The textured surface of a painting resulting from the thick application of paint.

Frank Auerbach Head of E.O.W. IV 1961 © Frank Auerbach, Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

A painting style in which paint is applied in thick, textural passages that stands out from the surface. Popularised during the seventeenth century, the painterly technique has remained a vital element of modern and contemporary practices. 

History of the Technique 

Impasto painting styles first emerged during the Venetian Renaissance through Titian and Tintoretto, who both created complex figurative scenes exploring how the sensuous properties of paint could convey light rippling off soft skin or cascading drapery. Titian’s ‘Poesie’ series including Diana and Actaeon, 1556-1559, demonstrate the mastery of paint he had achieved by his late career.  

Throughout the Baroque period of the seventeenth-century artists increasingly experimented with looser, expressive styles of paint including Rembrandt van RijnFrans Hals, Diego Velázquez and Peter Paul Rubens, who each carefully incorporated passages of impasto into their portrayals of rumpled skin, sumptuous fabrics and glistening jewellery; the textured, fine wrinkles of aging skin are particularly remarkable in Rubens's A Study of a Head, of around 1618. 

In nineteenth-century landscape, naturalist and romantic painting, impasto emerged as an important feature, allowing artists to convey the raw, rugged tumble of rocks, soil and cliff faces with a rough, experimental energy, as exemplified in John Constable’s sprawling British scenery such as Vale of Dedham, 1828. 

Expressionism and Abstraction  

Throughout the twentieth century, impasto painting became a defining feature of Modernist art, demonstrating a widespread belief that the physical objectivity of the painted object was more important than pictorial illusionism. Thick passages of expressive paint also held the possibility for conveying the turbulent emotions of the artist’s inner mind, as seen in paintings by Vincent van Gogh and the French Fauve painters Andre Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. As the century progressed impasto painting techniques were pushed into ever more daring and adventurous territory. Some artists made paintings that were so thickly pasted with three-dimensional paint that they began to resemble sculptural objects, including Frank Auerbach, Jean Dubuffet and Leon Kossoff. 

Abstract Expressionists and Action Painters throughout the 1950s and 1960s embraced impasto surfaces to convey the physical movement of their bodies as well as emphasising the objectivity of their flat, expressive paintings, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Karel Appel, who applied paint to canvas directly from the tube and smeared it with his hands. 

Neo Expressionism and Beyond 

Impasto painting was a defining feature in the Neo-Expressionist art of the 1980s, particularly in Germany, with artists adopting textural surfaces to convey emotive or conceptual ideas. Anselm Kiefer made worn surfaces that conveyed the painful past lingering over Postwar Germany, while Georg Baselitz painted deliberately crude, aggressive shards of thick paint in bold colours to convey angst-ridden emotions as seen in Kopfkissen (Pillow), 1987. While artists in contemporary times have moved beyond the purity of twentieth century expressionism, many of today’s painters combine impasto techniques with other processes and techniques. German painter Gerhard Richter’s abstract paintings combine thick, aqueous streaks of oil paint with conceptual systems of production, while Scottish painter Peter Doig creates complex tableaus that unite photoreal fragments with an abstract, expressive language of impasto.