When Millais was painting in the nineteenth century, it was common for artists to work outside and produce sketches, which they would then take back to their studio and use as reference to create a larger finished painting. They would sketch with drawing materials on paper, small panels (wood) or small canvasses (pieces of cloth). However, Millais and his Pre-Raphaelite friends completed their painting outside in the open air, which was unusual for the time. Artists in France, such as Monet in the 1860s, became very famous for working outside “en plein air” (‘in the open air’). We can see this in the painting by the British artist John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet Painting by the edge of the wood, 1885.
The French Impressionists produced paintings in a loose sketch-like technique, often quickly, with brush strokes remaining visible. The Pre-Raphaelite paintings were produced in incredible detail, direct from nature itself in the more traditional style of a ‘finished painting’ (in which the surface was polished) and over an extended period (8-9 months in the case of Ophelia although Millais was not working only on this painting).
Millais painted Ophelia between 1851-2 in two separate locations. He painted the landscape part of the painting outside by the Hogsmill River at Ewell in Surrey and painted the figure of Ophelia inside in his studio.