The Impressionists were mainly interested in landscape painting. They were intrigued by the momentary changes in the color of the sky at different times of day and the way complementary colors affected each other when placed side by side. The Impressionists, especially Monet, were also fascinated with the reflection of light on water. For this reason, the first lesson in our four-part unit was a painting of reflections on water.
Reflections on Water
The students painted a landscape on the top half of an 18 x 24" (46 x 61 cm) light blue construction paper, onto which they had glued a darker shade of blue paper on the bottom half to represent water. As soon as they painted a small area of their landscapes, they folded their papers along the horizontal line where the darker blue paper started. Their reflections were essentially a monoprint of the paintings on the top half of their papers. Because the monoprint tends to be a fuzzier image than the painting, the reflections seemed almost real. The ripples of water and the blurry effect of mountains, trees and sky were easily achieved.
The Colors of the Sky
The second lesson was motivated by a short film, Sky. The time-lapse photography of the dramatic landscape of the Canadian Rockies showed a day from sunrise to sunset in a matter of fourteen minutes. The students understood that without the sun, without light, there are no colors, and the colors of the sky are very different at different times of the day. After the film, I showed the students some techniques of blending pastels and going from light to dark. It's important to use charcoal paper that has a tooth to hold the chalk colors. Good quality colored chalk is also essential.
Before the third lesson, the students watched a movie about the life and work of Monet in their classrooms. The librarian read them two books: Linnea in Monet's Garden and A Weekend with Renoir.
When they came to the art room, I showed them slides and reproductions of paintings by Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Degas, Pissarro and Seurat. They received a hand out that explained Impressionism and color theory. We reviewed the color wheel, complementary colors, tints and shades, and saturation and intensity of color. I demonstrated the Impressionist techniques of using a short brush-stroke and complementary colors side by side.
I explained color mixing by using primary colors side by side, for example, yellow and blue dots mixing in the viewer's eye into green. One student exclaimed, "We mix colors the same way on the computer!" This really showed the class how complex and scientific the investigations of color by the Impressionists were.
After practicing color mixing and short brush strokes, the students painted landscapes based on Monet and Renoir reproductions. They took special care to observe the direction of the strokes: how the artist followed the form of objects and the shape of clouds by changing the directions of their brush strokes.
Painting Outside the Art Room
Now knowledgeable about the Impressionists, their significance in art history and their painting techniques and styles, the students were ready to paint outside the art room.
The park in front of City Hall provided an ideal setting: a pond with reflections of foliage; stone bridges, beautiful trees and shrubs.
I placed a picnic table by the edge of the pond with eighty ice cube trays in a plastic food storage bag, twelve colors of acrylic paint in each tray, heavy watercolor taped onto cardboard, 14 x 20" (36 x 51 cm); viewfinders, 8 x 10" (20 x 25 cm); cardboard with a 4 x 6" (10 x 15 cm) rectangle cut out from the middle, brushes (water would thin their paints too much), and garbage bags on which to sit.
The Outdoor Experience
I set up my easel and started a sketch. I spread out a tarp, so when the students arrived, they sat there for my demonstration.
They all remembered Monet, painting by the ocean on a freezing, stormy morning, when his easel was blown into the water by the wind. I explained that the viewfinder would be their most important tool and that it would show them what to paint. They were to match the real and many varieties of color in the sky, trees and water.
Choosing Places to Paint
My directions were specific and to the point. The students were enthused and collected their supplies. They chose places to paint, sitting in the grass or standing on the bridge overlooking the pond.
The finished paintings were hung to dry on a laundry rope, stretched between trees. After everyone was gone,I made sure there was nothing left behind,packed up supplies and collected all the paintings.
Preparation is Important
It is definitely not an easy undertaking to bring ninety children outside to paint, but it is an experience they will never forget. I recommend that the teacher in charge seek help: student teachers, classroom teachers, parent volunteers are all available when sought out.
The preparation of the students and the supplies is also essential. The location of a good site and a sunny day are most important. Taking all these factors into consideration, the project is sure to be a success, as we could judge from the work of our students. They were truly impressive Impressionists, if only for one day.
Susan Varga is an art specialist at Horace Mann Elementary School in Newton, Massachusetts.