The Importance of Impasto in Painting
Even though the impasto painting method has been around for as long as painting, for many years the goal was to hide the idea that something is painted. For this reason, many artists, including the masters of the past, or a certain current of abstract artists involved in the Post-Painterly Abstract Art movement for example, eliminated the brushstroke or any evidence of the artist’s hand. This, in its essence, is the other side of the coin, or the opposite end compared to the substance of the impasto technique. As a method which creates three-dimensionality and high texture of the painting’s surface, achieved by the thickness and layering of the paint, impasto is known to create many unique textures and effects. Usually used with thicker, opaque paints like oils, acrylic, gouache, and tempera, the method is rarely used with ‘thin’ mediums, such as watercolor or dry pastels. Very often, the fact that the evidence of a brushstroke is very much apparent and part of the impasto process inspired many artists to use this element as the only subject matter and defining quality of their artwork. Frequently used in the past by major Abstract Expressionist artists, such as Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning, this element, in most cases, also defines the contemporary abstract painting production of our time.
The Impasto Technique – What Does It Really Mean?
Originating from the Italian word impasto which translates as dough, mixture, or paste, this painting process is, in fact, all about the paste of the paints. Used in painting, it defines the application of very thick paint, typically applied with a brush or a painting knife. Impasto painting can be achieved by applying many layers of the paint or applying color straight from the tube; otherwise, it can be enhanced by a number of thickening agents. When working with acrylic painting, gel mediums are the best choice, while for oil paintings, many painters use wax, known as an integral element of the ancient encaustic technique as well. Creating thick layers of the paint on the surface of the canvas, it adds three-dimensional, almost sculptural quality to a two-dimensional artwork. It usually creates a sense of the paint that is coming out of the canvas, and this is just one of the reasons why many artists play around with this technique.
What Effects Does the Impasto Method Create?
Impastoed paint serves several purposes. First, it allows for the play of light in a particular way, giving the artists additional control over the effects of light on/in their painting. Unlike the typical two-dimensional canvas artworks, where depth is created with the play of art’s elements, especially texture, the value of color or form, paintings created with this method use the visible strokes and their three-dimensionality along with the other elements of art to illustrate the same important issue of space. Due to the thickly textured paint, such paintings carry a strong physical statement, and due to their grand presence and occupation of the space, the paintings created by the help of the impasto process were usually non-objective and expressive artworks. Associating the visible, thickly textured paint as a signature of the artist’s visual language, many understand these pieces to carry the identity of the artist’s soul, or to inspire spontaneity, freedom, and magic to create an illusion of detail where there is none.
Famous Examples of Impasto in Art History
One of the first artists who embraced impasto painting’s effects in oils was Rembrandt. In one of his famous self-portraits, thick strokes of paint are rising from the painting. His contemporaries, such as Frans Hals and Diego Velàzquez were also using the impasto technique, but the full potential of the method as an almost sculptural way of painting wasn’t fully explored until the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Claude Monet, in his famous series of the Rouen Cathedral, employed an almost architectural approach to impasto. Building layer upon layer, the artist reflected on the atmosphere and the effects of the shifting light. The investigation of light defined in fact the Impressionist movement, especially the Impressionist landscapes, and Monet was considered as a pioneer figure of the time. Next to him, Vincent Van Gogh introduced a completely unique style of impasto. Taking paint straight from the tube, and applying it to the canvas directly, Van Gogh’s paintings, thanks to the thickness of the paint which transmitted the idea of speed, haste, and the inner turmoils, for many, define the idea of the expressionistic painting.
In the 20th-century, Jackson Pollock defined the Abstract Expressionist movement and created some of the most daring impasto paintings. Working directly on the floor, his action paintings were considered as documents of time and were associated with spiritual, magical, and philosophical ideas. Some of the artist’s paintings, have such a thick layer of paint, which are now falling off. Extreme thickness of paint is one of the defining traits of the German painter Frank Auerbach. His images are sometimes so heavy from the layers of color, that they are very difficult to hang on the walls.
Much more than just a painting method, the history of the impasto technique, describes the transformation of the painting from a mere surface to a living and breathing object carrying the autograph of its author.
A step-by-step approach to impasto painting which is a thick oil paint used to build up a surface as textured as a stucco wall. Addressed to both beginners and advanced painters alike, the author offers advice on paint supports and a variety of methods of attaining diverse effects in the painting of landscapes, still-lifes and portraits. David Millard is also the author of two previous publications on the subject – “Joy”, and “More Joy of Watercolor”. This watercolorist has now turned to this new oil method which was practiced by artists such as Monet and Van Gogh. A great book illustrating the use of impasto in oil paintings, its chapters reflect upon the technique, methods, use, step-by-step advices, and possible results.
- Lyle Millard, D., Impasto, Watson-Guptill Publications, 1987
- Galton, J., The Encyclopedia of Oil Painting Techniques: A Comprehensive Visual Guide to Traditional and Contemporary Techniques, Sterling Publishing Company, Incorporated, 2002
- Shirley, R., The Ultimate Oil Painting Solution: for Landscape Art, Portraiture and Still Life: Comprehensive Tips and Techniques for Painting in Oils, Rachel Shirley, 2013
All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image: Lucian Freud – Benefits Supervisor Sleeping. Image via whitehotmagazine.com