My Impasto Painting Guide

Updated: Mar 14, 2020

My Experience

I’ve been painting in the impasto style for a while now. Impasto means ‘to paste’ in Italian and it’s been used by well known artists to integrate texture in their paintings. It took my a while to get used to painting this way. I do it because I enjoy it, and I would love to show you some tips that are great for beginners, and that make the entire process fun and enjoyable.

Painting impasto can be carried out through using heavy body acrylic paints, oil paint or through incorporating a medium in the form of a thickening gel which can help to stiffen the paint. Oil painters may find that it’s better to achieve the impasto effect without any medium as oil paint is already very buttery and dense which means it can hold its structure better than your standard acrylic paint.

This is where heavy body acrylics come in. Heavy body acrylics are best used with mediums to either thicken or thin-down the paint. Heavy body acrylics are designed to behave like oil - they have a buttery, thick consistency. Therefore, you can achieve the impasto style more easily as opposed to using soft body or student grade acrylic. Soft body acrylics are great for coverage, while heavy body paints are more pigmented, and therefore more flexible to work with mediums.

Impasto paintings bring a new dimension to a painting, both physically and metaphorically. Artists may exploit broader and thicker brushstrokes to help contextualise what’s going on in the painting. Or like me, may use this effect to enhance and highlight components of the painting.

For me, painting impasto means that the floral bouquets I paint are more accentuated. I use it to emphasise the existing expressionist style I have going on. This means that the floral blooms stand out from the painting canvas. And it works for me! If you want to paint impasto, you have to find a way to incorporate it without it owning you.

Here are my tips for painting in the impasto style...

1) Choose your medium wisely

I use a mixture of Crya’s Heavy body acrylic paint and an extra heavy, gloss thickening gel. I find that the combination of a high pigment paint works well and goes a long way when painting impasto, and I like the look of the high gloss finish. The dense paint also means you need less to incorporate with the gel.

My collection of Daler Rowney Cryla Heavy Body Acrylics - Liquitex Too!

Depending on your style, and whether you use acrylic or oil, will decipher your ideal medium. I am yet to try modelling paste and matt heavy gels, which just goes to show that there are so many options to play around with so go and have fun! Which bring me on to my next tip…

Extra Heavy Structure gel

2) The Palette Knife is your best friend

Make sure you have a palette knife at hand. In fact, you should always be mixing your paints and mediums with a palette knife. Brushes tend to absorb and store different pigments in its fibres, which can cause muddiness while you paint. And that’s the last thing you want if you want to achieve pure colours in your painting. Impasto and palette knives go hand in hand. It’s much easier to apply thicker paint with a tool like this. Acrylic and mediums tend to dry out pretty quickly. This can be a nightmare when you are painting with a brush, as paint will dry within the fibres and will damage your paintbrush. It’s much easier to scrape dried paint off a palette knife. Trust me. Above all, you can produce such beautiful textures with a palette knife that you can’t achieve with a paint brush.

My Palette Knife Collection

3) My Process

I normally start my painting with a colour-blocking session which outlines the entire painting’s composition and colour. This is completed with thinned down heavy body acrylics and a paint brush. After I get to a certain point, I bring in my palette knife, mix my paint with the thickening gel and paint away. This is the fun part because I’m not too worried about the composition and the technical elements to the painting. That’s been taken care of in the initial brushwork.

4) Choose Your Surface

Use a sturdy, painting surface. If your impasto paintings just amount to thick paint stroke applications, you might be okay to use all surfaces. However, the thicker you go, the more cautious you want to be. I can paint quite heavily, so I find that the best surfaces to work with are canvas boards and primed wood panels. I have found that on some occasions when I have applied the paint on heavily to the canvas board, the board begins to bend slightly...not you want!

Thickened Paint

5) Get A Rag

Lastly ensure you have a rag or wet cloth to hand. You’ll find it tedious cleaning your palette knife with just water due to the thicker paint. I find that kitchen towel works wonders because the tooth of the towel removes paint in one swipe. It’s also reusable! Just give it a rise and dry.

Kitchen Towel - A Life Saver

6) Have Fun

Above all, make sure that everything is where you need it to be. Whether that be your reference, rag or your painting palette. Again, acrylic and mediums dry quickly so want to be well facilitated in the painting process. Make sure you have fun and play around with the techniques that you can produce with a palette knife. It may all sound a bit daunting, but at the end of the day it’s art, its your art.

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