This blog post is #2 in my series of “Painting Impressionism” in which I will highlighting my experiences in copying Monet’s Cliffs at Étretat, Sunset (1885). In this series, I will discuss the lessons I am learning about the artists, the medium, and life in nineteenth century France as I try to put myself in front of the canvas to replicate my impressions.(see link to Introduction of series here)
For a little background on the subject of Monet painting the cliffs at Étretat, see my former blog post here.
According to Charles Chetham, Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum, describes the cliffs at Étretat: “In each of these, the sensation of movement prevails, whether in subtle, inconstant shimmer of sunlight on becalmed waters, or in the dramatic turbulence of frenzied seas, wind-shredded clouds, or tangled grass surmounting craggy prominences”.
So, how does one depict this on a canvas? Monet did this by spending many hours standing in the low tide, riding in fishing boats, sketching the cliffs and waves, then returning to his home to record these images in his paintings. As photography was a new medium that Monet did not have privy to, he relied on memory. Day after day, in all seasons, from different angles and positions (there are actually three prominent cliffs at Étretat:), he tried to capture the perfect impression. There are three prominent cliffs at Étretat:, the Porte d’Amont, the Manneporte, and the Porte d’Aval which I will discuss in this post.
My first painting is a copy of Monet’s Porte d’Aval, a naturally formed arch with a l’aiguille, or freestanding needle-like rock. According to the Clark Institute, “Monet painted this view of the cliffs from an unusual location, accessible only by boat or via a precipitous path. The writer Guy de Maupassant described how the artist ‘watched the sun and the shadows, capturing in a few brushstrokes a falling ray of light or a passing cloud.’”
This is my favorite painting of Monet’s view of Pont d’Aval, also known as the Elephant as from a certain vantage point, the cliff and the needled look like an elephant’s large head with his trunk coming up out of the ocean. In his Impressionistic style, the effects of the light from the sunset mixed with the hazy atmosphere create an illusion of motion on the surface of the water. Part of Monet’s technique was applying one color of paint over another while it was still wet, creating a “blurry” partial mixture of color, unlike the palettes of his contemporaries who thoroughly blended the colors on their palettes before applying them to the canvas.
According to letters that Monet sent his future wife Alice, he would set up his easel on the shore in the cold February winds and create studies of the changing weather and tides and difficult terrain. He would then take his studies back to his studio to produce finished paintings. Monet painted 18 views of this cliff in 1883.
Even though I am more experienced using watercolors, I used acrylic for my first copy of this painting. I like the bolder colors that the acrylics reproduce and the fact that I can cover up my mistakes as I go. Unfortunately, as you can see, I was not able to mix the colors of my palette as Monet. The greens are too harsh and I did not focus enough on using complementary colors. I could not replicate this incredible reflection on the ocean surface to mirror the sunset and the shadow of the cliffs. If at first you don’t succeed….
My second copy is in watercolor. These colors are closer to my preference of palette colors and I prefer this painting to my acrylic. I realized as I was painting that the type of brush and the brush strokes are essential in painting and apparently, I need to improve both!
I realized through this process of copying Monet’s impressions that I had not relied on my own impressions upon seeing this cliff. My original painting is much more personal and reflects my euphoria of standing on this shore. I also confirmed through this process of copying Monet that I have a long way to go as an artist. Copying masterpieces can be very intimidating. How did he do it? So beautiful; so peaceful, so brilliant!
(For my readers who are artists, novice or expert, I would love to hear about your experiences of copying great works by Monet! )
Copyright 2018 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
**In my next blog post, I will highlight my experiences painting Van Gogh’s Landscape in Snow.