more of a supporting role to the reds and greens. There is a link between the blue sky and the blues used for the woman in the foreground (circled below). Again, note the diagonal positioning.
Finally in terms of color, I draw your attention to that burst of relatively saturated green in the distance (circled below on the right-hand side). This small but important burst of color helps draw you through the painting.
It also adds another subtle color link, with small dabs of the same color being used in the grass in the bottom left-hand corner. This may not seem obvious or even significant, but it is touches like this which make the painting appear so pleasant and realistic without Monet using that much detail.
Compressed Values and Dark Accents
The painting has a strong but simple value structure, as you can see in the grayscale image below:
There are three dominant value groups: the light sky, the middle-value foreground, and the dark accents used for the garments and distant trees.
The sky and foreground are kept within a very compressed value range. That is, the colors are roughly the same in terms of lightness. Without color, these areas appear flat and lifeless (take a moment to compare the grayscale image to the full-color photo shown at the start of this post).
Monet relied almost entirely on hue and saturation contrast to create interest within these areas. This technique is challenging but highly effective if you are successful with it.
I liken this to a beautiful symphony, with the drums being the fundamental value structure and the violins, flutes, piano, etc. being the subtle dance between the different hues and saturations.
The dark accents in the painting are used to depict the distant trees and dark garments. These accents do not take up much space in the painting, but they command your attention due to their sharp contrast against the light surrounding colors.
Tip: A small area of sharp contrast can have the same impact, if not more, as a large area that lacks contrast.
The dark trees act as an anchor for the painting, connecting the sky and the foreground. Also, notice how the dark garments worn by the woman on the left-hand side of the painting blend in with the dark trees. This is an example of simplifying the value structure.
In the bottom right-hand corner, the dark garments worn by the woman and child create small but powerful dark accents amongst the sea of dull greens. These are around the same value as the dark trees (yet another color link).
Soft and Hard Edges
In particular, notice how Monet used soft edges for the bottom of the woman and child on the right-hand side (see the close-up below). The two figures almost appear to blend in with the surrounding nature.
Relatively hard edges are used for the dark accents and the small bursts of saturated red. These hard edges help command your attention and provide small moments of clarity amongst an otherwise fleeting scene.
Simplifying the "Noise"
This painting is an excellent example of simplifying the "noise"—the countless colors, values, shapes, lines, or other little details you are confronted with when you look at nature in life. Monet extracted the bare essence of the scene and transferred that onto the canvas. There is just enough information for the painting to appear realistic. But if you look closely, you will see that much is left to the imagination.
The faces of the four people are left obscured. Their garments are nothing more than simple color shapes. A few strokes of green plus the red poppies create the illusion of the tall, sweeping grass.
The rendering of this painting is not complex, unlike what you might see in a painting by say, Ivan Shishkin. But, Monet makes up for it in all the other areas.
Here are some of the key takeaways from this painting:
- Just because a painting looks simple, does not mean it lacks sophistication. The more I looked at this painting, the more I realized how clever Monet was.
- When painting with complementary colors, it is usually a good idea to allow one of the colors to dominate over the other. Otherwise, they will end up competing for attention.
- A strong and concise value structure can provide a great foundation for your painting. It also allows you more freedom with how you use hue, saturation, and other elements.
- Compressing the value range means that the colors stay around the same level of lightness, but you vary the hue or saturation. This is a challenging but highly effective technique if you are successful.
- Use soft and hard edges to help guide the viewer through your painting. Soft edges allow for a smooth transition between areas. Hard edges are like an exclamation mark that commands attention and provides moments of clarity.
- You do not need to paint every single detail you see. Try to simplify the "noise" and capture the essence of the scene. You will end up with a more concise and powerful painting.
(You might also be interested in my Painting Academy course. It will help you understand and use color more effectively in painting.)