Are you in a rut with your oil painting? Are you bored with the same old painting techniques? Do you want your paintings to keep viewers engaged?
Take the leap and try adding texture to your oil painting toolbox!
Below, you’ll find out the different types of oil paint textures and the techniques you can apply to your own paintings today…
- What Do You Mean By Texture?
- Why Would I Want to Use Texture?
- Ideas for Artists:
- Care & Protection Treatments
- That’s a Wrap
What Do You Mean By Texture?
- Optical Texture: It only looks like it has a tactile sensation but is smooth to the touch.
- Physical Texture: Applications to the substrate (painting surface) that are perceptible to touch (like impasto) and usually break the flat plane of the canvas or board like a physical, topographical map.
Most people know of physical texture as impasto or the use of thick layers of brush strokes like those in the paintings of artist Vincent Van Gogh in Starry Night. While Starry Night gets most of the attention, Van Gogh used this impasto technique in most paintings.
Why Would I Want to Use Texture?
Many artists get bored with a style or a technique they have perfected and want to “freshen up” their work.
Adding physical textures like impasto to your oil paintings is a great way to elicit a visceral response from your audience, and there are a few reasons you may want to try it.
Expressiveness and Adding to the Narrative
Impasto brush strokes and other application techniques can feel more palpable when they stick off the substrate or can be felt. The viewers’ urge to touch the oil painting can make looking at your work more engaging.
Some items used to create different textures carry associations that can add to the interpretation of the work of modern artists.
Mark Bradford’s use of “endpapers” that protect hair from hot hair straighteners inspired by time spent in his mom’s beauty salon.
Is There a Market for Textured Oil Paintings?
Depending on your location or the style of the gallery you are trying to team up with, the texture in your oil paintings may make you more marketable. Some markets favor works of artists that utilize impasto brush strokes and other unique features.
If you’re not ready for texture and you want to learn more of the fundamentals first, check out these techniques for oil painting at Evolve
Ideas for Artists:
Most artists are familiar with the technique of Impasto oil painting that the Impressionists popularized, but there are many other ways to add texture to your oil paintings.
The surface you choose to paint on can greatly affect the overall texture of your oil painting.
You can use texture on the painting surface as your only texture by painting over a roughly prepared panel or canvas. Or, this technique can be combined with others that will be detailed in this article later.
The textures are there from the beginning, and you can let the happy accidents happen as your brush or palette knife navigates over the rough surface.
Natural Textures: Wood, Burlap, and Cardboard (Oh My!)
Using rough-wood panels, textured textiles like burlap, or tearing off the outer layer of cardboard, exposing the corrugated inner texture, can be a great foundation to create textures.
Linen has a smoother texture than cotton canvas, and burlap is the coarsest of the three. As you paint, these native fiber features will produce interesting effects that may alter the look of the image or design you are representing. Priming these fibers will prevent the absorption of oils but may reduce the texture.
Because they are not woven as tightly as canvas, materials like burlap will be more flexible and may not withstand more aggressive oil paint brushstrokes or heavy additives.
While paper can be used for textured oil painting, this is only recommended for advanced artists, as most of the approaches suggested in this article are better suited for surfaces stronger than paper.
Creating Texture: Additive/Reductive
You can always start with a smooth canvas surface and add textures to create an irregular foundation to apply your marks.
Cutting, gouging, or distressing a wood panel can make a substrate more textured. Using thick gesso or adding sand or other materials to your primer when preparing a canvas will create interesting effects in your finished oil painting.
When preparing your substrate for painting, whether wood, canvas, or canvas paper, you can use techniques in this stage to create effects in the finished oil painting.
Thick Acrylic Gesso Application: Texturizing Gesso While Wet
Using thick gesso or applying regular gesso in thick layers to your canvas before you start painting will provide textural effects. Laying down gesso and using a palette knife, bristle brushes, or other tools to texturize it before it dries is another alternative to traditional impasto.
Dabbing or rolling things like stencils, textured rollers, and fabrics can create organized or random patterns that produce interesting effects.
Sand, Glass, or Pumice
Some artists add materials like sand, glass, beads, and more to their gesso before priming the canvas or board. As the primer layer dries, these elements will become fixed in place and add textures.
There are commercially produced mediums for painters that have textural elements added. Some of these are intended as primers, while others are mediums meant to be added to oil paint.
I have used pastels crumbled into bits as a medium in base applications. After adding several layers of oil paint, I rough up the surface by sanding or other means, and the buried pastel explodes, leaving spontaneous textural and color effects.
The turquoise-blue spots in this painting are “explosions” of pastel.
Oil Paint Characteristics
Oil paint brands have different characteristics that may aid or impede impasto or textural applications. Thick oil paint will hold its shape better and is more suited for impasto than thin paint or oil paint mixed with oils like linseed oil.
Some oil paint is stiffer and will hold its shape on its own until the oil paint dries. The amount of pressure and the technique used in the application will determine how much or little texture is evident.
If you’ve ever made a meringue, you’re probably aware you must whip the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Peaks that last are crucial for impasto artists.
Adding a medium designed for stiffness can improve the oil paint’s ability to peak. Traditional mediums, like linseed oil, will generally make your paint less likely to hold a shape and unsuitable for impasto.
If you want your oil paint to retain stiff peaks, some impasto mediums will do the job. Windsor and Newton make quality impasto mediums. Just ensure the mediums you use are oil-based or compatible with oil paint.
Impasto Oil Painting
The amount of oil paint used affects the resulting texture. Impasto is the technique of applying thick brushstrokes of paint to the surface and leaving them alone. Impasto avoids techniques like blending that smooth out or eliminate visible brush strokes.
A bristle brush will leave more defined impasto strokes than a flexible brush like a watercolor sable. A palette knife is a favorite tool of many impasto painters.
As with the “texturizing” of wet gesso discussed in the foundation layer technique, laying down fresh paint and then imprinting it with patterned tools or other materials can have interesting effects. Using a string to “drag” through the wet oil paint can produce controlled or uncontrolled textures in the paint that resemble impasto.
Cutting up old brushes, especially a bristle brush, to create patterned impasto brush strokes gives life to tools you might otherwise throw away.
Dry, Tacky Paint
How dry or wet your paint is can impact the final effects. Imprinting very wet paint may not dry with the same results as when you first added the texture. Waiting a few minutes or hours until the paint is partially dry and tacky can improve the durability of the different textures you apply.
Using a medium like cobalt drier will cause your oil paint to dry quicker and result in cracking, which can cause some desirable effects. This practice opposes the “fat over lean” rule that prevents this effect. Exposing an oil painting you create with this technique to light will accentuate the cracking.
Matte Finish vs. Gloss Finish
The kind of paint and medium you use will affect how the paint dries (either holding or losing texture) and how it is perceived. A glossy medium may cause the paint to lose its textural permanence, but it may also appear more textured since it dries shinier than a matte finish.
Like adding materials to your gesso or primer, you can add textured elements to your paint to increase the impasto and textural effects. Unlike an oil paint medium that mixes evenly with the paint, some chemicals and non-traditional materials completely alter the oil paint’s viscosity or can help retain their characteristics.
Mediums and Chemical Additives
Adding different chemicals can change the physical characteristics of your oil paints. Using alcohol or terpenoid-based solvents breaks down the oils and can make thick paint more fluid, allowing you to let the paint “run” over your canvas.
To thicken your paint, you can also use dry mediums like glue, corn starch, or ground chalk. Be aware dry mediums will significantly alter the consistency of your oil paint and require experimentation.
Dried Used Paint
Instead of throwing away your old, dried paint (the scrapings off your palette from your previous oil painting session), you might try crumbling these remnants and adding them like dry mediums to your fresh paint.
Acrylic Paint – Drying and Peeling
If you have acrylic paint, squeeze it out or apply it in thick shapes and let it dry. Acrylic is made from plastics, so it holds its shape well. Lily Kuonen uses dry acrylic paint in a sculptural way.
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Knick Knacks and Objects add Meaning
Some modern artists use everyday objects to add texture and narrative. These objects can be added to the ground (gesso/primer) or wet paint. Julien Schnabel is well known for his “plate paintings,” which comment on the concept of “ruin.”
Anselm Kiefer is a painter who has mastered using textural elements in his large-scale canvasses.
Underpainting in Mixed Media
Grissaille is the technique of using underpainting to create your scene in a monochrome layer to get the composition and shading accurate and then adding realistic color on top with a glazing technique.
In the same way, artists can create an “image” with a collage or mixed media approach and then paint over the top. You can create an impasto effect with a layer of physical objects instead of thick brush applications.
Glue and Beeswax
Infusing textural mediums that will harden thick paint or pigment is one method of textural painting. Encaustic is an art method that uses beeswax as a medium with paint pigments added that artists use while hot and fused to the surface. There are also synthetic waxes, like paraffin, that are cheaper than traditional beeswax.
Glue, like wax, can be mixed with paint as an impasto-like medium or added to the foundation layer and painted over. Ensure you wash your brushes and tools well; the glue can destroy most brushes.
Also, be aware that these materials should be used on wood or other sturdy substrates instead of canvas, as canvas will contract and expand.
Application Tools/Reworking Tools
Tools can be used, like a brush with different techniques to apply the ground or paint in unusual ways to create texture or to alter the applied paint either while wet or after it has dried.
Using a palette knife to apply gesso or paint in thick layers will create impasto-like textures different from a bristle brush.
Power Tools are non-traditional, art-making implements that will create texture, again either before painting or after the paint has been applied or both.
This painting used specialty drill bits and a circular saw to make the cuts in this image.
Like the method of using power tools discussed above, there are many other ways to add rough texture to oil paintings using reductive techniques. Reductive means to take away as a means of creating marks or images. Sanding, scraping, cutting, erasing, and other “destructive” actions can produce effects that add energy, tension, and emotion to a painting.
Cutting into the dried paint with a sharp knife creates variations or can expose colors or elements in previous layers. Careful consideration of where to leave impasto passages and where to use your knife to reduce or eliminate them will give your oil painting harmony
In contrast to Impasto, the ultimate reductive work was done by Robert Rauschenberg when he asked fellow artist Willem de Kooning for one of his artworks.
When de Kooning gave him one of his paintings, made with various media, Rauschenberg proceeded to spend several days erasing all de Kooning’s marks as best as possible.
Gravity and Wind
Sometimes letting nature take its course adds an organic feel to your work. When applying media that has extra fluidity, tilting the board or canvas in different directions to let gravity dictate where and how the paint, glue, wax, etc. flow is fun and provides opportunities for surprise effects.
Likewise, taking a wet canvas outside on a windy day or using a hair drier or powerful fan to force the mediums like a brush to move and create marks that appear free of human influence. Once the desired effect is achieved, you should protect the painting to preserve the impasto effects you created.
In Control and Release #3 (above), “I thinned the paint with flow or pouring medium and propped up so the mixture could slowly drip down the wood panel. After some time, the panel was turned 90 degrees to create some variation in the look of the drips.”
Care & Protection Treatments
Storing and caring for oil paintings with impasto and other textural effects requires considerations different from traditional paintings. If shipping textured paintings for sale or exhibitions, you should plan extra time and expense to pack the works properly.
Because the paint is usually applied thicker than normal, it takes longer to dry and needs a safe place to harden where it won’t be bumped, touched, or accumulate dust and debris. Cleaning a painting with thick impasto passages is challenging.
Once dry, the paintings must be carefully stored so that impasto brush strokes and other elements that extend off the surface don’t get scraped off or worn down. Many painters keep these works in boxes or special packing material will help preserve the delicate textural elements.
Several coats of varnish or clear resin can improve durability, but consider the final finish of these protective applications. There are options from matte to glossy and medium gloss finishes that fall in between.
That’s a Wrap
Whew! There are a lot of different approaches to creating texture in your oil paintings, from surface applications as you prepare your canvas or board to adding materials like impasto mediums or objects to your paint to cutting or distressing your dried paintings.
Have some fun and experiment to discover which techniques support your personality and painting style!!
You should also check out our article on other important painting techniques as you experiment with texture.
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