Sunday, June 16, 2013

How to Paint Like Paul Cezanne

During my first (and last) painting class in Amsterdam, which lasted for about 10 sessions, I was asked to try and paint a still life in the style of Paul Cezanne, which according to my teacher was a simple master to emulate and an easy way to learn technique.

What inevitably followed was a terrible attempt of trying to learn drawing, brushwork, color mixing and composition, all in two 3-hour sessions, with an inevitable weaksauce result:

Frustrated with what had just happened I took a trip to the Hermitage museum, which is a few blocks from my place, and was showing an impressionist exhibition including 3 works by Cezanne.

Here are some of the notes I made from two paintings.  I decided to share them, because we don't usually hear this sort of information from curators and other people who know art.  They tell us what a 'disturbed character' the artist was, how they painted this the year 19xx, or where they lived and who they hung out with during that time, and the feeling conveyed by the piece.  So what I think is lacking in all that is how the bloody painting was made, and my notes may seem mundane, but they are a technical look at a Cezanne.

Landscape Notes, The Banks of the Marne

Limited Palette:

First thing you notice is how limited his palette is. Basically down to white, green, blue and brown.  This gives imediate unity and atmosphere to the piece.


Then there's one of his big trademarks, the short uni-directional brush strokes. These are grouped in directional patches which are determined by areas of the same color and value.  Contrary to the impression of totally loose and careless spontaneity that his work protracts, I have the feeling it was rather meticulously executed.

The brushwork seems soft and using rather meager amounts of thinned oil paint. Texture doesn't seem to be a concern and you can clearly discern the canvas grain through the paint.

There is no visible light source, he goes for atmosphere instead


Several patches of the canvas are left totally untouched and you can see the white or faded yellow showing through.  Also, he doesn't seem concerned with softening his brush strokes too much.  They seem carefully made, and then left as they are.

He also seems to leave some of the drawing outlines around objects such as mountains.

Still Life Notes, Fruits

There's significant differences here versus the landscape. I'm not good at judging composition yet, but he seems to divide spaces quite radically the wall, the fruit, the cloth, the vases and the table.  Each of them being of a certain value family.

Although the brushwork and outlines around the objects still make this a very recognizable Cezanne, the amount of paint he uses is much more generous compared to the landscape.  The background only uses directional strokes around the objects on the foreground.

Also, the direction of the brushstrokes is sometimes aiding, and sometimes in oposition to giving body and roundness to objects such as the bread and the apples.

He uses hard edges for his main objects.

Other details include the fact that his table and vases are always crooked and misaligned.  Same goes for the shape of objects like the bowl.

He uses several layers of color for the apples, which have some 4 different tones of orange and red.

For painting classes in Amsterdam and other art lessons:

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