Impasto: Van Gogh’s Painting Technique

Vincent van Gogh’s artworks are high, with the best art publicly and privately displayed today. But, as one of the most influential figures in modern western art culture, you may be surprised to learn that van Gogh lived a relatively short and sad life, culminating in suicide. 

His artworks and varied art styles only received recognition after his demise and are, ironically, one of the most valued paintings today. However, when talking about van Gogh’s drawings, one of his styles stands out the most; Impasto. Impasto is the most expressive art medium of van Gogh, showing us just what was going on in his troubled mind. 

What exactly is impasto, and how has it been applied by van Gogh to give his paintings the brilliance they exude? We take you through images of van Gogh paintings and all you need to know about the art medium, including an analysis of some of the most famous van Gogh drawings and what to learn through the artwork of Vincent van Gogh. So let’s get into it.

What Is Impasto? 

Impasto originates from the Italian word “pasta,” which means “paste,” and it isn’t hard to see why. It is a drawing technique that uses thick layers of paint or pigment to give the artwork a three-dimensional feel. 

The paint or pigment is undiluted, ensuring it remains a thick paste and is then applied through brush or palette knife strokes that are visible on the canvas. When dry, the paste protrudes out of the surface and gives the drawing a lot of texture. 

Impasto is a unique art style that draws more attention to a particular entity in the drawing, helping it to stand out. This is why expressionists have used it for a lot of purposes. Artists create impasto paintings that work with the lighting in the space around them and, more intriguingly, use impasto to show their working process.

Perhaps this introspective into the artist’s creative course is why many people love Vincent van Gogh artwork. Van Gogh took it a notch up, mixing colour and emotions with this expressionist art style and making his drawings stand out from those of other popular impasto artists.

Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

Our first impasto piece offers a more direct interpretation or use of the art style than the two we will subsequently mention. Sunflowers is a drawing van Gogh created for Paul Gauguin, another known artist he worked with during the final months of 1888. 

The protruding impasto textures are simply applied to the seed head of the sunflowers. In case you don’t know, sunflower seed-heads are the part of the plant with the roughest textures, and these rough impasto applications help the drawing mimic its real-life counterpart.

More deeply, however, we see dying plants. These present us with the subtle sense of melancholy that the paintings of van Gogh and even his whole life are known for. The wave of brush strokes is one element that features in almost all the famous van Gogh drawings but looks missing here. The next artworks show you just how van Gogh uses this.

Vase With Twelve Sunflowers II – Vincent Van Gogh

Impasto in The Starry Night

The Starry Night is the most famous Vincent van Gogh artwork with impasto, holding a rather priceless value and currently displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, USA. Created in 1889, it features the view of the night sky as seen from van Gogh’s asylum window alongside an imaginary village.

The Starry Night represents a piece of van Gogh’s deteriorating mental state, with the stars, which are the main features in the piece, featuring every bit of van Gogh’s creative direction. 

Through the stars, the brilliant Vincent van Gogh artwork shows his use of impasto textures combined with peculiar colours that give off artificial luminance. The three-dimensional textures make the stars stand out from the canvas, while the peculiar colouring attracts attention from a two-dimensional view. 

As with other impasto paintings from van Gogh, we also see brush strokes that represent clouds’ directional movement and feature the same colours as the stars. Van Gogh uses these directional strokes to give a bit of life and feeling to all of his impasto drawings.

Starry Night – Vincent Van Gogh

Portrait of Dr. Paul Gashet

Priced at $83 million in 1990, the Portrait of Dr. Paul Gashet is the most expensive van Gogh painting ever. It features the portrait of a medical keeper who looked after van Gogh following his stay in the mental asylum, with van Gogh’s unique impasto style represented fully. 

The portrait comes in two versions, both created in 1890. From the words of van Gogh, “Sad but gentle, yet clear and intelligent,” the second version is a more simplistic rendering of melancholy with Dr. Gashet wearing a sad face. This is a very intentional art direction from van Gogh as he ends his previous quote with “that is how many portraits ought to be done.” 

However, impasto textures in the first version feature his signature detailed colouring and brush strokes. We see books peculiarly colored in yellow, a waning plant, Dr. Gashet with a straight face, and quick brush strokes all around the air, all representing a downcast of melancholy in place of a sad face. 

Although the first version bringing impasto to the whole light has gone missing, the second currently sits at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. These Vincent van Gogh images live till today, and he committed suicide just six weeks after these pieces were completed.


Vincent van Gogh was not the only artist popularly known for impasto drawings, but he stands out from the rest through his application of colour and representations of strong emotions. Although van Gogh applies more than just protruding textures to his artworks, this is all you have to learn about paintings of van Gogh, especially when impasto is concerned.

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