Texture in Art: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Background to Texture
  • 1:12 Texture in Painting
  • 4:06 3-D Art and Texture
  • 5:07 Texture in Other Art Forms
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: John Gonzales

John has 20+ years experience teaching at the college level in areas that include English and American literature, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Studies.

Texture refers to what something feels like to the touch. We can't touch art, right? Or at least we're not supposed to. This lesson describes how artists use visual and implied texture in their work to get the desired effect.

Background to Texture

The first rule for every child introduced to visual art in any museum or gallery anywhere is--first and foremost--DO NOT TOUCH. It's hard not to, as we're tactile beings and experience the world through touch. And it's through touch that we develop our idea of textures: rough, smooth, coarse, soft, gritty, prickly, and slick. And the texture in the art is often so inviting.

The definition of texture has everything to do with touch being the sensation we get from a surface when we physically make contact with it. We can also link it to dimensionality--the more a surface protrudes into that third dimension, or varies in the degree of protrusion, the more distinct the texture. This involves vision too: we frequently see texture before we touch it.

Texture in the arts wants to appeal to and provoke that touchy kid in you even while saying, 'hands off.' This is a result of deliberate choices made by artists, designed to evoke a response in us or to capture a sense of depth and dimension that goes beyond the work itself.

Texture in Painting

When we encounter the term 'art,' we're accustomed to thinking of painting first. There are two major ways that texture can be approached in two-dimensional (2-D) works: actual texture, referring to surface variations worked into the painting medium itself, and implied texture, achieved through visual illusion, in French trompe l'oeil, which means fooling of the eye.

Actual Texture

It may be a while back, but think about your last finger painting session. You probably used thick, pasty paint and didn't hold back when slathering it on. The natural result is a series of strokes with distinct, raised ridges from the rounded shape of fingers. Depending on the type of brush or 'knife' (a painter's tool without the sharp edge of a cutting knife) used and the paint medium, an artist can achieve heavy, obvious actual texture or, as is possible with watercolor, achieve an effect where the paint is virtually absorbed into the canvas.

An extreme use of heavy texture in painting is referred to as impasto and is best achieved with oil paint. Softer textures come through with charcoal and chalk almost automatically, but such media needs to be fixed to the canvas so that it doesn't smear when touched or disintegrate over time.

Impasto in Oil by Vsevolod Bazhenov
impasto texture

Implied Texture

It sounds a little sinister to suggest that art is designed to manipulate us, but that's pretty much what it comes down to. An artist is trying to stimulate or provoke a certain sort of reaction in you, and that means impacting your emotions and/or stimulating your senses. Since painting operates on a DO NOT TOUCH basis, what we often respond to is the appearance of texture without the substance--subtle optical illusions achieved through technique.

Brush work and chiaroscuro, the interplay of light and shadow effects, both assist the artist in making fools out of our eyes. Think about it: there is literally no shadow, no obscuring or filtering of light happening within the frame of a painting or even the borders of a photograph. Our eyes see the changes in tone and color and participate in the illusion of how light and visual texture work in touchable reality.

In some paintings, varying textures can be combined within the work itself, such as in the Achenbach painting below. Observe that the sea remains rough and agitated after a storm, while the sky has begun to soften and mellow:

Combined Texture in an Andreas Achenbach Painting
Combined Texture

An exception to many of these generalizations comes when we consider textiles, or fabric. Not only is a great deal of art on fabric meant to be touched and worn, but in that case, the canvas itself, the type of cloth used, has a texture of its own. We don't use the expression 'silky smooth' for nothing.

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