Camille Pissarro offered the following Advice to an art student around 1896. I encourage you to read it critically. I'll comment afterward.
"Look for the kind of nature that suits your temperament. The motif should be observed more for shape and color than for drawing. There is no need to tighten the form which can be obtained without that. Precise drawing is dry and hampers the impression of the whole; it destroys all sensations."
"The eye should not be fixed on one point, but should take in everything, while observing the reflections which the colours produce on their surroundings. Work at the same time upon sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on an equal basis and unceasingly rework until you have got it."
"Cover the canvas at the first go, then work at it until you can see nothing more to add. Observe the aerial perspective well, from the foreground to the horizon, the reflections of sky on foliage. Don't be afraid of putting on colour, refine the work little by little. Don't proceed according to rules and principles, but paint what you observe and feel. Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression. Don't be timid in front of' nature: one must be bold, at the risk of being deceived and making mistakes. One must have only one master --- nature; she is the one always to be consulted."
My thoughts (and I want to hear yours)
The foregoing advice is one of the pivotal texts of Impressionist technique. It has echoed down to our times through various teachers. Whenever I've read Pissarro's advice, I've taken it with a grain of salt, especially when it was presented dogmatically. Here are some of my initial reactions:
1. To his credit, Pissarro talks about seeing as well as technique: "The eye should not be fixed on one point, but should take in everything..." Capturing an impression not just a matter of brushes and paints. It's at least as much a problem of learning to see. For example, learning to isolate and compare colors is essential to painting them convincingly, regardless of what brushes you use. Since Pissarro's time, we've learned a lot about how the human eye sees color, so it's possible to be more analytical about that.
2. When he says "Don't proceed according to rules and principles, but paint what you observe and feel," I would counter that knowing the rules and principles helps you observe and feel more accurately. Telling a student just to "paint what they observe" is useless advice unless you explain what to look for and why things look the way they do.
3. I never understood why the line "Precise drawing is dry and hampers the impression" was necessary. Is he just making an excuse because he can't draw well? Why can't I have both good drawing and accurate color? Artists who combined academic drawing skills and impressionist methods, such as Krøyer, Mønsted, Zorn, Sorolla, and Sargent could capture impressions without disregarding precise or accurate drawing.
|John Singer Sargent|
5. Painting in "everything at once" rather than "bit by bit" is just one way of painting. It applies more to opaque oil painting, and less to watercolor or gouache, which can favor a more planned and organized approach. Oil can be painted in many ways: "window shading," area-by-area, systematically, or indirectly (as with Maxfield Parrish) and the results can be accurate and strong.
6. If Pissarro wants to capture an overall impression immediately, why does he say: "Use small brush strokes and try to put down your perceptions immediately."? Big brushes are much more efficient for capturing overall impressions rapidly. Students don't need encouragement to use small brushes. They need to be encouraged to use bigger ones, especially at the beginning. He does say to "paint generously and unhesitatingly" and I think he's right there: be willing to use lots of paint. By painting unhesitatingly, I think he means to develop your intuition, and that comes from a combination of practice and analysis.
7. Painting overall with brushstrokes of a given module makes it hard to achieve scale. If you want to make something look big, you need to alternate large shapes with tiny touches. Nature is not composed of bean-size blobs. I think the advice should be to use a variety of tools and to look for contrasts of scale within the subject. And to achieve depth, the advice might be to paint from background to foreground, not overall or 'everything at once.'
8. If you use the same tools or approach for every part of the scene (sky, water, buildings, etc), those areas will all look the same and they will all look like paint. In Pissarro's case, it leads to what contemporary critics called "woolliness," meaning it looks like the whole thing is rendered in counted cross stitch. No problem if you want your painting to have that look, but if you want your painting to hold the mirror up to Nature, it may not be the best advice.