Art jargon can be indescribably irritating: chiaroscuro, cloisonnism, papier collé, frottage, verism – an endless stream of words, that, at base, seem entirely useless – and whose presence can make us feel like we are even further from understanding a piece of art. However, there are a few occasions where unpicking the meaning of a bit of jargon can be useful – it can make describing what we see infinitely easier, and definitely quicker. An example of this, is the word ‘impasto’. This gorgeous Italian word is a much more concise way of saying: ‘thick, lumpy bits of paint, piled onto the surface of a painting’. So, today we want to dig a little into what impasto is, why we think it’s interesting, and how it can shape the effect of a work of art.
What is impasto?
‘Impasto’, in painting, is where paint has been layered, thickly, on top of a surface. This is normally done using a paint brush, or a palette knife; but can be done using pretty much anything (from Edgar Degas to Tim Patch – some artists have taken this freedom to strange extremes: best not to Google it…) It gives the two-dimensional surface of a painting, a three-dimensional, textured effect; often gorgeously satisfying, and at times, deeply emotive. It’s initially strange to consider the idea that some thickly laid paint can be emotive. But, if we consider the difference, in nature, between a flat stretch of farmland, and a mountain range – it is easy to see how three-dimensional space, and a textured surface, can add a dramatic intensity to a scene. The raised form and fluctuating shape of the impasto technique, heightens the contrasts between light and shadow, and as a result it has a profoundly visceral effect on us viewing it (as well as giving us an overwhelming urge to touch it…but that might just be me).
As with most techniques in painting, the origin of impasto is impossible to pin down with certainty. Some notable early appearances, however, are in the works of Titian and Rubens, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Whilst these artists, for example, may be old masters; raised up onto a pedestal by some art historians; both used the impasto technique to create movement and sensuality in their paintings. In the fifteenth-century, Italian philosopher Leon Battista Alberti had asserted that a painting should act as a window into the real world – an exact mirror of life. However, with the likes of Rubens, for example, the act of painting was no longer simply a tool for copying life, and it was instead becoming a medium for expression. In Rubens’ Aurora abducting Cephalus, the application of impasto, evokes the dynamic, emotionally-charged movement of the two individuals. The paint does not simply transcribe a clear picture of a literal scene; it has an emotive, active quality that suggests the intangible – like the feeling of movement, states of emotion, ideas, and senses. This is a concept perhaps better comprehended in the tumultuous, impasto swirls of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or in the rhythmic, impasto expressions of Pollock’s drip paintings, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, respectively. Instead of copying the world as they saw it: Van Gogh used impasto to charge his visions of Arles and of sunflowers, with unique, dramatic intensity; and Pollock used the shape and texture of his impasto ‘drips’ to evoke the tonality and rhythm of music. So, impasto is a painting technique that can lift an ordinary, realistic copy of life, into something more personal, more dynamic, and more expressive.
Our artists: Lee Herring.
To really get to grips with what impasto actually is, we thought we’d introduce you to one of our own – Lee Herring; whose application of oil paint in his gorgeous, mixed-media landscapes, truly epitomise the power and beauty of the impasto technique. He does not simply create a ‘window’ into a real landscape, that is flat, and true to life as we see it. Rather, he builds up textured layers of paint, using palette knives, trowels and scrapers; into rich, abstracted surfaces. The perfect example of this is in his Neon Forest piece. Here, the impasto technique works in two dominating ways: firstly, it provides a three-dimensional quality, that gives the scene immense depth. The richly built layers of the foreground are palpable, in their thick and glossy texture; whilst the specks of impasto that fleck the sky, recede into the orange void, like stars. Secondly, the cataclysmic clash of colour and texture, created by the impasto technique, is expressive and emotive. Whilst the pallet used for the impasto foreground, is predominantly restricted to grey, black and white – the bold contrasts between the lightness and the dark; and the offsetting marks of fluorescent pink, piercing through the layers – has a really expressive quality, in its sense of wildness and speed. The same painting, created without the use of impasto, would have had a very different effect. As a result of Herring’s rich, material application of paint; this landscape evokes so much more than what the eye can see.
So – a technique that John Ruskin once likened to “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”, has profoundly emotive potential. And can transform something quite ordinary, into something incredibly beautiful. The term ‘impasto’ itself, may be unnecessarily jargon-y; but the sentiment behind it is something expressive, something dynamic, and definitely something deeply satisfying to feast our eyes on.