Impasto refers to an area of thick paint or texture, in a painting

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  • John Constable, 'Sketch for 'Hadleigh Castle'' circa 1828-9

    John Constable
    Sketch for 'Hadleigh Castle' circa 1828-9
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1226 x 1673 mm frame: 1507 x 1951 x 153 mm
    Purchased 1935

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  • Leon Kossoff, 'Christ Church, Spitalfields, Morning' 1990

    Leon Kossoff
    Christ Church, Spitalfields, Morning 1990
    Oil on board
    support: 1986 x 1892 mm
    Purchased 1994 Leon Kossoff

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  • Derek Jarman, 'Ataxia - Aids is Fun' 1993

    Derek Jarman
    Ataxia - Aids is Fun 1993
    Oil on canvas
    support: 2515 x 1790 x 36 mm
    Presented by the Weltkunst Foundation in memory of Adrian Ward-Jackson 1993 The estate of Derek Jarman

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  • Jean Dubuffet, 'The Busy Life' 1953

    Jean Dubuffet
    The Busy Life 1953
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1302 x 1956 mm frame: 1318 x 1975 x 59 mm
    Presented by the artist 1966 ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

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  • Chaïm Soutine, 'Landscape at Céret' circa 1920-1

    Cham Soutine
    Landscape at Cret circa 1920-1
    Oil on canvas
    support: 559 x 838 mm frame: 911 x 1121 x 109 mm
    Purchased 1964 ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

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  • David Bomberg, Richard Michelmore, 'Recto: Messiah. Verso: Messiah' 1953

    David Bomberg, Richard Michelmore
    Recto: Messiah. Verso: Messiah 1953
    Oil on board
    frame: 715 x 1080 x 100 mm support: 609 x 925 mm
    Presented by Richard Michelmore 1983 Tate & Richard Michelmore

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  • Patrick Caulfield, 'Second Glass of Whisky' 1992

    Patrick Caulfield
    Second Glass of Whisky 1992
    Acrylic on canvas
    support: 610 x 765 mm frame: 677 x 828 x 60 mm
    Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1993 Patrick Caulfield. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2002

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  • Frank Auerbach, 'Head of E.O.W. I' 1960

    Frank Auerbach
    Head of E.O.W. I 1960
    Oil on wood
    support: 433 x 355 mm frame: 645 x 547 x 95 mm
    Presented by the executors of the estate of David Wilkie 1993 Frank Auerbach

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Introduction to impasto

First noticeable in the paintings of Venetian Renaissance artists Titian and Tintoretto, impasto is also seen in Baroque painting, for example in the work of Rubens. It is increasingly notable in nineteenth-century landscape, naturalist and romantic painting.

William Dobson, 'Endymion Porter' circa 1642-5

William Dobson
Endymion Porter circa 1642-5
Oil on canvas
support: 1499 x 1270 mm frame: 1772 x 1545 x 150 mm
Purchased 1888

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Sir George Clausen, 'A Frosty March Morning' 1904

Sir George Clausen
A Frosty March Morning 1904
Oil on canvas
support: 635 x 762 mm frame: 774 x 901 x 68 mm
Presented by C.N. Luxmoore 1929© Tate

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The use of impasto became more or less compulsory in modern art as the view took hold that the surface of a painting should have its own reality rather than just being a smooth window into an illusionist world beyond. With this went the idea that the texture of paint and the shape of the brushmark could themselves help to convey feeling, that they are a kind of handwriting that can directly express the artist’s emotions or response to the subject. (See also gestural.)

A painting in which impasto is a prominent feature can also said to be painterly. This term carries the implication that the artist is revelling in the manipulation of the paint itself and making the fullest use of its sensuous properties.

The idea that the artist should place emphasis on the innate qualities of their medium is a central one in modern art, and is summarised in the phrase ‘truth to materials’. (See also direct carving).

In the mid-twentieth century, some artists took impasto to the extreme, as seen in the work of Frank Auerbach, Jean Dubuffet and Leon Kossoff.

Artists in focus

Jean Dubuffet

Dubuffet was a French painter who invented art brut to describe the raw expressive qualities which he applied to his art. He often mixed his paints with grit, sand and oil repellents to make a near-sculptural surface.

Jean Dubuffet in Tate’s collection
See artworks by the artist in Tate’s collection

Author Mark Haddon talks us through one of his favourite Dubuffet paintings, The Busy Life and how the impressionists began the act of showng the maker’s hand.

Frank Auerbach

Frank Auerbach is a German-born figurative and urban landscape painter who paints expressively, scraping away and building up the surfaces of his paintings into thick impasto, which has an almost sculptural quality.

Frank Auerbach, 'Study after Titian II' 1965

Frank Auerbach
Study after Titian II 1965
Oil on canvas
support: 673 x 622 mm
Presented by the executors of the estate of David Wilkie 1993© Frank Auerbach

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Frank Auerbach in Tate’s collection
See artworks by the artist in Tate’s collection

Frank Auerbach
This exhibition which is at Tate Britain until March 2016, will offer new insights into the nature of his painting. Read the exhibition text to find out more about the artist.

Impasto in detail

Take a look at our online tool (uses Adobe Flash Player, only available on desktop) which reveals the texture and depth of two paintings which have been built up into heavy impasto, Frank Auerbach’s, Small Head of E.O.W. 1957–8 and Rimbaud 1976. This level of detail is not normally visible under gallery conditions.

  • Hover your cursor over the black areas below to activate the tool

Related glossary terms

Matter painting, painterly, brushwork, gestural, abstract expressionism