Palettes and Techniques of the Impressionist Claude Monet

A Look at the Colors the Painter Used

Impressionistic painting of two haystacks by Monet
Haystacks, End of Summer, by Claude Monet, 1891. Photo Josse/Leemage/Corbis/Getty Images

There are two common misnomers about Monet. The first is that, as an Impressionist, Monet's paintings were done spontaneously. In fact, Monet studied his subjects intently, planned his paintings, and worked hard to achieve his results. He often painted a series of the same subject to capture the changing effects of the light, swapping canvases as the day progressed.

The second is that all of Monet's paintings were done on location. In fact, many were painted or finished back in his studio. Monet is quoted as saying: "Whether my cathedral views, my views of London and other canvases are painted from life or not is nobody's business and of no importance whatsoever." 1

Colors in Monet's Palette

Monet used quite a limited palette, banishing browns and earth colors and, by 1886, black had also disappeared. Asked in 1905 what colors he used, Monet said: "The point is to know how to use the colors, the choice of which is, when all's said and done, a matter of habit. Anyway, I use flake white, cadmium yellow, vermilion, deep madder, cobalt blue, emerald green, and that's all." 2

According to James Heard in his book Paint Like Monet, analysis of Monet's paintings show Monet used these nine colors:

  • Lead white (modern equivalent = titanium white)
  • Chrome yellow (modern equivalent = cadmium yellow light)
  • Cadmium yellow
  • Viridian green
  • Emerald green
  • French ultramarine
  • Cobalt blue
  • Madder red (modern equivalent = alizarin crimson)
  • Vermilion
  • Ivory black (but only if you're copying a Monet from before 1886)

The palette is an example of a limited palette, used by many painters, of a warm and cool of each primary color, along with white. Some painters, like Monet, will also often add the secondary color, green, to facilitate mixing landscape greens, and to use to mix with alizarin crimson to make a chromatic black. (For more on the colors the Impressionists used for shadows, see what color shadows are.)

Monet's Use of a Light Ground

Monet painted on canvas which was a light color, such as white, very pale gray or very light yellow, and used opaque colors. A close-up study of one of Monet's paintings will show that colors were often used straight from the tube or mixed on the canvas. But that he also scumbled colors — using thin, broken layers of paint that allows the lower layers of color to shine through.

Monet build up texture through his brushstrokes, which vary from thick to thin, with tiny dabs of light, adding contours for definition and color harmonies, working from dark to light.

Monet's Series Paintings

Monet painted many subjects again and again, but every one of his series paintings is different, whether it's a painting of a water lily or a haystack.

In October 1890 Monet wrote a letter to the art critic Gustave Geffroy about the haystacks series he was painting, saying: "I'm hard at it, working stubbornly on a series of different effects, but at this time of year the sun sets so fast that it's impossible to keep up with it ... the further I get, the more I see that a lot of work has to be done in order to render what I'm looking for: 'instantaneity', the 'envelope' above all, the same light spread over everything... I'm increasingly obsessed by the need to render what I experience, and I'm praying that I'll have a few more good years left to me because I think I may make some progress in that direction..." 3

The painting of haystacks shown in this article is one of a series of paintings Monet worked on starting in late August 1890, returning to the same field and subject day after day for a year to study the effects of light during different times of day and seasons. 

Updated by Lisa Marder

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References:
1. Monet's Years at Giverny, p28, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1978.
2. Monet by Himself, p196, edited by Richard Kendall, MacDonald & Co, London, 1989.
3. Monet by Himself, p172, edited by Richard Kendall, MacDonald & Co, London, 1989.

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