Impasto is an Italian term that means doughy or pasty. Let’s learn a little about impasto before we draw inspiration from the most famous impasto paintings in the world. This type of art features thick layers of paint applied on the canvas. The easiest way to figure out if a painting is an impasto is to get a side-angle view. If there are noticeable clumps of paint protruding from the canvas, it is safe to say that the impasto technique has been used. It may be understood as the exact opposite of another painting technique called sfumato. Sfumato involves thin layers of paint with well-blended, almost invisible brushstrokes. So, it’s clear that upon drying an impasto painting will have plenty of texture, unlike sfumato. This texture is what provides impasto its characteristic depth even while depicting two-dimensional subjects.
Following is a list of the most famous impasto paintings in the world:
1. Water Lilies (A series, 1920-26) – Oscar-Claude Monet
Monet made a series of 250 oil paintings with the same subject- the flower garden at his home. Monet is considered to be an impressionist painter but his work is indubitably a precursor to modern art. The artist made several similar paintings using the impasto technique, however the most breathtaking is titled ‘The Water Lilies – The Clouds’.
The painting provides a panoramic view of a lily pond in his garden. The canvas shows the water reflecting white clouds over the pond, dotted with uncountable Lillies and dark green grass. The painting spans over 3 large canvases and is presently at the Museum of Modern art, New York.
2. Crags and Crevices (1960) – Jane Frank
You probably looked at the painting and thought that there’s nothing much that can be understood. This seems to be a general characteristic of abstract art. More specifically, the painting belongs to the abstract expressionist era that started in the 1940s.
In this movement, art is based on spontaneity and the expression of the subconscious is allowed to flow without any restrictions. These restrictions can be objective beauty, meaning, and structure. As the title suggests, the painting features a group of rugged rocks and boulders with harsh terrain. The impasto technique used successfully helps the viewers in understanding the light source, depth, and even the texture of the landscape depicted.
3. Vase with Pink Roses (1890) – Vincent van Gogh
This painting is one of van Gogh’s very few works that exudes optimism as opposed to his more dispirited paintings. These contrasting feelings in his point towards his mental illness. These recurring periods of mania and depression reflect greatly in his work.
In his painting vase with Pink Roses, we see a very common brushstroke throughout the painting. Short wavy brush strokes have filled the lime green background. These waves also make an appearance all over the soft curls of the roses and their leaves. Most of the impasto texture is seen around the contours, which is characteristic of van Gogh’s work. The painting has now faded, but the flowers used to be pink and looked vibrant against the light green wall. Today this work is displayed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
4. Head of E.O.W I (1960)- Frank Auerbach
At first glance, it may take you a while to figure out if this work makes sense or is it just random colors smeared on canvas. It took me a good ten minutes before I finally screamed ‘eureka!’. During the modern art movement, it became almost a compulsion to use impasto in paintings. However, Auerbach takes impasto to its extreme.
This work is the first in a series of Auerbach’s frontal head studies. He uses unorthodox colors that usually don’t go well together to show us just what is important. On the right side of the canvas, the contours of a face are clearly visible. Auerbach uses heaps of ochre, maroon, brown, and even a bit of light blue to enhance the model’s features minimally.
5. Taos Mountain, Trail Home (1920) – Cordelia Wilson
This piece by Cordelia Wilson is an exceptional example of how impasto speaks through the art medium and not just the art. A group of people mounted on horses can be seen walking up a trail. They are surrounded by light green vegetation.
The denseness of the landscape surrounding the trail is enhanced by heavy usage of impasto and random brush strokes. At the end of the trail, one may also see a small mound that looks like a tent. This small shelter is probably what the artist is referring to as ‘home’ in the title. Despite irregular, unconventional brushstrokes, the artist has incorporated several minute details that tie up the whole piece.
6. Starry Night over the Rhone (1888) – Vincent van Gogh
Impasto is very common in van Gogh’s work. It would be safe to say that ‘Starry Night’ is the most well-known work by the artist. The starry night has a few adaptions that are worthy of praise. In this painting van Gogh uses short horizontal strokes for more than half of the painting. The landscape has more vertical strokes, all short and around the same length.
The edges of each of these strokes provide a very uniform texture to the canvas. One of the most breathtaking parts of the painting is how light is reflected throughout the painting and beautifully captured through impasto.
7. Rembrandt self-portrait (1660) – Rembrandt van Rijn
Rembrandt has made several self-portraits during his career. His 1660 portrait captures his mastery of both impasto and chiaroscuro techniques. Even though the impasto in this work is not very pronounced, it still provides the canvas with an extra texture that only enhances its realistic features.
This article is supposed to be about impasto, but it is impossible not to mention how beautifully light has been handled in this portrait. With the help of impasto, some portions of the painting have been highlighted on the edges of brushstrokes, giving it more dimension.
8. Reflection (1985)- Lucian Freud
Lucian Freud was the grandson of the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and seems as if their unique understanding of the psyche runs in the family. Reflection is a self-portrait by the artist that features him in the middle of deep introspective thought.
Even though a profile view of the painting is not available to analyze how impasto has been used, certain strokes of paint are characteristic of the technique. The strokes are blunt, wide, and protruding edges with a tinge of light. Using the impasto technique to his advantage, Freud uses deep shadows in the crevices of his skin while light highlights his bone structure.
9. Shimmering Substance (1946) – Jackson Pollock
The most famous name in non-representational, abstract art, Jackson Pollock has used impasto in all his work. In the Shimmering Substance, Pollock uses an uncharacteristic light color palette.
The most common colors that are visible on the canvas include dull white, yellow, blue, and red. From the looks of it, the painter poured desired colors onto the canvas and manipulated it according to his subconscious mind. Curly strokes mostly in yellow are one of the most prominent features of the painting.
10. No. F (1959) – Yayoi Kusuma
Kusuma’s ‘Infinity Nets’ series is a prime example of how art can be a form of catharsis for an artist. In this series, the artist has used a repetitive structure throughout the canvas, but every corner is unique like a snowflake. The painting uses just one color that is a creamy off white. The dark dots are portions of exposed canvas from which the paint has been lifted. The darkened dots along with mounds of off-white paint makes this work one of a kind.
View the image here: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/80176
About Impasto Paintings
Interestingly, impasto artists seldom use a brush for painting. Their most important tool is a palette knife. A palette knife has a flat triangular shape and comes in varying widths and levels of pointedness which allows for precision. However, you would be surprised by the realism seen in some of the earliest impasto paintings. One of the earliest use of impasto is seen in portraits and mythical scenes by Tintoretto and Titian. Rembrandt, the master of light, uses impasto skillfully to capture light and cast shadows in just the right places. Impasto techniques have helped painters to enhance chiaroscuro effects in their paintings through its ridged texture.
In modern art, impasto has taken a new meaning. Paint is no longer a mere means of creating something valuable. The paint now has its “own reality”- meaning the art medium has some intrinsic qualities that are worthy of recognition. Another term for this is “truth to materials” – where modern artists emphasize that art should in fact reflect the properties of the media used in it. While this deviation from the earlier use of impasto as just a painting technique might sound fancy, I feel that artists produced more appealing and relatable art when they stuck to their roots.
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