What is impasto painting and why has it left an impact on so many artists? This fact has something to do with the technique’s sculpting-like nature.
I’ve experimented with many techniques as a traditional painter, but impasto is one of the most freeform. Part sculpting and part smudging, you’ll be amazed by the dynamic textures you can create.
Impasto painting is a fantastic method to broaden your artistic vocabulary. This starter guide will provide visual examples, then a beginner tutorial to get you started.
- What is Impasto Painting?
- What are Famous Impasto Paintings?
- How To Impasto Paint
- Impasto Painting is a Freeform Technique Deserving of Study
What is Impasto Painting?
Impasto painting is a fun and distinctive technique that involves applying thick, paste-like paint. You can use each application to layer on blocks of color or build up light and shadow.
The result is a painting that appears clay-like, with each brushstroke sticking out in bumps and waves. Artists will keep blending to a minimum to let the texture shine through. That said, you can always experiment with blended areas and more sculpted-like areas.
If impasto teaches artists anything about the creation process, it’s to think outside of the box.
What Kind of Paint Do You Use For Impasto?
Thick paint makes it easy to paint straight onto the canvas and apply heavy texture. Watercolor doesn’t work well because the paint is thinner and usually needs heavy water applications.
Why Do People Use Impasto?
People use the Impasto painting technique because it is a beautiful technique for adding vibrant texture to a painting, allowing the paint to ‘lift’ off the canvas. It creates visual interest while expanding the artist’s ability to use different applicators.
Impasto benefits from thick brushes, palette knives, and even spoons. Whatever tool you choose, you’ll be on your way to creating an iconic impasto texture.
Who Invented Impasto?
What are Famous Impasto Paintings?
To better understand the impasto technique, below are a few of my favorite famous impasto paintings. Let’s look at how realism and impressionist painters approached the impasto technique.
Cliff at Grainval by Claude Monet
Claude Monet was a master at capturing the atmosphere of natural environments. Cliff at Grainval is a stunning oil painting demonstrating the power of different textures.
The sky and sea are smoothly blended to replicate a hazy summer day as closely as possible. As your eye travels to the cliffs and grass, you see instant contrast in the rougher and looser textures. This use of impasto makes the stone look rougher, and the grass looks thicker.
Remember that this is just one interpretation of the natural world. If you feel the ocean would benefit from more texture and the grass being softer, you could also go that route. Impasto’s strength lies in its flexibility, so never be afraid to try something new.
Starry Night Over the Rhone by Vincent Van Gogh
You can’t look at abstract expressionists without considering Van Gogh’s Starry Night. This spectacular oil painting uses visible brushstrokes to represent an everyday subject emotionally.
One of the most beloved aspects of the painting is the swirling stars and clouds. Despite so many brush strokes, the picture retains balance through light and dark areas.
Next time you get the urge to experiment, look at master paintings and ask yourself why they stand out. You can apply the answer to your work to create a more stunning result.
Vase With Pink Roses by Vincent Van Gogh
A misconception about Impasto is that the brush strokes must always be large and bold. Van Gogh’s flower still life shows you can do subtle, soft textures, too.
Notice how the flowers have thin and delicate lines to replicate soft petals. The vase is smoother, and the wall resembles beach waves. Each texture complements the other to create a dynamic yet soothing still life.
Like previous examples on this list, there’s also visual balance through warm and cool colors. The warm vase pops against the cool green, while the bright white sticks out against the darker leaves.
Self Portrait by Rembrandt
Impasto in oil paintings can also lean into painterly realism territory. Rembrandt’s self-portrait is a love letter to subtle impasto texture and softer blending.
Notice how several areas of the painting are heavily blocked in, such as the hat and the dark background. These bold areas allow visual breathing room so the textures on the face and hair pop out more.
Beginner impasto artists can become overwhelmed by all the potential for rough and jagged texture. This illustration is a firm reminder that less is often more when learning the fundamentals.
Crags and Crevices by Jane Frank
There’s no limit to how you can arrange and apply paint layers with the impasto technique. Jane Frank’s oil impasto painting uses a bold style with minimal blending.
Abstract paintings have a massive range of interpretations due to their vague shapes. This Impasto painting could resemble rock formations, crashing ocean waves, or quartz.
How will you apply these techniques with oil paint or acrylic paint? Whether you prefer modern art or love to study baroque artists, you can use the Impasto effect for any style.
How To Impasto Paint
Impasto paintings are more freeform than other painting methods but don’t have to be intimidating. Below is a beginner’s tutorial on doing your first Impasto painting with acrylic or oil paints.
Step 1: Try a Simple Still Life First
Choosing a complex subject for your first Impasto painting can be too difficult. I recommend starting off with a simple still life so you can focus more on the technique.
Colorful still lives are best because you have more opportunities to apply different colors, light, and shadow.
- A handful of flowers
- A colorful fruit
- A shoe
- A leaf
- A jacket
Step 2: Choose Your Painting Medium
Thanks to their thick consistency, acrylic or oil paint are the best options. You also have many additives to change its consistency, blending power, or drying time.
As you get ready to start your layered Impasto oil painting, remember to resist the urge to blend everything. Impasto’s appeal comes from its focus on thick layers and bold textures. As you practice more, you can experiment with mixed and textured areas.
Step 2: Try a Painting Additive to Thicken the Paint
Additives are useful for impasto since they let you thicken and stiffen your paint. This feature makes creating swirly, bumpy, or curling textures on your canvas easier.
Cold wax mediums are best for oil paintings, making your paint thick and paste-like. They also help your paint dry evenly to reduce the risk of cracking or peeling.
If you want to create impasto acrylic paintings, try using gel medium. Heavy body acrylic gels are a great resource to give your acrylic a clay-like result for impasto art.
Step 3: Choose Your Applicator
Choosing an applicator is one of the most enjoyable parts of the process. You can use just about anything you can think of to apply paint, though some tools are more popular than others.
The paintbrush is a common choice for its ability to work with both wet paint and dry paint. You can do wet paint for blended areas, then switch to a dry brush technique to create texture. Just remember to focus more on dry paint applications for now!
The palette knife is the go-to option for Impasto artists since it keeps blending minimal. You can smudge or sculpt your paint, like applying icing to a cake. Many artists also like to scrape paint off with the tip of the knife for more minor details such as fur, hair, or grass. If you’re feeling experimental, you can also use the wooden tip of a paintbrush to scratch off paint.
Last but not least, you can try a spoon for Impasto painting. This tool is best when you want broad, rounded strokes, such as crafting clouds or bubbling ocean waves.
Step 4: Experiment on a Plain Page First
If you’re worried about starting this art technique, there’s nothing wrong with experimenting on a plain page first. Get a smaller canvas or sheet of thick paper to test out different strokes.
For example, you can label one-page ‘cloud strokes’ or ‘skin practice’ to help you stay focused. From there, spend a few minutes figuring out how to use your new technique.
Make sure to avoid adding too much water to your acrylic paint or oil to your oils to keep the paint thick. Thin paint will blend or smudge, depriving you of the desired impasto effects.
Step 5: Start Painting With Your Chosen Applicator
When you’re ready to start painting, lay down paint on your surface thickly. Don’t get bogged down in the little details yet, and focus on capturing your subject with a sculptural effect.
A colorful apple may look lovely with rounded brush strokes that wrap around its silhouette. A study of the river may look more vivid if you apply many small smudges with a palette knife. This abstract and creative thinking breathes life into an Impasto painting.
If you want to get more inspiration for your developing impasto technique, Evolve has online mini-courses you can take at your leisure.
Impasto Painting is a Freeform Technique Deserving of Study
The impasto technique is one of the most emotional and abstract ways of interpreting your inner world. You can create fascinating renditions of daily life or fantasy with just a few layers of thick paint.
If you’re still not uncomfortable using a painting knife or applying freeform strokes, consider checking out Creating Texture by Amanda Butel. This handy book provides endless inspiration for using impasto with oil paint or acrylic.
You can also check out Evolve’s mini-course to start learning art fundamentals from the comfort of your home.