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Design Trend Report: Impressionism

Marc Schenker September 2, 2021 · 15 min read
Impressionism, of the various 19-century design styles, carves out its own niche in an otherwise crowded art landscape. It combines several factors that other design trends may use in their compositions, but it uses them in a purposeful approach to style that makes this trend worth noting and memorable. As with many 19th-century design movements, such as Art Nouveau, Impressionism originated in Europe, a hotbed of creativity at the time that gave rise to numerous styles designers all over the world still learn from and incorporate to this day. Because it was revolutionary for its day, breaking with the so-called norms of the art world back then, it faced a good deal of resistance and even criticism from the elites and establishment of the art community. The Impressionists of their day were seen as nothing more than radicals who arrogantly flouted the rules of academic design and painting. Ironically, more than 100 years after its founding, this design trend is studied, copied, and serves as inspiration for countless young designers, creatives, and artists who want to leave their mark.

The Origins of Impressionism

To understand how this movement came to exist, we have to look at the cultural and political landscape of Europe at the time, during the mid to late 19th century. It was a time when Napoleon III—the heir and nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, who himself contributed to the growing popularity of slab serifs—went to war and rejuvenated Paris. Against this backdrop of upheaval, one notable exception of consistency and stability was The Académie des Beaux-Arts, an academic association that exists to this day as part of The Institut de France. Think of the Académie as the gatekeeper of the traditional French approach to painting, especially where style and content were concerned. It was the gold standard of everything art and design in that moment in time. The Académie had strict rules for the aesthetics it deemed acceptable in French paintings. These included:
  • Realistic images that were carefully painted
  • Accurate brush strokes that had the effect of concealing the painter’s hand in the works
  • Toned-down colors, thanks to the addition of golden varnish
  • Portraits, religious themes, and historical scenes (while landscapes and still life were held in contempt)
The Académie enjoyed throwing its weight around by holding yearly art shows called the Salon de Paris, where juries would decide which artists’ works entered in the show would get prizes and therefore have their reputations greatly enhanced. Think of it as the Academy Awards—for lack of a better analogy—of 19th-century Paris’ art scene. Of course, the prizes awarded at the Salon de Paris were more a reflection of the inflexible standards the Académie imposed, rather than always being a show that decided works based on actual merit.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
You can probably guess by this point that this design trend was the approach to art and design that would aggressively challenge this old order. As with all revolutionary movements, they usually form out of a single idea that’s shared by a few, early adherents. Impressionism was no exception. You’ve also likely heard these names before:
  • Claude Monet
  • Pierre-Auguste Renoir
  • Frederic Bazille
  • Alfred Sisley
These giants in art history—particularly Monet and Renoir—were the founders of the movement. They came to realize that their approach to painting and design, what would later be termed Impressionism, was rooted in their enjoyment of painting contemporary scenes and landscapes instead of the specific subjects and themes the Académie dictated. A revolution was born. Their technique for arriving at this realization involved painting in the outdoors. Whereas it was the norm to only sketch outdoors—and then take said sketches and then convert them into carefully finished paintings later on in the studio—these four iconoclasts painted outdoors to develop a new style altogether. In involved:
  • Painting in direct sunlight
  • Utilizing vibrant, synthetic pigments
  • A brighter and airier approach to painting
The 1860s was a pivotal time for the then-nascent style, as Monet and his friends began to experiment with this approach and submit their paintings to the Salon-run jury show. Unsurprisingly, half of their works were rejected with consistency, while those works submitted in the style the Académie approved of were accepted. For instance, Edouard Manet’s classic The Luncheon on the Grass was completely rejected by the Salon jury, not because of its depiction of a naked woman, but due to it placing a nude in a realistic setting as opposed to a historical or allegorical environment. After an outcry from French artists at the excessive number of rejections by the Salon, Napoleon III set up the Salon des Refusés in 1863, intended to give the public a chance to judge artworks for themselves and taking it out of the hands of the draconian Salon jury. Thanks to the law of unintended consequences, this second Salon actually pulled in more attendees than the original, mainstream Salon while also emphasizing the new, bold direction in art and design that Impressionism was spearheading. However, the following years saw a continued rejection of setting up additional Salon des Refusés, which forced Monet and his fellow Impressionists to act on their own: they founded the Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers, a society dedicated to showcasing their works independently. A condition of being a member of this new society was not to have membership in the old-school Salon. The members’ list of this new society read like a who’s who of famous artists of the time:
  • Claude Monet
  • Paul Cezanne
  • Camille Pissarro
  • Edgar Degas
The first exhibition of the new society occurred in April of 1874, held at the studio of famed French photographer Nadar, whose real name was Gaspard-Félix Tournachon. In spite of this great progress for the new movement, Impressionism wasn’t out of the woods just yet. The exhibition came under fire with a lot of criticism for the unfinished nature of its works, with art critics likening them to mere sketches instead of proper paintings.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Ironically enough, Monet’s now-renowned painting—Impression, Sunrise—received the fiercest attacks. Louis Leroy, an art critic for satirical newspaper Le Charivari, actually coined the term “Impressionist” in a derisive broadside against Monet’s work. However, the public and the artists ran with this pejorative, with the movement adopting it as its official moniker. Now, more than 100 years later, this movement is held in high regard, and Monet’s Impression, Sunrise ended up kickstarting the movement in earnest and is today on display in France’s Musée Marmottan Monet. It’s funny how history has a tendency to completely turn everything on its head! With the movement gaining steam in France, the Impressionist revolutionaries exhibited their works through their own independent association eight more times between 1874 and 1886. To be sure, there were different levels of commitment by the founders and principal figures of the design movement in this time. While Monet, Pissaro, and Sisley continued to hone their craft in devotion to principles like spontaneity, color, and vividness, others like Degas and Renoir flirted with looser interpretations of the design style. As the years went on, Monet, Sisley, and Renoir began to submit their works again to the traditional Salon, buoyed by the success of their own exhibitions and the public’s acceptance of their new design techniques. As a sign of the artists’ popularity with the public and in exhibitions, many—including Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro—became financially successful from their paintings. By 1890, only a few decades after the Salon had ostracized and rejected the revolutionary Impressionist philosophy, a toned-down version of it had become the norm at official Salon exhibitions. This style had, in the end, conquered its harshest critic by forcing it to adopt its own design philosophy.

The Characteristics of Impressionism

This style was revolutionary during its day and turned the established approach to design on its head, which is what caused it to receive such extreme criticism, initially. Specifically, though, what about its qualities and trademarks made it diverge from the traditional in such a way to invite this massive disapproval from the elites of the day? Here’s a look at what makes this design style stand out and how it compares to other, more mainstream methods:
  • Paint is applied “impasto,” which means that brush strokes are easily seen on the canvas, due to paint being applied in thicker layers with shorter brush strokes
  • The use of the contrast effect to make colors seem more vibrant to the audience, which is achieved by way of applying the colors with as little mixing as possible, usually side-by-side
  • The creation of softer edges in a composition and the mixing of colors because wet paint is applied onto wet paint quickly, without letting subsequent applications of paint enough time to properly dry
  • Natural light is emphasized by highlighting the way that colors reflect from object to object (Monet and Degas therefore often worked in the evenings to create the shading effects of twilight in their works)
  • The rejection of black paint, with no exceptions
  • Combining complementary colors to produce darker tones and grays
  • The use of opaque surfaces (earlier artists had taken advantage of thin paint films or glazes to produce effects)
  • The application of paint to lighter or white ground (earlier artists had utilized more vibrantly colored grounds)
  • Painting shadows with the blue tone of the sky the way it naturally reflects onto surfaces, which produces a sense of “freshness” not previously captured in paintings (this applies to outdoor paintings)
For an idea of the revolutionary and unconventional approaches in technique that are commonplace in this design trend, have a look at some of our Impressionism digital assets from our large selection:
While these traits made it truly one-of-a-kind, it’s also interesting to see where it got its inspiration to go in the direction it did.

The Inspiration Behind Impressionism

We’ve mentioned time and again how famous design trends often borrow or even exchange ideas among each other. Their founders and proponents usually pick up a technique or trait or two and then sometimes put their own spin on things. With this design style, that’s the case, too. Believe it or not, photography—and its approaches to composition, such as the rule of thirds—played a huge role in how this radical movement developed its unique philosophies. As photography was becoming more widespread toward the end of the 19th century, it took hold of the imagination of people like Renoir and Degas, inspiring them to paint momentary action, both in ordinary scenes of people’s lives and landscapes. The same way that a photograph loosens the well-defined boundaries between the main subject and the background, in contrast with traditional paintings, so, too, did Impressionist paintings display scenes of life in a more relaxed way. You can look at the advent of this design trend as a response by artists against the threat to their craft that photography posed. Since photography meant that realistic images were readily produced, you could make the argument that landscapes and portraits weren’t as adequate in creating as realistic depictions of life.
Image Source: Utagawa Kuniyoshi
  Another big influence was ukiyo-e, from Japan. This Japanese art style was expressed in paintings and woodblock prints that focused on history, sumo wrestlers, flora and fauna, travel, female beauty, and erotica. This is an excellent example of Japonism (regarded as the study of Japanese art) or the influence that Japanese art has on European design and art. In a broader sense, the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi-sabi can also be seen in the context of Japonism, in that it’s influenced many Western thoughts on design. Ukiyo-e’s penchant for unorthodox composition and so-called snapshot angles were taken and used by these painters in some of their works. Heavyweights in the genre like Degas was a collector of Japanese prints.

Impressionism in Graphic Design

Impressionism Textures

This pack of 12 high-quality textures showcases the intricate details of this style. Note the thicker brush strokes and the overall effect that these textures are unfinished or otherwise rushed. Of course, they’re not since the similarity to sketches is what makes this design unique and captures the attention of viewers.
Each digitally painted image is 12” X 12”. These textures are ideal for projects like:
  • Web design
  • Business cards
  • Invitations
They’re also great for scrapbooking, if you feel so inclined.

Modern Impressionist PS Brush Studio

A brush system meant to revolutionize how designers work, this brush studio lets you apply paint in ready-to-go palettes without the need to mix anything. Not only does this save you a lot of time and increase your productivity, but it also gives you an incredible amount of choice: 115 color-mixing pattern brushes and 225 pre-fab color blends.
If you’d like to paint with some of the same colors that the masters like Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Van Gogh used, then you may want to also get the aptly named MASTERS collection. It features 175 pre-fab color blends that were created by taking certain colors from small parts of their most famous works to produce these special color blends. This is a great resource for any designer or creative who uses Photoshop, such as:
  • Web designers
  • Illustrators
  • Print designers
  • Hobbyists

Procreate Brush: Painter’s One Brush

Created specifically for Procreate, the painting app available only on iPad, this paint brush is versatile, so designers can use it for lettering, painting and drawing. If you’ve wanted to replicate the thick, sketch-resembling strokes of the Impressionist greats, this is the choice for you.
There’s a lot of diversity with what this painter’s brush lets you do:
  • Tilt your Apple Pencil’s angles to create thicker brush strokes and get larger areas at a time
  • Soften edges or simply blend by decreasing the tool’s opacity
  • Write in a calligraphy style or gradually from the shape of your characters for lettering
  • Take a smudge brush to combine colors and produce painter-quality brush strokes
Tools like this let you mimic the Impressionist style characterized by bold, short and thick strokes that create an unforgettable, aesthetic quality to your works. The softer edges courtesy of lowering the brush’s opacity enable you to recreate the wet-paint look that’s also notable in this style’s works.

Impressionist Painting Effect

Compatible with Photoshop CS6, these painting-effect actions help you turn your projects into masterpieces in a heartbeat. With just one click, you can transform your images with some of the same design techniques that the masters like Monet and Degas used back in 19th-century France.
Whether you’re working on a brochure, pamphlet, website, menu, invitation or business card, this painting effect infuses your work with some classical design touches.

Impressionism in Web Design

Google Arts and Culture – Art Institute of Chicago: Exploring Impressionism

Google’s section of the web dedicated to the arts preserves the telltale touches of this design trend on its long-scrolling webpage. The entire page functions as a gateway to the wonders of works of this type, with both famous and not-so-famous paintings featured, each with more detailed information about its painter and history available at a click.
Image Source: The Art Institute of Chicago
It’s almost like a lookbook of these kinds of paintings, which serves as a great learning tool for anyone curious about learning more, both visually and written, about this style.

Metropolitan Museum of Art – Impressionism: Art and Modernity

The MET’s aesthetic and informative web portal for this design trend features effective UX and stunning, visual imagery that takes site visitors on a tour of the finer points of this style. Visitors initially see a series of hero images consisting of a horizontal scroll of numerous works and masterpieces of this trend, splashed across the top when they land on the page.
Image Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art
When they click on each image in the slider, the page’s navigation seamlessly works to open each painting in a bigger view. Simultaneously, helpful details about its painter, its background, and the medium on which it was painted are also revealed to readers for greater context.

First Criticized, but Now Legendary

When Monet and Renoir put their early designs on display, they weren’t met with anything to encourage this movement. On the contrary, they were met with almost universal ridicule—at least from the elites and establishment figures of their day. When their design movement was revealed to the public in its own exhibition, however, the reaction was quite different. It actually found a great following! Its story is epic for two reasons. First, it shows how democratizing design and taking it out of the hands of just a few can lead to amazing innovations that make a profound impact on human history. Second, it also reinforces the message for designers that the early criticism you receive isn’t necessarily indicative of anything you should put much significance into. After all, the Impressionists ignored the withering criticism they faced, and now, they’re regarded as masters of fine arts.
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About the Author
Marc Schenker

Marc is a copywriter and marketer who runs The Glorious Company, a marketing agency. An expert in business and marketing, he helps businesses and companies of all sizes get the most bang for their ad bucks.

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