Impressionism is a freeform style that can be intimidating for beginners. Fortunately, one of the best ways to paint like the masters means letting go of your worries.
When I paint in impressionist styles, I notice I create the most enjoyable results when I loosen up. Instead of fussing with how technically accurate something is, I focus on wherever my mood takes me.
I’ll teach you how to get comfortable with the impressionist style with my tutorial below. Whether you use oil paint or acrylic, you’ll be well on your way to painting like the masters.
- What You Will Need to Follow This Tutorial
- Step-By-Step Tutorial to Paint In the Impressionist Style
- Impressionist Painting Techniques to Inspire You
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Impressionism Changes the Way You Look at the World
What You Will Need to Follow This Tutorial
Since this is a beginner tutorial, you don’t need many art materials. However, I added a few valuable tools that could make the process easier.
Your Canvas of Choice
If you’re using oil paints, consider a linen canvas. The finer teeth will help you get down some buttery smooth layers.
A standard canvas or canvas panel will do just fine if you prefer acrylic. You could also use cold-pressed watercolor paper, though the page may slightly wrinkle. The less water you use, the less the page will buckle.
While this tutorial will focus on oil and acrylic, you can still apply these impressionist painting techniques with gouache or watercolor. Student grade and artist grade will both suffice here.
The best brushes for impressionist painting techniques are the round and the flat. Round brushes are incredibly versatile because they help blend and block large areas.
A Palette Knife
While not as essential as other items, it’s still an excellent tool for pushing your creativity. It also discourages you from blending over much so you can focus on shapes.
The square paintbrush is lovely for getting creative with hard angles and fun shapes. Since impressionism focuses on stylization, square brushes create unique patterns with less effort. You can even use their straight edge to create thin lines.
A Pencil and Paper
Less really is more – a pencil and paper will help you develop the sketch for this tutorial. I use mechanical pencils and copy paper to focus less on ‘expensive’ supplies and more on the final result.
Creating an impressionist-style painting can be tricky if you feel the need to edit your sketch repeatedly. Tracing paper is helpful for helping you transfer your drawing once it’s ready.
A Kneaded Eraser
I adore the kneaded eraser for efficiently removing graphite without leaving a mess. You can also ‘scrub’ it over a drawing to eliminate excess lines without removing the entire sketch.
Step-By-Step Tutorial to Paint In the Impressionist Style
By the end of this tutorial, you’ll be able to recreate the impressionist style easily. In fact, you’ll be surprised by how inventive and quirky your brushstrokes get!
Step #1: Choose Your Subject Matter
I can’t stress enough the importance of choosing a simple subject for learning impressionism. After all, the goal is to get comfortable with a new technique instead of going wild with complexity.
I highly recommend the following subjects to help you focus on bold strokes and different hues:
- A vase of flowers
- A portrait
- A fruit
- A jacket on a wall
- A river
Choose the most comfortable setting for your needs. If you prefer to do en plein air of a river outside, go for it. If you’d rather set up a still life in the comfort of your studio, that’s great, too.
Step #2: Do a Few Test Brushstrokes
Impressionism boasts differing brush strokes and vibrant textures. This technique requires more brain power than copying what’s in front of you, so do a test first.
Do a few practice brushstrokes in a sketchbook in order to get comfortable with creating different shapes. For example, you may find fat, square strokes do well to block in large spaces. After more experimentation, you may notice thin squiggles do well to suggest wrinkles on a piece of cloth.
This sketchbook practice helps you experiment with scumbling or trippy shapes before committing to the entire painting. In fact, you can even reference the brush strokes in your book to save you time.
Step #3: Get a Sketch Onto Your Surface
Once you’ve experimented a little bit, it’s time to get a sketch onto your canvas. There are a few practical ways to get down the foundation for your painting.
The most straightforward method is to draw directly onto the surface. If you’re going to paint over a basic drawing, such as an apple or a leaf, I recommend this method.
However, consider sketching on copy paper if your drawing is more complex. Take several minutes to work out the kinks in your drawing before getting it ready for tracing paper. In my experience, it’s faster to polish a sketch on regular paper instead of on a canvas.
Graphite doesn’t remove easily from canvas and will look messy after several erasing attempts.
Step #4: Get Down The Biggest Brushstrokes First
Getting down large, simple brushstrokes is essential for blocking in the shape of the subject. If you jump straight into the details, your painting will lose focus and fail to capture the mood of everyday life.
Try experimenting with different blocky shapes such as square or circular. You can then smudge these shapes to add texture or get a little blending in. While some blending is fine for impressionism, keep it minimal to let your brushstrokes shine.
On a similar note, it’s also fine to have a few flat areas. A smooth wash of color can help the eye ‘breathe’ alongside all the different squiggles, squares, and smudges. Just like blending, keep flat areas minimal and use them strategically to help the viewer’s eye travel.
Over time, you’ll learn the mindset behind famous impressionists like Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet. You can carry these lessons to future works so you can create more vibrant and compelling works of art.
Step #5: Work Your Way Down to Smaller, More Stylized Brushstrokes
Impressionism is all about adding style and abstraction to the everyday. Now that you’ve blocked in major areas, you can start whittling your painting down to smaller details.
Keep in mind these smaller brushstrokes can still represent areas such as light, shallow, or changes in hue. As you observe your subject, get creative on how you can transform mundane detail into impressionist painting styles. For example, you can represent the folds in a jacket with curling or jagged lines. The petals of a flower can look extra soft with small smudges or tiny dots.
Many contemporary artists and classical artists use dots to great effect in impressionism. Both stippling and pointillism are techniques that will help you think and paint like an impressionist.
Step #6: Add Playful Touch-Ups to Wrap Up Your Work With Style
The end of your impressionist painting is a fantastic time to add playful touch-ups. Learning to paint like an impressionist also involves adding unforgettable details to bring your illustration together.
If you like to depict landscapes, you can try adding a series of dots to suggest highlights along grass or the sides of a mountain. If you’re doing a still life, think of ways to spruce up your brush strokes. A little blending of colors or a few playful splatters could breathe new life into your depiction.
An enjoyable way to let loose is using a palette knife. These tools are fantastic for laying down colors or smudging around what’s already on the canvas. You can even use your palette knife to carve out paint in certain areas like impasto. The sky’s the limit!
Impressionist Painting Techniques to Inspire You
You don’t need to reinvent the impressionist style all on your own. Impressionist painters of the past have plenty of wisdom to share, so let’s take a look at a few examples.
A Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Édouard Manet
Impressionism and painterly realism aren’t opposed to each other. In fact, they provide each different fantastic contrast to make the viewer’s eyes dance.
Édouard Manet deeply understood the need for visual balance in his work. This painting showcases smooth areas as well as a hearty level of scumbling and shape work. There’s also a higher level of detail on the main subject, while the crowd in the background is hinted at with smudges.
This approach is a clever way to portray how detail gets more blurred the further a subject is from the viewer. It’s actually rooted in how the human eye perceives light.
Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge by Claude Monet
Claude Monet is one of the most famous impressionist painters and you can already see why. His phenomenal environment study showcases the visual intrigue the impressionist movement is known for.
This study is one of my favorite impressionist paintings for its romantically cluttered brushwork. The entire piece feels lush, overgrown, and sparkling.
Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet
While Claude Monet frequently showcased a high level of detail in his impressionist paintings, he sometimes chose a minimalist approach. This illustration uses loose washes and scattered brushstrokes to create an evocative scene.
Claude Monet’s painting shows how important it is to capture emotion in the impressionist movement. Visual accuracy is achieved not through realism, but through sheer style.
Woman with a Parasol – Madame Monet and Her Son by Claude Monet
This impressionist painting dazzles the world with its impeccable capture of a daytime scene. Everything from the lighting to the texture feels incredibly real.
Notice how short strokes are used to great effect to hint at the chaotic texture of grass and flowers. You can also see broken color along the skyline – despite not being smooth, it still feels naturally hazy. These painting techniques prove that there’s more than one way to capture your environment.
The Ballet Class by Edgar Degas
Learning how to paint like an impressionist means getting playful with your stylistic inspirations. Edgar Degas takes a leaf out of painterly realism’s book to create a scene that’s true to life, yet still abstract.
Notice how there’s a crisp level of detail closer to the viewer, yet some areas are smudged and indistinct. I love how this scene feels like a memory – some details are sharp, yet others have faded.
Frequently Asked Questions
Still have a few questions about creating an impressionist painting? I’ll answer some below to help you on your journey.
What are the Three Key Features of Impressionism?
An impressionist painting needs three essential details – carving out light, visible brushstrokes, and spacious compositions. You can still combine other styles, such as painterly realism or surrealism.
What is the Broken Color Technique?
This technique involves the artist blocking down color, but not blending. Many impressionist painters, like Vincent Van Gogh, prefer abstracting details like light and hue changes.
What Pure Color is Rarely Used in Impressionism?
Black is rarely used in impressionism because it’s too harsh. It mutes the hue changes of warm vs cool colors and doesn’t usually reflect everyday life.
Impressionism Changes the Way You Look at the World
Whether en plein air or a portrait of a friend, impressionism will transform the way you look at the world. You’ll find new ways to express your perspective on everyday life.
I never tire of how magical impressionism makes even the most mundane scenes. This style’s vibrant colors, unique brushstrokes, and playful abstraction make you feel like a child again.
You don’t have to learn the impressionism style all on your own. Find online art classes that can offer you experienced critiques and engaging classes to develop your craft.