Let's take a closer look at Woman With a Parasol by Claude Monet. This painting embodies Impressionism and Monet's work. A fleeting moment captured with light colors and fresh strokes.
(You can download a high-resolution version of the painting here. You get to see Monet's strokes with remarkable clarity.)
- The painting depicts Monet's first wife Camille and son Jean strolling through Argenteuil.
- It's a large painting, coming in at 39 x 32 inches. Monet's largest from the 1870s. It must be a magnificent sight in person.
- It was painted plein air (outdoors) perhaps within a single session, according to the National Gallery of Art. This would explain the painting's intimate and spontaneous feel.
- It was one of Monet's 18 paintings featured in the second Impressionist exhibition, 1876. John Singer Sargent saw it at the exhibition and was inspired to paint Two Girls with Parasols at Fladbury.
- Monet painted two similar works about 10 years later: Woman With a Parasol, Facing Left and Woman With a Parasol, Facing Right. This time featuring Suzanne Monet, his second wife's daughter.
The painting features typical Monet brushwork: broken color, energetic strokes, and simplified detail. It's effective for capturing a fleeting moment like this. It looks fresh and spontaneous, not staged.
Camille turns to see us, with her dress twisting around her body. There's movement in this pose. Monet's brushwork follows the contours of the dress. The child, on the other hand, appears more static. No twists or turns. This further accentuates Camille's movement by contrast. If you want more examples of how to paint the body's movement, check out Edgar Degas' dancer paintings.
Monet used simple and flat brushwork for the faces. See the close-ups below. But, the details he did use are accurate. Simple doesn't mean sloppy.
It looks like a windy day. The sky is full of energy and movement. Below is a close-up of Monet's brushwork. Look at the variance in his strokes. Thick, thin, different directions, white, gray, blue, light, dark.
For the grass, Monet used short, jabby strokes. This gives a more erratic appearance. But, notice how the grass follows a broad movement with the wind.
A good exercise for analyzing a painting is to map out the path your eyes take through the painting. You can do this in your head, no need to physically draw anything. Where does the painting take you? You might find it reveals subtle links between otherwise distinct areas in the painting. In this case, movement connects the dress, grass, and sky.
The painting features an Impressionist palette of blues, greens, yellows, and a few red accents. The lights are bright and the shadows are colorful. Instead of using blacks and browns for shadows like the Old Masters, Monet and the Impressionists preferred greens, blues, reds, and purples. They chose color at the sacrifice of deep shadows.
There appears to be a general theme of thick lights, thin shadows. Notice the thick lights in the sky for the clouds and the highlights on Camille's dress (see below). Compare this to the relatively thin color used for the faces and other shadows. The closeup below also shows reflected light hitting around the underside of her arm. This is yellow-green light bouncing up from the grassy foreground. A subtle yet important touch by Monet.
Monet relied on broken color to create the illusion of detail and movement. The sky has all kinds of blues, grays, and whites. The foreground has yellows, blues, greens, and purples.
Below is a grayscale of the painting. It's a lot darker than you might expect. Rich, saturated colors tend to appear lighter than they really are. It's easy to confuse highly saturated colors as being light colors. But remember, colors tend to be at their strongest around the middle of the value scale. I go into more detail on this in my Painting Academy course.
Monet painted from a low vantage point, looking up at Camille. His child is further back, around eye-level. This creates an interesting play in terms of perspective and space. The low vantage point also gives dominance to the sky.
In terms of focal points, my eyes are drawn towards Camille's face first, then the child's face, even though they are both simplified. That's the power of facial features. We are programmed to look for them.
With that being said, the two figures are fairly balanced against the dramatic surrounding nature. It's an unusual painting in this sense: it's not a pure portrait, and it's not a pure landscape. It's a hybrid of both. If the woman and child were farther in the distance, it would be a landscape. The Poppy Field comes to mind. If Camille were closer and more rendered, it would be a portrait.
Let's look at the painting in terms of the rule of thirds. The idea behind the rule of thirds is that the grid lines and intersections are considered aesthetically pleasing areas. Below is the painting with a three-by-three grid over the top (using my grid tool) plus some key observations:
- The foreground comes to the bottom horizontal line.
- Camille's face is around the top right intersection. The child is around the bottom-left intersection.
- Camille's back lines up with the right verticle line.
- The clouds are strongest around the top-left intersection.
- Consider the connection between your painting style and the nature of the subject. Monet's Impressionist style was effective in capturing this fleeting and intimate moment.
- You can create the illusion of movement with clever brushwork and broken color. Let your brush follow contours and mimic the subject's movement.
- Try to match the nature of your brushwork to the nature of the subject. Monet used sweeping, energetic brushwork for the sky; short, jabbing brushwork for the foreground; and flat brushwork for the two faces.
- Is there an overarching theme you can follow in your painting? Monet followed a theme of thick lights, thin shadows.
- Don't mistake color saturation for value. Highly saturated, rich, or vivid colors can appear lighter than they really are.
- Closeups of paintings reveal important clues about how it was painted.
- We are programmed to look for certain things in life, such as eyes and facial features. In this case, I am drawn towards the two faces in the painting despite them being so simplified.
Thanks for Reading!
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