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Breaking Down What Goes Into Old Masters Paintings

Breaking Down What Goes Into Old Masters Paintings


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The Painting Techniques Behind The Rocks at Belle-Île by Claude Monet

There is no better art teacher than your own two eyes. Spending time with a painting and studying it — looking at its colors, how brushstrokes are layered, and how forms are “built” — is the best way to truly understand the art of painting and the secrets behind any Old Masters paintings that you love.

Here Dan Scott, an Australian landscape painter and instructor, shares his insights into a beautiful painting by Claude Monet after spending quality time studying it as both an art instructor and an observer. If you discover you want more Impressionist-specific learning, be sure to check out Impressionist Painting for the Landscape eBook for painting landscapes in oils that shimmer with that Monet magic! Enjoy!

Choose a Painting

Sometimes the best way to learn to paint is to analyze the Old Masters paintings that have already been done before us. Here I take a closer look at a beautiful painting by Claude Monet: The Rocks at Belle-Île, Port-Domois.

The painting was created in 1886 by Claude Monet. It is a large-scale oil painting (32 x 25 1/2 inches) based on the rugged terrain at Belle-Île, a French island off the coast of Brittany.

According to the Cincinnati Art Museum, Monet wrote to fellow Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte regarding his stay: “I’ve been here a month, and I’m grinding away; I’m in a magnificent region of wilderness, a tremendous heap of rocks and sea unbelievable for its colors; well, I’m very enthusiastic.”

I was equally enthusiastic as I gave this work a close study, from everything to its brushwork to its colors. Here’s what I discovered.

The Brushwork

The painting is a fantastic display of the energetic brushwork that Monet is so famous for. Below are some close-ups of the painting which reveal some great insights into how Monet painted.

The sky is fairly basic in terms of brushwork, but it contrasts nicely with the more energetic brushwork in the rest of the painting. It seems Monet painted the clouds with a loose scumbling technique over the light background of oranges. The sky then eases into the water with a soft edge to indicate the horizon line.

As you get closer to the foreground, Monet started to use much more variance in his brushwork. This helps give the painting that sense of depth.

We can see Monet used short, chopping strokes to indicate the turbulence of the water. Up close, the water appears like a mess of various colors, but as you step back it all just seems to work.

The Color

In my opinion, color is the most stunning element of this painting. There is a beautiful contrast between the soft oranges, pinks and yellows of the warm light from the fading sun against the rich blues and purples of the rocks and shadows.

Monet did a fantastic job of creating the illusion of light in the distance. The light orange almost glows.

As you may know, as artists we do not have the privilege of painting with light itself and our paints are not capable of replicating the effect of light (the sunset in your paintings will never be as stunning as the real thing).

The best we can do is use our paints to create the illusion of light. Monet used a sharp contrast in color temperature and value to create the illusion of light.

Remember, a color by itself has no meaning. It is only as powerful as what you surround that color with. In this case, the orange in the distance is surrounded with relatively darker and cooler colors in the rest of the painting. The orange by itself is nothing special, but when surrounded by darker blues, reds and purples it appears incredibly powerful, just as if it were light itself.

The Value

Value is how light or dark a color is and it is widely considered to be one of the most important elements of a painting. If you are able to paint with accurate values, then your painting will have a quality of realism regardless of how accurate your edges, colors, shapes and other elements are.

In sunset paintings, value is often a dominant element due to the sharp contrast between the light of the bright sunset against the darks of the shadows. The angle of the sun at this time also creates these interesting shape patterns from any objects.

Value is a strong feature of Monet’s painting, as it usually is in sunset paintings due to the sharp contrast in light and dark. The warm light in the sky and bouncing off the water contrasts nicely against the dark value masses representing the rock formations and the ocean in shadow. Monet compressed the dark values in this painting to a narrow value range to create these dominant value masses, which are important structural elements of the painting. So all the colors of the rocks and shadows are around the same value, but there is a variation in hue (purples and blues) and brushwork.

The water is much less cohesive in terms of value and this gives a sense of turbulence in the water. You might also notice the gradation from the dark in the foreground to light in the background. This value gradation segments the foreground, middleground and background to some extent and gives a sense of perspective.

The Composition

The composition of the painting is simple but powerful. First, let’s take a look at the notan design of the painting. Notan is a Japanese term that means “light-dark balance”. Below is a simple 2-value notan of the painting created using Photoshop, with white to indicate the lights and black to indicate the darks.

This notan reveals a strong fundamental design of the painting, which may not be obvious on first glance. If your painting ever just looks a bit off, consider what the underlying notan design of the painting is. You may find that it is bland or poorly designed. This is not to say your painting must have an interesting notan design, but it can help.

Another observation regarding the composition of this painting is how well all the elements seem to work with each other. Nothing looks out of place and your eyes are naturally pulled around the painting by Monet’s suggestive brushwork and gradations between the elements.

For example, notice how the dark blues of the water at the bottom of the painting seem to link with the dark colors of the rocks. The grayscale image of the painting reveals that these dark areas are linked in terms of value. The formation of the rocks also creates these organic leading lines through the painting.

The Main Takeaways

  • Visible brushwork can be a strong feature of your painting so do not overlook it. You can use visible brushwork to create variance in otherwise bland areas.
  • As artists we are not capable of painting with light, but we can create a fairly accurate illusion by painting the relative contrast in color temperature and value.
  • By compressing your values you can create dominant value masses in your painting. These value masses can form powerful structural elements (like the rocks in Monet’s painting).
  • You can incorporate gradation in your elements to create a sense of depth and fluency within your painting. For example, a gradation of dark to light, textured to smooth, blue to pink to orange, and so on.

Dan Scott is a landscape painter from Australia and the founder and creator behind DrawPaintAcademy.com, which provides free art tutorials for beginners on the fundamentals of art.


Watch the video: The Forgotten Masters (June 2022).


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