Painting techniques

Modern methods and materials

The Impressionists used unconventional painting techniques and experimented with modern materials often with striking results. Their love of painting direct from nature 'en plein air' (outdoors) presented them with great technical and physical challenges, while new art materials and equipment enabled them to continue this practice with great success.

A 'boîte de campagne', a complete outdoor painting kit, kept all the materials conveniently packed together as they travelled from one viewpoint to the next. While painting outdoors, they used a parasol to shield themselves and their canvas from sunlight and often wore dull-coloured clothing. This stopped strong colours, bright lights and dark shadows from affecting their paintings.

A number of colour merchants in Paris sold painters' materials and their names can often be seen imprinted on the back of Impressionist canvases. These canvases could be purchased already stretched on standard sized frames. Many Impressionist canvases are small because they had to be easily transported.

A major advance in the production of art materials was the tube of paint which was sold from 1840. These collapsible metal tubes improved storage life, but more importantly for the Impressionists, portability.

The Impressionist's palette

'Oil colours are found so well prepared today, that no artist would dream of preparing them himself.' Karl Robert, 1878

Prior to 1840 artists had to make their own paints by grinding natural pigments and then mixing them with oil. Technological advances not only meant that paint was produced for sale in metal tubes, but also led to changes in colours. The new pigments were more vivid and used synthetic as well as natural materials.

The Impressionists tended to work with a limited colour palette. Earth tones were rarely used and many paintings have no black pigment at all. They used the principle of complementary and contrasting colours to create the vibration of light and colour which is synonymous with the Impressionist style.

You can explore some of these modern methods and materials by looking at four paintings in detail in the rest of this section.