I've been teaching a workshop this week focusing on Claude Monet, and as I've taken a deeper look at his paintings, what's really struck me hasn't been all those blues, pinks and creamy yellows we think of as "Impressionist" color.
Instead, I find I keep getting drawn back to Monet's "non-colors": his greys, whites, browns and blacks.
Monet was a master of those unnameable "chromatic neutrals"--the bluish, reddish, yellowish, neither here nor there, hues--that are so important in painting.
Monet spent his childhood in a port town, and was always drawn to painting water. The coastline of northern France was a favorite subject in the decades before he settled in Giverny.
Monet even retrofitted a row boat into a floating studio to better study the Seine as it flowed past Argenteuil, his home in the suburbs of Paris.
He explored rivers and canals on extended painting trips to the Netherlands.
All of this Northern European water and sky called for a palette of restrained but luminous color.
Greys have definite temperatures in these paintings, pushing into warm (yellow-based) and cool (blue-based.)
Whites are also yellowed or blued.
Browns and ochres, colors that can be so overused and dull, are set off in Monet's landscapes by pale clean cobalt blues and pure analogous oranges, working together to make these earth colors glow.
All the carefully calibrated, non-nameable colors--the greys, browns, blacks and whites--combine to create atmosphere, sunlight, space and mood.
Monet's subdued palette also provides a setting for bright, jewel-like hues.
These touches of man-made, "local" color--like this red boat and the orange windmills in the painting below--shine amidst the silvers, bronzes and golds of sky, water, and shore.
Monet is always specific about place and weather, season and time of day.
But he's never just recording the details of a landscape. What he sees with his clinical eye is filtered through his great feeling for nature.
By the time Monet created "Impression, Sunrise", the painting that gave a name to a new art movement, he had been working hard at landscapes for over a decade.
He had served his apprenticeship on river banks and boats, beaches, docks, canal banks and quays.
Painting by painting, he had learned to observe color in nature, mix what he saw on his palette, and translate those patches of pigment into shapes on his canvas that we could recognize in our imaginations.
In other words, Monet had mastered his language, and was ready to paint what he had to say.
And ooh la la--what he could say with those greys...
Click on paintings to enlarge.
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