Vivid colors applied with bold strokes that are often, but not always, contained by bold, dark lines are what help to distinguish Paul Cézanne’s paintings from the work of other Impressionists and Post-Impressionist painters. Cézanne was a contemporary of Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, and others. He was close friends with Camille Pissaro, but he resisted having his work associated with art being produced by the Impressionists.
Many of Cézanne’s contemporaries and also critics considered him “difficult.” His work was regarded as crude, because it lacked the painterly qualities admired by the public, other artists, and critics.
Cistern in the Park at Chateau Noir, Paul Cézanne, 1900
Cézanne was dedicated to his work, though, and protective of his ideas. He left the Parisian scene in 1877, when he was 38, and returned to rural Aix, where he lived and painted until his death in 1906.
Learning from a Master
As I said earlier, Cézanne’s artwork is distinguishable for both its vivid colors and the heavy, dark contour lines that he painted around some objects. I put emphasis on the word some, because Cézanne didn’t use the heavy contour lines with any kind of consistency that might explain, at first or even second glance what his intention might have been for using them. The vivid colors can be more easily explained.
The Impressionists were the first to have access to the bright colors that distinguish their work for artworks done before the 1800s. Before the Industrialization Era, artists ground their own paints, using pigments found in organic materials, rocks and minerals. The ground pigments were mixed with oils. With industrialization came easier access to paint and new colors. Cobalt blue was introduced in 1807, Cadmium Yellow in 1820, and Cerulean Blue in 1860. Then, the synthetic colors French Ultramarine, Zinc White, and Cobalt Violet became available.
One thing that both the Impressionists and Cézanne did was to make extensive use of complimentary colors—red and green or yellow and blue, for example—in their paintings. Edgar Degas’ Dancers at the Bar and Cézanne’s Cistern in the Park (above) are examples of how artists were using complimentary colors to define spaces in a painting.
Dancers at the Bar, Edgar Degas, 1888
But the heavy, dark contour lines made less sense until I did more research. I learned that Cézanne cared less about creating the illusion of space (through proper use of perspective drawing) or the effects of light that caused colors to change when the quality/brightness of light changed. For Cézanne, the painting became an object that carried a message. The message was always about the unity/harmony of the whole experience of nature, which relied on the motif (a tree, a hillside, lake, a shoreline, or buildings, for example) that he selected.
Painting is not only to copy the object, it is to seize a harmony between numerous relations.
~ Paul Cézanne
Line was basic to Cézanne’s work. He used sketchy lines to construct form and define spaces on a flat plane—the canvas. This is contrary to what many painters, including me, are taught to do. I learned to organize the space (my canvas) into shapes. The shapes are further defined by values, and the values (light to dark) are determined by the amount of light that hits a specific shape. Less light hits the side of a tree that’s away from the sun, so the side is darker than the sunlight front. Cézanne applied color loosely first, and then he imposed powerful lines over the colors to establish and maintain spacial clarity.
Detail from a Cézanne painting.
Detail from a Cézanne painting.
Line has been used by other painters, as well, but with different effect. The first painting below is by Canadian artist Tom Thompson (Group of Seven member). The Orchard is by another Canadian, Alexander Young Jackson.
Both Thompson and Jackson use lines to define shapes, but with the effect of outlining in a poster-like manner rather than contouring. Cezanne’s powerful lines undulate through a painting—growing, diminishing, defining objects on the picture plane and leaving other parts of the painting to .