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Impasto: Definition, Techniques, Effect & Artists

Instructor: Holly Hunt

Holly has master's degrees in history and writing, as well as an extensive background in art history.

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.

Impasto -- Heightening the Drama by Layering On the Paint

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 skill that went into the act of creation.

Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral -- The Portal (Sunlight), 1894. Example of the impasto technique.
Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral -- The Portal (Sunlight), 1894.

Definition

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.

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, 1890.
Vincent van Gogh. Portrait of Dr. Gachet, 1890.

Technique

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.

Vincent van Gogh, First Steps (after Jean-Francois Millet), 1890.
Vincent Van Gogh, detail of First Steps, after Jean-Francois Millet, 1890

To make the paint even pastier, painters sometimes added wax or other substances to it (J.M.W Turner, mentioned below, 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.

Diego Velazquez, detail of Las Meninas, 1656.
Diego Velazquez, detail of Las Meninas, 1656.

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

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.

Anthony van Dyck, Portrait of Cornelis van der Geest, before 1620.
Anthony van Dyck, Portrait of Cornelis van der Geest, before 1620.

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.

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