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Techniques of the Impressionists: Broken Color

How the Impressionists introduced broken color to painting.


Techniques of the Impressionists: Broken Color

Techniques of the Impressionists: Broken Color View large image

Painting © Jerry Fresia

Broken color refers to a painting technique 'invented' by the Impressionists that is still used today by some artists. Technically speaking, it goes like this: suppose I have an index card that is a permanent light green color. You can see it from across the room easily enough. Yup. That is green alright. Now we take an index card that is half, say, cerulean blue, and half cadmium yellow light. I put a hole in the middle of the card and I spin it like crazy. In principle, from across the room you will see a similar green but this time the green has more energy. It is alive. It mixes optically at a distance. That is what broken color is suppose to achieve – the actual sensation of light itself.

But without the point of view, the technique is rather empty and vacuous. It is like the dreadful 'style' where someone who thinks they are using an Impressionist method and simple makes a lot of little dabs to create an effect, albeit a rather dead one at that.

The Impact of the Impressionists
It might do us well to forget the term 'Impressionism'. It was a term of approbation, as you know. The 'Impressionists' were also called the 'insurgents' and their new way of painting was called exactly what it was, 'the new painting'.

Now, let’s capture that moment in the mid-1870s Paris. The social edifices of the aristocracy were crumbling. There was a bottom-up, democratic thrust in art let by Manet and others, including many women and the lower classes. Remember that artists were attacking the hierarchy of the art world in Paris. It would be equivalent today if artists such as ourselves were attacking the museums, auction houses, the non-profit mechanism of directing art, local art commissions, academic thinking and the gallery system of distribution.

An example of the art they opposed would be the work of Ingres whose work took months to create, with careful labored drawings, and not a hint of a brush stroke. More important, perhaps, was that painting of the artists in favor such as Ingres were the paintings of classical realism and to make heads or tails out of such work, you had to have a classical education. Everyone else was excluded, just as today much of the public is in effect excluded from the conversation about 'important' art.

What Was Different About the Art of the Impressionists
Now, instead of making smooth paintings that referred to classical literature and history, the Insurgents painted the 'real' life around them from boat parties to shoes to streets to haystacks. It was personal and they wanted their personality to show – hence, the unabashed use of the brush stroke.

But here is the big step: the paintings no longer were pictures in which there were references to other things (forget commissions!). They were hedonistic visual treats for the artists who did the work. They tasted the world through their eyes.

The new painting was all about the thrill and delight of the visual sensation, which means becoming intimately involved with the sensation of light or 'painting the light' (you can see how far a field we have come when Thomas Kinkade uses the same phrase). It is about painting directly from nature and expressing the rush of your visual (as opposed to ideational) sensation on the canvas in such a way that the activity itself is the point, not the painting!

• Read Part 2 of this article: How to Paint like an Impressionist with Broken Color...

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