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Each artist’s paintings are a reflection of the world: Degas saw the world in pastel colours, Signac depicted it as mottled, and Leonardo da Vinci saw it as ‘ethereal’. All the great artists painted their masterpieces not with paints, but with emotions. Today, we are going to talk about one of the most unusual techniques of all: impasto.

The history of impasto

Impasto is an Italian term and it translates as ‘smooth’ or ‘paste-like’. The technique involves giving the paints a thick consistency with the help of a palette knife, brush or spatula. The brushwork will retain its uneven texture. There are a large number of visual effects that an artist using the technique may be striving to achieve, but the most important ones are the added bulk and the play of light and shade. The brush-strokes may be straight, rounded or cross-hatched. Some artists only used this approach for certain elements of their works, with the aim of emphasizing them and bringing them to the fore, while others covered the whole canvas with an uneven ripple effect.

Vincent van Gogh "The Starry Night"

The impasto technique is usually associated with the work of Vincent Van Gogh. It is said that he applied the paints directly onto the canvas and simply mixed them together with his own fingers. One of the examples of the impasto technique in his oeuvre is the painting The Starry Night. Here, in order to make the stars in the night sky appear as bright as possible, he strove to apply paint with an extremely thick consistency, using bold brush-strokes, thereby highlighting the lights.

In order for the brush-strokes to appear even thicker and more expressive, artists did not shy away from using thickening agents on occasion. This would lend the painting an incredible texture. One of the substances widely used for this purpose, for instance, was wax. With each brush-stroke, the touches of the palette knife or spatula were imprinted on the painting. Works featuring this technique were produced by artists from a wide range of movements and eras: the Renaissance, the Baroque period, Impressionism, Expressionism, Post-Impressionism. Interestingly, the Impressionists applied paste from tubes directly onto the canvas, creating the outlines required with a brush once the paint was in situ.

The 3D effect and optical illusions

Rembrandt and Velazquez were among the other great painters to have used this method of applying paint extensively when creating their famous works. Surprisingly, they were able to use impasto to create naturalistic textures: gemstones, small wrinkles on people’s faces, the flowing locks of beautiful noblewomen, lace ribbons, the folds of garments and fabrics, the gleaming sparkle of adornments and the glint of jewellery, atmospheric phenomena and effects: all the details that might at first glance be deemed insignificant were portrayed with amazing subtlety and sensitivity.

Rembrandt van Rijn "Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar"

In the era of Impressionism and Expressionism, this technique made it possible to obtain a wonderful mirror-image of a crumpled or broken surface, to pick out areas of light amid the darkness, and to emphasize a space. It was the perfect way to convey feelings, concerns and emotions for the paintings of the Expressionists, for them to express their egos on canvas, and to show what is accessible only to those who see, not to those who merely look. Claude Monet, for example, used an architectural approach to the impasto technique, at a time when other Impressionists were applying two methods simultaneously: they were using materials that helped with setting and devising new bases for their paints. Edgar Degas was an exponent of the first of these techniques, incidentally.

Obtaining the textures required

When acryl is used, there is a wider range of possibilities in terms of the bases that can be created, but primers like this are deemed to be too coarse to withstand cracking and peeling. That said, despite its drawbacks, it can really add zest to an artist’s work. Whereas in the past artists strove to avoid having brush-strokes visible on their canvases, today the reverse is true: there are quite a number who use bold, tangible brush-strokes to give the required character to an element of the painting.

There are a whole range of methods and rules for applying paints to bases:

  • With the help of a brush, a palette knife, a tube or using additional additives;
  • The thick layer should be allowed to dry in conditions whereby the process can take place as slowly as possible. This approach protects the layer of pigment from cracking up and prevents wrinkles from appearing;
  • If the ingredients are too fatty, this will definitely make it more difficult to create textures and expressive brush-strokes;
  • Flat brushes or small brushes made of artificial horsehair will be ideal for this technique;
  • If you add sawdust, sand or very fine grit to the pigment, this will lend a unique aspect to the texture and allow you to really liven up your work, and above all – to increase the volume of each brush-stroke;

Some artists cover their completed paintings with a special glaze. Its thin film provides excellent protection that will prevent cracks and wrinkles appearing in the pigment and prevent it from peeling.

The most popular ways of using impasto:

Needless to say, this technique can be used in some unbelievably diverse ways. And yet after so many centuries of variation, there is still enough room to let your imagination run wild. Nonetheless, there are a few techniques which are already thought of as classic ones:

  • The thick stain: the paint is applied in broad, generous brush-strokes, as if you were spreading peanut butter on a piece of toast. The marks made by the palette knife will remain visible, and they will provide texture to the area in which they are applied;
  • Dashed and dotted lines: this effect is achieved when the paint is dabbed onto the canvas with a palette knife. On the lower part of the canvas, the paint that is applied gets ever so slightly stretched when the implement is pulled away from the canvas, leaving tiny crests;
  • Rounded brush-strokes: a rounded brush and a very moist pigment are used to create the arcs and semi-circles that Van Gogh loved to paint;
  • Lines: it is important that the lines don’t overlap with one another. This will provide extra character to the part of the canvas on which it is used;

Using whatever materials come to hand: this is not exactly a classic technique. Pick up anything that can be used to spread the paint over the canvas and simply experiment. You could start with a little cushion brush, for instance – you’re bound to get unusual results.

The impact of impasto is such that it is worth being bold and adopting a free style; use curved, sweeping brush-strokes to apply a thick layer of paint to the canvas and show the whole world how it looks, when seen through your eyes!