Books: Paint with the Impressionists by Jonathan Stephenson (review)

Something I’ve always struggled with in art is letting myself paint loosely and not getting bogged down with perfection and realism. Though I do enjoy painting and drawing (or at least trying to paint and draw) realistic art, I also want to paint in a more expressionist or Impressionist style, but every time I try, my subconscious takes over and demands that I make everything accurate and detailed. As a result, I ended up with a painting that’s neither realistic or Impressionist but is just a colourful mess.

Though I know that instruction books aren’t a magic solution – you still have to put the effort in and practice to become good at something – I thought it might be worth picking up a book about Impressionist painting to see if there were any tips or tricks I could learn. A quick Google search yielded a number of results for various books, and I ended up buying Paint with the Impressionists by Jonathan Stephenson.

The first parts of the book provide a brief history of Impressionism and some of the key artists (like Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne and Renoir) of the movement and how their work evolved. It also looks at the sorts of tools and materials (including the paints and particular colours) they used and their techniques. I found the historical aspect quite interesting – even though I was familiar with some of it – and it was interesting to look at the different styles and preferred subject matter between artists within the Impressionist movement. The materials and tools sections also talked about modern day equivalents, so the reader can go out and buy what they need in any art shop if they want to attempt the exercises in the book.

A little over half of the book is taken up by demonstrations painted in an Impressionist style by the author, Jonathan Stephenson. A lot of art demonstration books annoy me because they have one or two little pictures of the painting in progress, followed by a full page shot of the finished painting, proclaiming “Look how easy it is to paint this!” Though some of the progress shots in this book are small, most are a decent size, and there are a lot that show close-ups of the detail and brush strokes used. There are 25 demonstrations in the book, each based on the style of one of the key Impressionist artists and ranging in subject from landscapes and still lifes to portraits and figures. Most of them are done in oil paints but there are a couple that use acrylics or pastels. The accompanying explanations and descriptions for the pictures provide a good idea of how the artist completed each stage of the artwork, making it fairly easy for even a relatively inexperienced artist to follow along.

Paint with the Impressionists by Jonathan Stephenson is a worthwhile purchase for anyone interested in Impressionist painting. I got a second-hand copy off eBay for about $11 but a new copy from the Book Depository only costs about $22. Those who are purely interested in a historical perspective will enjoy the information about how the movement got started and how the original impressionist artists liked to work, while those who want to learn to paint in an Impressionist style will find the comprehensive demonstrations throughout the book helpful and fun to paint along with. I’m looking forward to applying the techniques from this book to some landscapes and still lifes of my own.

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