Many seem to love the look of the French Impressionistic masters. When I ask who their favorite artist is, Claude Monet wins hands down. His work is universally embraced by young and not-so-young. It is romantic dignity, and the works of Monet and other artists of this period seem to be a proper choice for many styles of interiors.
So influential is this style, that it now can be classified as an interior theme. More than a painting style, it is a way of looking at the entire interior palette. We can decorate any room we please in the Impressionistic style. Let us examine more closely what impressionism is, where it came from and how an interior can become a work of impressionistic art.
SEEDS OF IMPRESSIONISM
Proper credit for the foundation for the Impressionistic School of painting must go to Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) who broke with the tradition of painting strictly indoors. His suggestion to paint out-of-doors was met with intense ridicule and harsh criticism; many contemporaries considered him a heretic and condemned his work as impure. (Even today it is not atypical for artists to condemn one another when their views do not agree.)
However, Delacroix's nonconformist approach was firmly based. Through his personal studies of nature he had concluded that the interplay of colors seen in the moving, changing light of day actually enhanced the perception of colors rather than diminished them.
The way this phenomenon, known as chiaroscuro, works is that when two colors are placed near each other in an analogous or complementary (contrasting) scheme, our eye/brain decoder mechanism bridges the gap between them allowing us to "see" colors that may or may not exist. This sometimes is referred to as optical blending. Further, the effect increases when the edges are softened or imprecise, and colors bleed into one another.
Artists also use colors that are low contrast, meaning they are close together, in several ways:
• Colors that are next to each other either bleed and blend (optical mixing) or purposely are contrasting in intensity for effect.
• Colors vary in value. Value is the amount of light/white or dark/black added to or inherent in a hue. The darker, deeper colors suggest shadow; the light colors often are seen as dappled sunlight.
Light is a key factor in making a painting come alive. The light seems natural, but also seems to move as though it is resting in that spot for only a moment then, with the moving of leaves, the color may change.
• Both dull and bright colors are used in impressionistic paintings. Dull colors are neutralized or grayed colors, softened by the addition of neighboring or complementary colors, and either darkened or lightened. (When darkened, these neutralized colors are referred to as tones. When lightened, they are known as pastels.)
The Impressionistic masters seemed to adhere to the Law of Chromatic Distribution: the largest areas of a painting are covered in the most neutralized colors of the scheme (using tones and pastels); as areas of the painting become smaller, the more intense the color becomes proportionately-just a flash of color, a dapple of sunlight. These smaller areas of intensity make the painting interesting, never dull or boring.
Some impressionistic schemes use warm colors blended for rich effect, particularly as seen in Vincent Van Gogh's famous sunflowers, which has in recent years been the source for the sunflower-mania only now beginning to fade. That precise look we have all witnessed, however, is not Impressionism, although it was inspired by it.
MASTERS OF IMPRESSIONISM AND EXPRESSIONISM
The Impressionistic School of Painting dates from c.1865 to 1900. The Expressionistic School from 1885 to 1910. The most famous artists of these schools intermingled styles of painting. They included Édouard Manet (1832-1883), Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Monet (1840-1926), Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) and Van Gogh (1853-1890).
It is somewhat ironic that although their works are celebrated and reproductions and prints grace homes and nonresidential interiors around the world, they often were not appreciated in their own time. Over the years, their works have become standards of excellence.
Today Impressionistic paintings seem to be at home in many styles of decor. They are universally appealing. Perhaps that is true because today we revere nature more than at any time in the past. We care about protecting and preserving; we seek peace in the tranquillity of nature as a contrast to the intensely stressful life we have created in the world of free enterprise. To use natural landscapes in our interiors is purely an extension of the attitude that nature holds the greatest beauty we shall ever know in this life, although there may be greater wonders in the next.
If an entire interior is composed in an impressionistic style, the result could be visual confusion. This is because there are few areas in the paintings that are solid, and if no solid areas exist in a room, it is too busy for the eye and brain to decode.
Rather, focus on subtle texture as a background element. Rather than plain surfaces, choose surfaces with a slightly mottled, grained, brushed, clouded, slightly sponged or softer look than surfaces that are hard, slick or precise. But beware, in good interior design there must be a variety of textures, and if one becomes too visually demanding, the balance will be upset. Above all, the impressionistic interior will be soft and imprecise. Colors will not be clean and clear, but neutralized and dull, blended and mingled.
As nature was clearly the source of inspiration for the Impressionistic masters, so nature should be the inspiration for the backgrounds and furnishings of an impressionistic interior. There are some rules that nature follows in creating the cohesive, interesting whole that we aspire to imitate. These are:
1. Any scene comprises many colors. That is why nature is always interesting, never dull. Yet in nature colors are arranged to give an impression of simplicity. The secret is that every color used has an organic function and the rightness of the whole is based on a complex, well thought out plan.
2. No color is uniformly even. Rather, it is shaded. In a green landscape there are thousands of greens, and besides greens there are thousands of other colors-most of which are subtle. These are rock colors, soil colors, flower and foliage colors, water colors, etc.
3. There are high proportions of non-positive, non-assertive colors and small proportions of sharp, bright accent colors. This embodies the Law of Chromatic Distribution, discussed above.
4. There is a ratio between shininess and dullness. The colors in the largest areas in a natural scene are quiet and undemanding, while bright, vibrant colors are seen in a very small amount compared to the overall scene. Most of any natural landscape does not sparkle or glitter or shine. It has a matte finish in the main. But there always are tiny flecks of glitter, from the sparkle of dew in the morning to the refracted light bounding off lakes and streams and ponds, to the sun back-lighting deciduous leaves.
5. Pattern and texture are everywhere. Every leaf is veined, every tree is textured. But it does not show from afar; you have to come up close to examine it to find it. This patterning and texturing go hand-in-hand with the shaded coloring, discussed in point number two above. This is why there is dimension in the coloring, why no color is flat, uniform or even.
6. There are no identical patterns or monotonous repetition of patterns-although there is plenty of pattern in nature. Each leaf is slightly different from every other leaf. Each lichen is a little different in color and shape from its neighbors. Yet all these compose into a quiet interesting whole. There is tremendous variety, but there is unity within the variety-consequently, no confusion.
7. There is a ratio of patterned things to plain things. Even the non-patterned are mostly textured. This allow colors to become broken and hence to scatter by relief-the high and low areas of a surface. Natural things may have a sort of iridescent quality looking like one color in one type of light and like another color in another light.
8. Darker, solid colors occur underfoot, producing a sense of stability. The lighter, more delicate colors occur higher, just above or just below the horizon line.
In Impressionistic paintings interior colors interact; they are interdependent on one another. In this way, the principle of optical interrelationships is at the crux of success in a nature-based scheme. No color stands alone. Rather, when it is brought into combination with other colors, we see a tremendous interplay that seems to enhance both colors. The sum is greater than the parts.
Colors, like people, seem to need one another and when the combinations are skillfully accomplished, the result is a work of art.
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She is a practicing interior designer and has authored several books including Window Treatments and Understanding Fabrics. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.