In reference to painting, brushwork describes the characteristics of a paint surface applied with a brush
Brushwork can range from extremely smooth – as, for example, in the work of the German Neue Sachlichkeit painters – to extremely thick, as in the various forms of expressionism, and what is called gestural (see also impasto).
Brushwork, like handwriting, can be highly individual and can be an important factor in identifying an artist’s work. It can also be highly expressive, that is, the application of the paint itself plays a role in conveying the emotion or meaning of the work.
In modern art theory, emphasis is placed on the idea that a painting should have its own reality rather than attempting to imitate the three-dimensional world. Value is therefore placed on distinctive brushwork because it asserts the two-dimensional surface of the work and the reality of the paint itself. Distinctive brushwork is also seen as valuable because it foregrounds the role of the medium itself.
The painter Robert Ryman has devoted his entire career to an exploration of brushwork.