In this lesson, we look at the painting technique known as impasto. By applying oil paint to the canvas in thick, dramatic strokes, artists from the Baroque Era onward have created visual drama and a sense of immediacy.
How Impasto Works
As viewers of art, we naturally focus on the finished product, the end result of the artist’s labor. But some painting techniques draw our attention to the artist’s process and make us think about how the paint was applied to the canvas.
Impasto is one of these techniques. By applying paint to the canvas as thickly as possible, keeping the original brush marks visible, painters can create dramatic visual effects while also reminding us of the passion and the skill that went into the act of creation.This one’s simple. The term impasto comes from the Italian word for ‘paste.’ Impasto technique involves applying paint as thickly as paste, creating a textured surface in which the marks of the brush (or palette knife) are often still clearly visible. Some artists used impasto to add drama to specific elements of a painting; some, like Vincent van Gogh, covered entire canvases in impasto.
Technique of Impasto
Like many other celebrated painting techniques, the use of impasto evolved from artists’ exploration of the qualities of oil paint, which had become the standard medium in Western painting during the Renaissance. Oil paint dries slowly, allowing painters to build it up thickly, or in layers. To create especially thick and dramatic impasto, the paint may be applied with a palette knife instead of a brush.To make the paint even pastier, painters sometimes added wax or other substances to it. J.M.
W. Turner, an artist we’ll look at in a bit, did this. Little is known for sure about how the artists of the Baroque Period, who pioneered impasto technique, mixed their paints, but some speculate that they may have added varnish or that the coarse texture of the white lead used as a coloring agent enhanced the texture. Master painters of the Baroque Era often used impasto in conjunction with other techniques, creating a wide range of textures and effects in a single work.
The Impressionists, who prided themselves on working spontaneously – often while out of doors (en plein air), took a very different approach. Unlike earlier painters, the Impressionists could buy ready-mixed, commercially manufactured paints, and they often created their impasto effects by using paint straight from the tube. Thick, bright oils, still showing the marks of the brush, gave their work the desired air of spontaneity and captured the intensity of natural light and shadow. The painters of the post-Impressionist Era, known as Expressionists, also used dramatic impasto similar to that of the Impressionists in their work, a practice continued by some of the Abstract Expressionists of the Twentieth century.
Effect of Impasto
Impasto creates a richly textured, three-dimensional surface that can catch the light or create tiny areas of shadow, enhancing the drama of a painting. Earlier painters often used areas of impasto to suggest complicated textures, such as lace, hair, wrinkled skin, or carved stone without copying exact details or to enhance atmospheric effects.Later artists, such as the Impressionists and Expressionists, were less likely to use impasto to create visual illusions; instead, they often used it to express the intensity of their own experience, and to remind the viewer of the process of creation behind the finished work.
Artists Who Employed Impasto
Artists of the Baroque Era known for their use of impasto technique include the Spanish painter Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) and the Flemish and Dutch painters Frans Hals (1580-1666), Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), and Rembrandt von Rijn (1606-1669).
All of these painters were known for their highly expressive portraits and for their great technical skill in the handling of paint.Another painter known for his use of impasto is J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), an English painter of the Romantic Era.
Turner’s emphasis on atmospheric effects anticipated some of the work of the Impressionists. Among the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) are probably most associated with the term impasto.The Belgian Expressionist James Ensor (1860-1949) and the Russian Expressionist Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) both had styles characterized by impasto painting.
The Dutch Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) made frequent use of impasto, as did the British painters Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and Lucian Freud (1922-2011), modernists whose work was not as abstract.
Impasto is a fairly simple technique, that involves applying paint as thickly as paste, creating a textured surface in which the marks of the brush (or palette knife) are often still clearly visible. It’s based on exaggerating some of the natural characteristics of oil paint but capable of creating a wide range of effects, such as creating light and shadow effects, showing complicated textures, and even showing the energy of the painter themselves.By using their paint like paste, masters of the Baroque era created rich visual effects that made their work more illusionistic and vivid. This influenced later movements like the Expressionist movement, or Post-Impressionist Era.
Later artists, such as Monet, van Gogh, Turner, and Ensor, used impasto technique to evoke feeling and to give their work a sense of spontaneity and immediacy, as if the canvas came straight from the painter’s hand.