Last week, I shared this gallery of some of my favorite paintings by Paul Cézanne. Let’s take a closer look at one of those paintings to see what exactly is happening behind the scenes. Here’s View of Auvers-sur-Oise—La Barrière.
A Familiar Subject
The painting conveys Auvers-sur-Oise, a tiny village or commune on the outskirts of Paris, France. There’s a lot of great art history in this area. It seems artists were drawn to its picturesque landscape and light.
Vincent van Gogh lived there from May 1890 until his death in July 1890. He created around 70 paintings during this time.
Camille Pissarro often visited and painted there. For a time, he lived in a neighboring town, Pontoise.
Another name that came up frequently in my research is Dr. Paul Gachet, who lived and operated a medical practice in Auvers-sur-Oise. He’s famous for treating van Gogh, but he was also an amateur artist, collector, and keen supporter of Impressionism. He brushed shoulders with Cézanne and many other artists such as Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Édouard Manet, and Norbert Goeneutte.
It’s interesting to see how different artists interpreted the same area. It showcases each artist’s style and unique perspective of the world. That’s what art is all about really!
Value Structure (Lights and Darks)
Here’s a grayscale of the painting to give you a clear look at the value structure (the arrangement of lights and darks):
There are a few areas where the value range is compressed. That is, Cézanne didn’t paint with a full range of values from pure white to pure black; rather, he made the lights a bit darker and the darks a bit lighter in the painting. Notice how the land and trees are roughly the same value, apart from a few dark accents and highlights. The same goes for the sky, which is a touch lighter. This is a form of simplification. It makes the painting easier to read by reducing the visual noise.
The downside of simplifying the value range and structure like this is that it makes value contrast less of a feature. Cézanne had to instead rely on other elements like hue, saturation, and brushwork to inject life into the painting.
Around the middle is the focal point—a cluster of buildings represented by sharp, dark accents and highlights. This value contrast draws our attention and gives a sense of life and activity.
A few dark accents represent trees at the top of the hill. This helps separate the sky and land and ensures they don’t melt into one vague shape.
The downside of simplifying the value structure like this is that it makes value contrast less of a feature. You can see this in the notan below. Notan being the most basic, abstract design of lights and darks. As you can see, the notan of this painting is weak and scattered due to the simplified value structure. A strong notan would typically have more distinct groups of lights and darks and you would often be able to identify the subject from the notan alone. Instead of relying on value contrast, Cézanne had to utilize other elements like hue, saturation, and brushwork to inject life into the painting.
Framing to Contain Our Attention
The painting features strong framing around the focal point (the cluster of buildings). The trees frame the sides and the fence frames the bottom. This contains our attention and stops our eyes from wandering out of the painting.
The key to effective framing in a painting is to make it look natural. You don’t want the viewer to feel trapped in the painting; just politely nudged. Draw on the objects and elements already in the scene to frame the focal point and make sure they complement the rest of the painting. In this case, the trees and the fence at the bottom look like part of the painting; they just also happen to help frame the focal point.
The brushwork is typical Cézanne, with distinct, blocky strokes and simplified detail. But he was more refined than usual. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy this painting more than many of his others.
One thing to note is how he used this loose, impressionistic brushwork to convey the buildings and the fence at the bottom. The buildings and the fence appear true to their nature (rigid and geometric) but also consistent with the overall style of the painting. This is not easy to do and it’s a common pitfall I see with beginner artists. There must be a careful tradeoff between conveying the true nature of each object in your painting and retaining a consistent style and a sense of coherency.
Here are some closeups to give you a better look:
Look at All the Different Greens!
My final observation is Cézanne’s use of color variance to convey nature, particularly with the greens. Look how the greens get lighter, darker, warmer, cooler, richer, and duller. This adds so much depth and complexity to the painting and it wouldn’t have been too laborsome for Cézanne.
Static or flat color is one of the most common areas for improvement in the landscape paintings I come across. If you look closely at nature, at grass or the leaves on a tree or the rippling water in a pond, you’ll see infinite color variations. Your job is to capture this without getting lost in the detail. If you ever need inspiration, study the work of Cézanne or other Impressionists. They were masters of color and simplification.
Thanks for Reading!
I appreciate you taking the time to read this post. Feel free to share with friends. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
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