Learning Color and Composition from Bonnard

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Look Around You

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) was a french painter inspired by the rooms in his home, his yard and the people in his life. I can relate to this close-proximity of inspiration – the sense that everything worth painting is within arm’s reach around you.

I especially love that his homes were very simple and somewhat plain, but his paintings of those rooms are a kaleidoscope of wild colors.

Adding transparent glazes of watercolor over the graphite
The Dressing Table – Pierre Bonnard

Up Close, and Far Away

Have you ever seen his paintings in person? Standing close, impressionist influence is there in seemingly random, layered, close-in-value brush-strokes of color.

But then, step slowly away from the canvas, and watch the pigments merge into luminous, perfect color that draws you straight into the scene.

Bonnard was masterful, and prolific in his almost 60 years of painting. Looking at and reading about his art always makes me want to work harder at this artist’s life.

After a half a dozen evenings of sketching before bedtime, she’s ready for watercolor

Bonnard at The Tate

The Tate Museum has curated a show of Bonnard’s work, and the video below is an overview of the exhibit, his process and subjects.

Artist Library Recommendations

I found a small book on Bonnard (this one) in a used book store 20 years ago.

At the time, Bonnard’s quirky, not-quite right figures, and splendidly colored interior and exterior roomscapes taught me that you can make beautiful art, even if your drawing skills are not rock-solid.

I am still inspired by his use of composition and color to create a beautiful scene, without so much attention to accurately rendered features and perspective.

Bonnard layered brush strokes in colors that were close in value – which made them sing. His color choices are all the more astounding because he sketched scenes on site, but then painted from memory.

The Open Window, 46 x 37 inches – Pierre Bonnard

What attracted me was less art itself than the artist’s life and all that it meant for me; the idea of creativity and freedom of expression and action. I had been attracted to painting and drawing for a long time, but it was not an irresistible passion: what I wanted, at all costs, was to escape the monotony of life.

~Pierre Bonnard
On the couch, on a lap desk, in the evening, beginning a drawing using the grid method
The Palm 45 x 57 inches – Pierre Bonnard

Bathtubs and Mirrors

Bonnard’s conveyance of windows, doorways and mirrors in rooms, and bathtubs are some of my favorite paintings.

His figures soak tranquil in opalescent, neutral colors, and that has influenced the art I’m drawn towards. Those same subjects have meandered into my own work (here and here are examples).

I’m not sure if Bonnard gifted this affinity, or I’ve always loved those subjects – as an enthusiastic bath-taker, and New Englander. I spent a childhood watching consecutive winters turn to spring on the budding tree branches outside my bedroom windows… Perhaps both Bonnards art and my life experiences have melded.

Which artists have stayed with you the longest? Tastes change as we mature in our creative journey, but some artists will always be great influences on us. Who makes you want to reach farther and work harder on your art?

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you in the next post!


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Looking for a Map 8×6 graphite and Watercolor on paper (available here) (sold)

P.P.S. Have you read the book The Sea by John Banville? The protagonist in the book is an art historian writing about Bonnard, so the details of his research and observations are featured throughout the narrative. I haven’t read it, because it sounds a little sad. If you’ve read it, what did you think?

make art more often
Visit Six Tips to Paint More for a hug and some art-making encouragement

Art Quote

My work is going well, especially in the direction of understanding. During my morning walks I amuse myself by defining different comce[tions of landscape – landscape as “space”, intimate landscape, decorative landscape, etc. But as for vision, I see things differently every day, the sky, objects, everything changes continually, you can drown in it. But that’s what brings life.

Pierre Bonnard in a letter to Matisse, 1940

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17 thoughts on “Learning Color and Composition from Bonnard”

  1. Bonnard.A Master. Bringing the outside in. And the inside out. You want to be in his colourful
    Inspiring World.

  2. What a beautiful painting of a beautiful subject! Funny, I have just been rereading my precious Bonnard book! It’s always a welcome reminder that life at home is fine to paint if it inspires — altho those photos from afar you mentioned in your last post are always welcome too! I also have not painted over pencil, and I do hereby promise to try 🙂 xxx

    1. Dear Ms Grooby, I thought of you as I was flipping through my Bonnard book. You’re my twin for the love of his work. I’m not surprised that you were looking at your Bonnard book, prob when I was looking at mine – for that east coast/west coast equilibrium. XO

  3. Mega dose of inspiration again from you! Thanks so much! Love paintings of interiors and ones that tell a story, such as yours. As for the book “The Sea”, I just now found an audio version at our library and also put a hold on an audio version of another of this author’s books. Several years ago, I read a book with a similar title, called “The Sea the Sea” by Irish Murdoch and if you haven’t read it, it’s totally captivating (as are all of her books that weave philosophy and psychology throughout) – It would definitely be an awesome audio treat!!

    1. I’m so glad you feel inspired! Art, Music, Words and Camaraderie! After you listen to the Sea, let me know if it’s as melancholy as it sounds. And I’ll look for the Iris Murdock book on goodreads to add it to my ToRead list. Thanks for the feedback, and the tip!

  4. Sharon Lynn Williams

    Lovely piece as always! I am amazed that you paint watercolours over fully rendered sketches -gives a magnificence to the work compared to watercolour alone. And thanks for clip of the Bonnard show! So revealing

    1. Hi Sharon, You can try it too! Use a light hand and transparent washes in your first layer. The watercolor pigments blend with the graphite and “set”, but they’ll still smudge if you scumble the brush. Thanks for the compliments!

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