What is Impasto? Thick, Textured Paint.

Published on Jul. 26th 2007


What is impasto? Impasto is an art term used to describe thickly textured paint that is almost three-dimensional in appearance.

Using an impasto technique often leaves visible brush strokes in the finished painting. Many times those brush strokes are actually more important than the subject matter itself.

You could almost say impasto is a type of sculpture—but for painters. And on a canvas.

For example, if you see a painting and you’re not sure whether the artist has used impasto technique, just look at the painting from the side. Check for globs of paint sticking out from the canvas. That’s impasto.

From the front, impasto paint is highlighted by whatever natural light is in the room (since it sticks out so much) and with heavy impasto you’ll be able to see shadows underneath the paint too.

Unlike wet-on-wet blending techniques, impasto really makes a physical statement, which is why you’ll find it most often in expressive, abstract works.

At least, that’s the way it is today.

You see, impasto has been around for a long time, and it wasn’t until Van Gogh came along that impasto was used for it’s expressive qualities. Before Van Gogh, artists would build up layers of paint to add realism to their work, making objects appear more three-dimensional.

But Van Gogh was different. He used impasto to gave weight to his brilliant colors, movement to his skies, and emotion to his landscapes.

Check out this detail of Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Cypresses.

Detail of Wheat Field with Cypresses by Van Gogh

He could have painted with the exact same colors without the impasto, but what would have happened? There would have been no movement, no feeling in the painting. No Van Gogh.

If you’re an artist, impasto’s not too tricky to do yourself.

Mostly it involves loading up your brush or painter’s knife with more paint than you’d normally need. Then, instead of “dying” or “scrubbing” the canvas with color, just let the paint squish onto the canvas and sit there.

You don’t want to fiddle with any one spot too much, otherwise you’ll lose that three-dimensional quality by overworking the paint.

In this detail of one of my favorite paintings, a self-portrait by Lucian Freud, you can see another type of impasto.

Detail of Self-portrait by Lucien Freud

Freud created a gritty, scumbled-on texture by sort of scraping color onto the canvas. Each pass with his brush adds a little more thickness onto the dried paint underneath it.

Look at the contrast between his craggy features and the smooth green background—the impasto not only adds character to his face, but it really shows how much depth can be achieved with this technique.

Carol Nelson, an artist I featured a few months ago, makes great use of that depth in one of her landscapes entitled Red Roof.

Red Roof by Carol Nelson

You can see how her thickly painted wheat jumps forward, creating a lot of visual space. Of course, it’s also a warm color, so that helps too, but it’s still a good use of impasto.

Impasto’s a simple way to give an average painting a big boost, so why not challenge yourself to try out impasto in your next painting? If you’ve never really done it before, break out of your comfort zone and pile on the paint!

Did you like this article? Share it!
Then check out the related posts below.
Texture. It's the x-factor in painting. . . it can mean the difference between a mediocre painting and a good one, or a good painting and fantastic one. This week's featured artist, Trisha Lamoreaux, has found a way to use the textural, 3-dimensional quality of oil paint to her advantage. Usin. . . read more
Today, Jean Pederson gives a brief demonstration of how she layers various pigments of transparent watercolors to produce a realistic, three-dimensional image on paper. Her subject matter—an eye—is tricky under the best of circumstances, but as you'll see, she starts with a fairly . . . read more
Lucian Freud was born in 1922, and is now 85 years old. He's Britain's most famous figurative painter, and possibly its oldest, best known for his raw and unforgiving paintings of nudes. Freud fascinates me for a few reasons, one being his utter devotion to capturing every harsh detail of a m. . . read more
If you enjoy painting with pastels in a loose style, but you want just a little more texture in your finished pieces, you might want to try adding an acrylic underpainting your next soft pastel painting! Acrylic paint dries quickly and binds easily to other mediums when used in mixed media pie. . . read more
This week's featured artist is Richard Hearns, a painter from Dublin, Ireland. Richard's style of painting combines a rather minimalist approach to landscapes (by simplifying shapes and avoiding details) with expressive textures and brushstrokes. As you can imagine, this makes for some very in. . . read more
Stay current.
Subscribe to EmptyEasel's free weekly newsletter for artists. Sign up today!
CanvasFlyer
Art Contests
More art contests. . .
EE Writers
Alyice Edrich Cassie Rief Steff Metal Niki Hilsabeck Brandi Bowman Michelle Morris Lisa Orgler Adriana Guidi Carrie Lewis Aletta de Wal Erin SparlerLuke Montgomery

Want to be a writer for EmptyEasel? Paid positions are available, and the perks are great! Contact us to apply