From the Italian verb “impastare”, which means “to paste”, “impasto” means “dough” or “mixture”, this technique consists in applying paint in thick layers, making brush and painting-knife strokes clearly visible. This texture contributes to an expressive and energetic characteristic of painting. This technique is traditionally used with oil paint, which has a very thick consistency, but can also be applied with acrylic paint through the addition of thickening mediums. This technique became extremely popular in modern art, when artists started to look at the canvas as a three-dimensional object, rather than two-dimensional.
The purpose: This technique results in applying texture to the flat surface. Primarily, impasto was used to imitate highlights and their characteristic texture onto objects surfaces, and move into the expressive realm of the physical properties of paint itself, since Impressionism.
Layering process: Application of thick layers of paint, usually oil paint; sometimes, colours are mixed directly on the canvas/panel through the use of this method.
Unique advantages: The most unique factors is to bring texture to the painting, as well as conveying expressive emotion to the work. The expressive way of using impasto is also known as painterly, an effect that brings the attractive properties of paint to its highest.
Impasto first appeared in the paintings of the Venetian School, in the 16th century Renaissance, in works of artists such as Titian and Tintoretto, and also appears in Baroque paintings before reaching naturalist, romantic and impressionist painting. In the Baroque art of the 17th century, artists used impasto to intricately mimic the texture of wrinkled skin or to translate the shimmers of detailed jewelry, fabrics and crafted armour. In the 19th century, when Post-Impressionism emerged, especially by the magic hand of Vincent van Gogh, paintings were created directly from paint into the surface of the canvas. In the 20th century, Abstract Expressionism, especially Action Painting, explored the technique and paint in new dynamic, expressive and gestural ways, enhancing the properties of the paint itself. Nowadays, the impasto technique has become an intrinsic part of modern art, as the true qualities of the paint gain a central focus, not only in the painting process, but also in the finished artwork.
Tintoretto’s Self-Portrait presents a key feature of his style, as the visible brushwork and pastes of paint mimic the highlights on the skin, through the use of the impasto technique. The Dutch artists, Rembrandt and Frans Hals, each show a characteristic way of translating (respectively) the shimmer of jewelry and rich textiles – as seen in Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt -, as well as the textures of wrinkled skin and modelling of the simple fabrics – as seen in Gypsy Girl by Frans Hals. On the other hand, Claude Monet started using the technique throughout his career, relying on paint and colour to express the perceptible reality, which culminates in his last works, for example in The Water Lily Pond, Green Harmony. Following the impressionists footprints, Vincent van Gogh and other Neo-Impressionists, relied on impasto to convey even more expression to their paintings, and in The Starry Night, the energetic brushwork and layers and layers of thick paint, where the colours were mixed directly onto the canvas, are the marks of the artist’s work.
The Impasto technique was crucial in the development of Impressionism and Neo-Impressionist painting, which were a big impact on contemporary styles such as Abstract Expressionism, especially, Action Painting.