The Wonderful Illusion of Impressionism
I like and enjoy many forms of painting, but like most artists, I have a favourite and that is impressionism. My introduction to it as a youngster was through Turners storm painting. As soon as I saw it I was hooked, but I didn't know why. When you look at this painting it lacks colour and it lacks detail, but what it does have, is drama - tons of it! Even though this was painted before the French Impressionists got started, there is no doubt that it is one of the greatest impressionist paintings of all time.
So, what is it about impressionism that has such appeal?
As the word suggests impressionist paintings are all about impression rather than detail and this is why they are so popular. Atmosphere, mood and the effects of light and shadow are all paramount in this form of painting and these are the things that draw viewers into them. They are not visual accounts of everything the artist saw, but rather they capture the atmosphere of the moment, and this is the whole purpose of impressionism. Artists of this genre want viewers to identify with the mood they have created rather than tick off all the objects that could have been painted on the day.
Plein air painting – or that done on site, is the foundation of impressionism. The clatter of easels was common in the days of the French and Australian impressionists. Painting quickly outdoors ensured that detail came last and atmosphere came first. There is no time for 1000-hour paintings outdoors, there is no time for excruciating detail or referral to colour charts. Things have to be gotten down on canvas quickly. Decisions have to be made as to what objects are going to be left out, what things to be added or moved. Darks, lights and tones become the important things and colour takes second place. When the painting is finished, it has to have the feeling of the day – of the moment, and this is the skill of impressionism. It is indeed a form of illusion, as all painting is, but more so in the way it can beguile the senses into believing the mood the artist has created.
The Australian impressionist were not just concerned with the effect of light however, they were capturing the Australian landscape like it had never been done before. Impressionism allowed them to capture that feel of the harshness and expanse of the land like traditional art was unable to. Roberts, Streeton, McCubbin, Conder and others established the rise of impressionism in Australia and their works have shaped how we have seen our history in those early days. Seeing their works in the flesh always makes me stop like no other work does. It is life and illusion in paint.
Impressionism has grown into more abstract forms today but still retains enough realism for viewers to identify with. It is about telling the story, but not too much of the story! Enough space is given for viewers to add to it and become a part of it – it’s all part of the wonderful illusion of impressionism.
The Artworx Gallery has some great examples of modern-day impressionism and it is well worth taking it all in amid the picturesque river port of Goolwa.
Snow Storm – Steam-boat off a harbour’s mouth (Turner)