In reference to painting, brushwork describes the characteristics of a paint surface applied with a brush

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  • Frank Auerbach, 'Small Head of E.O.W.' 1957-8

    Frank Auerbach
    Small Head of E.O.W. 1957-8
    Oil on board
    support: 305 x 216 mm frame: 393 x 294 x 53 mm
    Purchased 1959 Frank Auerbach

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  • Christian Schad, 'Self-Portrait' 1927

    Christian Schad
    Self-Portrait 1927
    Oil on wood
    support: 760 x 620 mm frame: 1040 x 910 x 92 mm
    Lent from a private collection 1994 Christian Schad Stiftung Aschaffenburg/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2002

    View the main page for this artwork

  • Robert Ryman, 'Ledger' 1982

    Robert Ryman
    Ledger 1982
    Enamelac paint on fibreglass, aluminium and wood
    support: 763 x 711 x 36 mm
    Purchased 1983 Robert Ryman

    View the main page for this artwork

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.