People often ask me what style my paintings are, adding, "Is this Impressionism?" My answer is always, "I think of them as painterly, because they're realistic with strong brushwork.". But in all honesty, I'm not entirely sure about the difference.
So now is my chance to investigate the idea of Impressionism vs. Painterliness. For this post, I decided to focus on paintings that depict figures, since that is a large part of what I paint.
When I think of Impressionism, I think first of Claude Monet, and then all the rest of the impressionists including Berthe Morrisot, Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, Edouard Manet, Camille Pissaro, Pierre-Aguste Renoir, and Paul Cezanne.
In general impressionists painted landscapes instead of genre paintings (with figures), but here are two excellent examples of impressionist figure paintings by Monet, left, and a detail of a painting by Morrisot, right.
Wikipedia says that impressionism is characterized by "relatively small, thin, yet visible brush strokes, open composition, emphasis on accurate depiction of light..., ordinary subject matter, inclusion of movement..., and unusual visual angles."
You can see all these characteristics in the paintings above. Also note that the figures seem more shimmering than solid.
Now contrast those paintings with these by John Singer Sargent on the left and Joaquin Sorolla on the right. Where impressionistic paintings generally have small, overlapping brushwork with colors that blend visually, here there is more of a sense of a solid form, and the figures are is clearly, although loosely, defined. These artists use color, bold brushwork, and edges to model form. To me this feels painterly.
Wikipedia says "An oil painting is painterly when there are visible brushstrokes, the result of applying paint in a less than completely controlled manner, generally without closely following carefully drawn lines." Well, it may look uncontrolled, but I say these masters knew exactly what they were doing when they wielded that brush.
But then Wikipedia goes on to say "The Impressionists, Fauvist, and Abstract Expressionists tended strongly to be painterly movements." Huh?
So Impressionism is by definition painterly? But to me the brushwork and the result is very different! This article, from ThoughtCo.com, agrees with me and considers the two styles to be separate movements.
Well, let's move on.
And now we come to my work. I must admit, when I was considering writing on this subject, I didn't think that in doing so I would be putting my work alongside that of the masters, which is complete hubris. Oh well.
But I digress. If you do put my work next to the previous images, you'll see that my brushwork is more similar to the second group than to the first. I don't consider myself an impressionist because I do not use small brushstrokes juxtapositioned against each other to create the effects of light. I use larger brushstrokes of solid color to define form and create a sense of mass. I love the feel of laying down a juicy stroke of just the right color in just the right place to create the sense of an object in sunlight. That, for me is the magic of painting.
Impressionist or painterly painter? In researching this article, I learned that the answer is not clearly defined. Certainly many impressionist painters, like Mary Cassatt, Edouard Manet, and Edward Degas produced some work that seems more painterly than impressionistic by my definition.
In the end it's up to to the artist to define their style. I think my new answer will be, "Yes, my work can seem impressionistic, but I consider it to be painterly, because of the strong brushwork and solid forms." In fact, I think I'll write that on an index card for handy reference.