How to Paint in an Expressive or Painterly Style

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What is an Expressive or Painterly Style?

Blended and Expressive Painting Styles
The tree on the left is painted in a blended style, without visible brushmarks, whereas the tree on the right is painted in an expressive or painterly style, with very visible brushmarks. Photo © 2009 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc

The photo shows two details from paintings both of trees (from my Heat and Quiver series respectively). Besides the colors, there is one significant difference between them, the style in which they were painted.

The tree on the left is painted in a blended style, where the brushmarks are eliminated or hidden, and gradations of tone are used to create the illusion of form (3D). This is achieved through blending of colors while they're still wet, and by building up colors and tone using glazes.

The tree on the right is painted in an expressive or painterly style, embracing the marks made by the paint brush and painting knife rather than trying to hide them. While there is still a variation in tone to suggest shadow on one side of the tree trunk, the tones are not graded carefully from dark to light as the trunk curves.

Some people regard an expressive or painterly style to be less finished, or even unfinished. But it's not a style of painting where the end result is intended to look smooth and glossy like a photograph. It's a style which celebrates and shows off the materials made to create it: paint and a brush. The result is something only a painter could produce.

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Can You Mix Styles in One Painting?

Blended vs expressive painting styles
This painting has areas where the colors are blended and others painted in a more expressive style, such as her red jumper and hair. Photo © 2009 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc

There's no rule to say you must use only one style in a painting. It's entirely up to you. You're the artist, you're the boss, it's your painting. Styles and techniques can be mixed and matched (or mismatched) at your whim. Whether you think the results are effective or not, is your decision.

This portrait was painted during a weekend oils portrait workshop. I spent most of the time focusing on skin tones and getting a likeness, and the second afternoon painting her hair and gorgeous red jumper. (Working with oil paint gives you oodles of time to blend the colors, and I did end up in muddy mixtures at times, and the model ended up with rather rosy cheeks!)

Particularly on the shoulder of her jumper you can track the motion of the brush as I applied shades of more saturated and lighter red over the dark initial layer. I've not blended these together to give a sense of the realistic texture of her jumper, but left them as individual brushstrokes. Her curly hair is painted using a series of short brushmarks to emulate the feeling of chaotic curls everywhere. The result, I believe, is a vibrant and pleasing contrast to the style of the facial features and hairband.

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How to Make Expressive Brushmarks

Expressive painting style
Photo © 2009 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc

Quite simply, don't blend and don't tidy up. Allow the marks left by the shape of the brush and its hairs to show. Don't brush back and forth to eliminate lines left by individual hairs from the brush. Be decisive and bold in moving the brush across the canvas or paper.

Follow the direction, contours, and main shapes of an object. If you're unsure, think about how you would hold the object, how your fingers would curl around it or how you might run your hand across its surface. That's the direction you want your most dominant brushmarks to head in.

Don't neglect the background. At the very least use two different tones to create some visually interesting pattern or shifts in color. Or, for instance, if you have a dancer spinning around, paint the air they've disturbed.

Is it really that simple? Well, yes and no. It's easy to do badly so it's a wild mess of brushmarks that a viewer can't interpret. And it can be hard to resist the temptation to "just quickly touch up this bit" and so overwork an area. As soon as you find yourself fiddling or hesitating, stop and leave the painting overnight for fresh consideration in the morning. Practice and persistence will see you rewarded.

If you have the opportunity, supplement your painting by looking at actual paintings done in this style. Stand as close as possible (with your hands clasped behind you so the gallery guard doesn't start to panic you're going to touch the painting) and spend time studying the paint and brush marks, not the subject of the painting.

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Use Paint Dribbles for an Expressive Style

Dribbles in an expressive painting style
Photo © 2009 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc

If the paint dribbles and runs, leave it! Resist the temptation to wipe it off with a cloth and tidy up the paint. This isn't to say you ought never paint over any dribbles; you can of course. If you're using transparent or thin paint it creates visual interest in the lower layers.

The photo shows details of four stages in a background I painted where I deliberately let the paint run. I diluted it a lot and had the canvas vertical to gravity would do its thing. I let each layer dry completely before applying the next and then finally glazed over with quinacridone gold, which is a very transparent pigment. The result is a background that's far more visually intriguing than a single color. The unpredictability of where the paint would dribble is part of the fun of creating it.

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Art Worksheet for Practicing Painting in an Expressive Style

I've created a printable art worksheet to use for practicing painting in an expressive style. I painted it with Winsor & Newton Artists' Acrylic, using a knife. Colors were napthol red medium, cadmium orange, azo yellow medium, red iron oxide, and phthalo green-blue shade.

The arrows on the art worksheet give you the basic structure of the apple. Use a wide brush, or knife, and follow the arrows. Don't tidy up or blend the edges of the marks you're making, but instead repeat the sequence until you're satisfied with the result. Then add some background and foreground.

I created my foreground by wiping the painting knife I was using in that area each time I wanted to change color. Then when I'd finished the apple and its shadow (done with green), I went over the foreground with the napthol red again, spreading it thinly.

Next page: It's an Expressive Style Not a Facial Expression

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It's an Expressive Style Not a Facial Expression

Self-portrait painting
Two self-portraits by Rich Mason. The one on the left is in a realist style, the one on the right in an expressive style. Paintings © Rich Mason

An expressive portrait or self-portrait is a style of painting, it's not about the expression on the person's face. Whether the person is happy or sad, smiling or frowning, is irrelevant. How the paint has been applied is what's relevant.

Compare the two self-portraits shown in the photo. They're clearly both paintings of a face, and even if the photo caption didn't tell you they were by the same painter you'd probably have thought it was the same person depicted. What is clearly very different is the style in which each is painted.

The portrait on the left is painted in a realism style, which mimics what we typically think we see. The colors used for the skin are "real", the paint has been blended to create a smooth finish on the skin. The portrait on the right uses colors you don't expect for skin tones and the brushmarks are strongly evident.

Color and mark-making have been used expressively in this painting, to move the portrait away from something that's a likeness of a person. You may not like the final result, but it's got an impact that the realistic portrait doesn't have. Imagine the painting on the right was titled "Sea Sick" -- how do you feel about the colors then?

An expressive painting style uses paint to do things that you can do only with paint. Some artists take it further than others, as you can see in this Expressionism photo gallery.