How to Learn to Paint with Impasto

Painting is an art that allows you to express yourself to show not just what something looks like, but how it makes you feel. One of the best ways to give your painting a sense of movement, motion and passion is with impasto. Impasto is a painting technique in which very thick layers of paint are applied and shaped, almost as if you are sculpting right on the canvas with paint instead of clay. Use oil or acrylic paints, which are thick enough to achieve this textured style.

Van Gogh was a master of painting with the impasto technique.

Things You'll Need

  • Pre-gessoed support (canvas, board, oil painting paper or other surface)

  • Spray bottle filled with water

  • Acrylic or oil paints

  • Brushes

  • Painting knife

  • Objects to use for texture (optional)

  • Varnish

Step 1

Spray the back of the canvas with water in a mister to dampen it, which will make it even more taut. If you are using a wood, masonite or other hard canvas, spraying with water is not necessary.

Step 2

Paint a base coat on the support using a large a large, flat brush or painting knife. This coat should be randomly applied because you want to begin creating texture to which the thicker paint coatings added later will adhere to well. Do not overthink this initial application. A cross-hatched brush stroke or firm, short scrapes with a loaded painting knife will help create the desired effect. This is no time for smoothing and refining -- just lay down a coat of paint.

Step 3

Apply additional texture, if desired, to the wet paint. Crumple paper, a plastic bag or foil and scrub the wet paint with it, or press it into the paint and pull it away from the support. The hard bumps and dents on the crumpled item create tracks and raised areas in the wet paint. Alternately, use a paper towel or sponge with the press-and-pull-away method to create a stucco-like texture. Add additional layers of paint if desired and add more texture. Squeeze the paint directly out of the tube onto the support if you want. Use your instincts to create textures that excite you.

Step 4

Wait for the initial coat to dry if desired, however this is not necessary as you can continue to build on and rework the initial layers with wet-on-wet paint. If you want to allow drying time between coats, you may prefer acrylic paints because they dry within hours no matter how thickly you lay them on the support. Oil paints can take days or even weeks to dry, so they are better suited to a wet-on-wet technique.

Step 5

Add more layers of color, using a brush, a knife or a more unconventional tool, like a rag or a toothbrush. Allow the colors to interact, but be careful not to blend them too much, especially if using a wet-on-wet technique, or they will get muddy.

Step 6

Allow your creativity to take over the process. Load the brush and lightly drag it over the surface, smearing the paint on as though you were buttering fragile, crumbling pastry. Swirl it or stretch it across. Dot it. Use different objects to help build up the texture, or even rake your fingers through the paint to leave tracks and ridges.

Step 7

Locate your dark, shadowy areas. Highlight them with lighter colors to bring depth and attention to them. You can highlight the area with white or add a little of the original color to white and mix it. Alternately, to really draw attention to a dark area, highlight it with a complementary color; for example, use yellow on purple. Don't cover up the dark areas entirely, you don't want to lose them. Just touch on lighter paint with your knife or some other object, little by little, to build up some highlights on them.

Step 8

Sign your painting and allow it to dry. When dry, protect the surface with a coat of varnish. Apply varnish according to the manufacturer's directions.


If using a stretch canvas, make sure it is very tightly stretched and secured. The impasto technique requires a firm surface.

Use a quality thick paint; if your paint is at all runny, add a thickening medium, available where painting supplies are sold.

While oil and acrylics are the best paints for this technique, it may be possible to use other paints, such as tempera or casein, if enough thickening agents are added. These are closer to acrylic in that they dry faster, however it can be very hard to work with them and the final product will not have as much texture as a piece done with acrylics or oil paint.


Work fast if you are working with acrylic paint. Acrylics dry quickly. You can't come back later and change what is already on the canvas, you can only add more wet paint on top of it.

Oil paints can take months to properly dry. If you painted with oil paints, set your painting in a place where it will be undisturbed for up to six months.