The term “impressionism” was originally meant as an insult, alleging that painters such as Claude Monet merely slapped a few strokes of paint onto a canvas until they had an “impression” of their subject. Many of the painters agreed, and adopted the soubriquet. How, for instance, did the impressionists tackle colors and sunlight?
Instead of creating smoothly blended colors, the impressionists placed separate touches of vibrantly contrasting colors directly onto the canvas, sometimes without prior mixing on the palette, and allowed their brushstrokes to retain the liveliness and seeming spontaneity of a sketch. As a result their work appeared unfinished to many viewers, including the critic Leroy. Manet had encouraged this tendency in his paintings of the 1860s, in which he did away with the middle tones that would have eased the transition from lightest light to darkest dark. Instead, Manet set lights directly next to darks to create strikingly stark contrasts.In seeking to capture the luminous effects of sunlight, the impressionists used light colors and applied them onto a light or white ground (the canvas’s initial coat) rather than the darker ground that was then conventional. The impressionists worked quickly to preserve a feeling of spontaneity and directness. They often painted one color on top of another that was still wet, a practice that tends to blur contours and soften forms.Scientific advances helped the impressionists. The new availability of oil paint in metal tubes made painting out of doors much easier, and new paints based on artificial pigments provided brighter colors, particularly blues, yellows, and greens. The impressionists also put into practice new scientific theories about color: To enhance the intensity of colors in their paintings, they avoided black or earth colors for depicting shadows and substituted complementary colors. So, for instance, the shadowed underside of a red apple would be dappled with shades of green.
“We believe,” Thornes says, “that we can basically deconstruct the images to work out how much smoke would have to be in the air to create that visibility and those colors in, say, February 1900.”
“There’s no question that Monet was astonishingly allegiant to what lay in front of him,” the Monet scholar Paul Hayes Tucker says. “But at the same time, for example, he had a penchant for pinks. He always was trying to sneak pinks into pictures throughout his career.”