I’ve said it before – I like art instruction books. However, it is important to understand the author’s intention and the limitations of these books, before you take things as gospel. The book I would like to discuss today is “Monet (Ready to Pain the Masters)” by Noel Gregory, available on Amazon.co.uk and many other places.
Like many recent art instruction books, an instructional DVD is also available (or at least there is a television programme I have seen on the Painting and Drawing Channel by this author, presenting works from the book). The artist that wrote the book does a creditable job of matching the mood and colours of some of Monet’s more famous works. There are even tracings given to help the beginning artist to lay out the artwork. However, there are several egregious errors in the book, which no doubt are necessary to make the book accessible to beginners and painters of all standards, but which take you so far away from Monet’s actual technique that I felt I should say something 🙂
I am no expert on Monet, but I have had the good fortune of seeing many of Monet’s works at close quarters, in real life. Here are some things I observed, which differ markedly from the technique presented in the book.
Most obviously, Monet used oils, not acrylics. That isn’t strictly a problem for those trying to learn impressionist technique, but it does mean you have to be careful with your choice of acrylics. What you cannot do is use thin, watery, fast-drying acrylics. Monet’s oils were quite impasto and thick. To replicate the scumble and texture in acrylics, I suggest you use a medium such as a Heavy Structure Gel and a long open time paint, such as Atelier Interactive, to mimic the strokes. You want a paint the consistency of a soft butter, not a pouring cream.
Secondly, Monet’s brush strokes are like stabs and short slashes. There is a freshness and vitality to his marks. You can see that many of them were made forcefully and rapidly. The author in this book, however, lets the paint run. He uses thin paint and watercolour brushes. I’m pretty sure Monet would have used hogs bristle brights or filberts, so that the application of the paint can be done with deliberate gusto. Monet used lots and lots of short, sharp strokes to produce his work. This takes some time on a large canvas, as you need to use a number 6 or number 8 or something that size to get the effect. In contrast, the author of the book runs long strokes, so his work is lacking the detail and interesting mixing of colours applied to the canvas, which would have mixed roughly on the very canvas, had Monet made the marks.
Monet also sometimes used his paint in an almost dry brush way, so that the texture of the brush strokes often produced a scumbled effect. You can see the colour beneath appearing through the gaps in the stroke on top. You can go to extremes, of course and thereby lose the effect entirely, but in the book there is no evidence of using a thick, relatively dry paint applied lightly to the surface of the painting. I think that’s a mistake.
Monet also tended to daub his paint, when the effect he was looking for required it. This is a stroke familiar to anybody that has ever used a stenciling brush. It is a technique that ruins good quality artist’s brushes because it is quite heavy on them, but Monet was not known pejoratively as a “dauber” for nothing. It’s part of his texture and technique.
On the programme that accompanies the book, the author clearly corrupted his colours on the palette, by trying to use the same brush when going from pink to green, for example. He transferred these muddy colours to the canvas. I saw no evidence of muddy colours on any Monet painting I have ever seen. I’m pretty sure Monet would have changed brushes, or worked with a single colour for a long period, rather than changing colours frequently. He was placing many short strokes, after all, so the necessity of changing colours on the brush would have occurred rarely. One thing that strikes you when you look at a Monet closely is how pure and vibrant the colours of individual brush strokes really are. If there ever is a blending, it’s optical and taking place in your head. The strokes themselves tend to be very pure colours, even if pastel mixes with white.
Finally, the author of the book employs glazing. I like glazing and think it is a fantastic technique, but I don’t think it has application in a Monet painting. In the first place, the author creates a glaze by watering down his acrylic paint. It’s actually better to use a glazing medium, to preserve the technical qualities of the paint and to ensure it adheres to the surface for a long time. Secondly, when I examined Monet’s paintings, I’m not entirely convinced he glazed very much at all. I may be wrong, but the brush strokes look, to me, to be so bright and fresh (even after a century) that I doubt they ever had a glaze applied. This is all my speculation based on direct observations I have made on my own, but I just don’t think Monet glazed in his paintings. Monet was, after all, a vocal advocate of “broken colour”, where the eye does the work of mixing the colours, not the artist.
So the book is fun. I bought it. However, be cautious about what it teaches. Full marks for getting the colours and composition near enough, but try some of my suggestions to see if you can get the texture and the impact of a Monet. Ideally, see if you can visit an art gallery that has a Monet or two on display and examine the work closely for yourself.
Of course, once you have mastered some of these techniques of colour, composition, texture and mark making, stop painting copies of Monet’s works immediately and incorporate the techniques into your own style. That’s where the real fun is to be had.