The Painterly Style

Landscape at Auvers after rain (Landscape with Carriage and Train) (painting by Vincent van Gogh, 1890)
Van Gogh/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The term painterly is used to describe a painting done in a style that embraces, shows, and celebrates the paint medium that it is created in (be it oil paint, acrylics, pastels, gouache, watercolor, etc.), rather than a style that tries to hide the act of creation. It is a loose and expressive approach to the process of painting in which the brushstrokes are visible, rather than one that is controlled and rational, and tries to hide the brushstrokes.

In centuries past (and in various modern art movements such as Photorealism), painters worked hard to eliminate or conceal any evident brushmarks or texture in a painting, blending and smoothing to hide all evidence of how the painting was created.   

Painterly does not mean the paint has to be impasto, though an impasto painting — one in which the paint is applied thickly — is, in fact, painterly. However, paint can be thin and still be applied in a painterly way. Painterly means that the style or approach does not try to hide the fact that a brush or knife was used to create the artwork, and that celebrates the paint or art material itself (the surface of a sculpture might even be said to be painterly if the carved or modeled marks resemble brushstrokes or are visible.) 

According to the Tate Gallery's Glossary, the term painterly "carries the implication that the artist is reveling in the manipulation of the oil paint itself and making the fullest use of its sensuous properties."​

Painterly Versus Linear

Painterly is often contrasted with linear painting. Linear painting, as the name suggests, is based on outline and boundary, much like cartoon drawing, although not necessarily so explicit, with objects and figures isolated. Shapes are drawn first, and then carefully painted over and delineated with hard edges, or further emphasized with line.

Forms are sharply defined and gradations of value are subtly rendered. The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1484-86) is an example of linear painting. The subject of the painting depicts movement, but the application of the paint itself does not.  

In contrast, a painterly style clearly shows the brushstrokes and the energy of the gesture that went into making those marks. It is dynamic and expressive. There are soft edges and hard edges, movement and energy, with one shape of color merging into the next. Rain, Steam and Speed by J.M.W. Turner (1844) is an example of painterly style. The style of Peter Paul Rubens, the great Baroque artist of Belgium, is often described as painterly. 

A painting can have characteristics of both linear and painterly styles, but the overall effect will be of one or the other.

Other Examples of Painterly Artworks

The close-up details in these Expressionist paintings, by Van Gogh and others, are examples of a painterly style. This term could be applied to many other artists including Rembrandt,  John Singer Sargent, Lucian Freud, Pierre Bonnard, and the Abstract Expressionists.

Updated by Lisa Marder.


Baroque Painting. Essential Humanities,

Glossary: Impasto,