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What Does Painterly Mean?

Painterly is a term that describes a set of qualities that are perceived as being distinct to the art of painting. These qualities include the use of color, stroke and texture.

The term was popularised by Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin, who used it to describe the characteristics of paintings.

A painting may be described as being painterly when the illusion of form is created by utilizing colors, strokes, textures and any other techniques unique to the art of painting, rather than a linear method involving skillful drawing. In simple terms, it is used to describe a painting that looks like a painting.

Below is one of my most painterly works. Notice the visible brushwork and simplified detail.

Dan Scott, Sunset Study, Kingfisher Bay, 2017
Dan Scott, Sunset Study, Kingfisher Bay, 2017

Artists with a painterly style include Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, John Singer Sargent and the late Richard Schmid. On the other hand, artists with a more linear and realistic style include Michelangelo, Sandro Botticelli and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. I feature some examples of painterly art at the end of this post.

Tips for a Painterly Style

Here are some tips for creating painterly art:

  • Use larger brushes. This will help you paint with more economical and prominent strokes.
  • Emphasize certain elements in favor of your idea. For example, if you are painting a vivid sunset, then push your colors warmer, brighter and more intense than they actually are. If you are painting the rough terrain in the landscape, then paint with thicker texture.
  • Try to paint with a level of instinct, rather than only making calculated decisions.

Examples of Painterly Art

Here are some examples of paintings that I consider to be painterlyIn Camille Pissarro‘s painting below, observe the bold strokes and lack of fine detail. These are key features of a painterly style.

Camille Pissarro, Boulevard Montmartre by Night, 1897
Camille Pissarro, Boulevard Montmartre by Night, 1897

Monet is renowned for his expressive and painterly brushwork to capture the essence of the scene. In the painting below, notice the swirling brushwork he used for the smoke and the broken color he used to paint the rough ground. Also, notice how he really pushed the use of blue.

Claude Monet, The Saint-Lazare Station in Paris Arrival of a Train, 1877
Claude Monet, The Saint-Lazare Station in Paris Arrival of a Train, 1877

In Henri Matisse’s painting, you can clearly see all the strokes of color. Even for the less important areas in the painting, like the wall and the desk, you can see varied colors, brushwork and texture to create interest.

Henri Matisse, Table in a Cafe, 1899
Henri Matisse, Table in a Cafe, 1899

In Joaquín Sorolla’s painting, notice the bold and directional strokes used for the water and grass. This gives the painterly appearance and helps to draw your eyes around the painting.

Joaquín Sorolla, The Baths of the Queen, Valsayn, 1907
Joaquín Sorolla, The Baths of the Queen, Valsayn, 1907

Simplified shapes are another key feature of a painterly style, as demonstrated in the painting below.

Paul Cezanne, The House of the Hanged Man, 1873
Paul Cezanne, The House of the Hanged Man, 1873

Take a look at the detail used for the two subjects in this painting. They almost blend in with the white tablecloth. Also, the trees and plants are really nothing more than a build-up of broken color and texture; Sergey Vinogradov made no effort in painting all the individual branches and leaves.

Sergey Arsenievich Vinogradov, In the Summer, 1908
Sergey Arsenievich Vinogradov, In the Summer, 1908

(See the supplies page for details about what I use and recommend.)

Learn More

If you want to learn more about creating painterly art, then you should read my post on the visual elements, which are the building blocks of painting.

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.

Happy painting!

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Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

12 comments on “Painterly”

  1. Thanks! I teach a small informal class and I struggle to get them to understand that art making is not accurate portrayal of what already exists. They have heard too many times, as I pointed at their source photo or objects they have chosen to paint, “If you want it too look like that, take a photo.” But this gives me some new language and ideas about how to inspire them to upgrade their work and perhaps make art.

    • Hi Stephen. Thanks for your comment. No, subscription to Draw Paint Academy is free but I do have some paid courses which are optional. Thanks, Dan

  2. I love learning from you!
    I’ve never heard mention of the term painterly. Thank you for
    explaining with paintings.

    What oil paint do you use.
    Thank you,
    Diana Muller/SC

  3. I’m loving your information. I’ve heard the term painterly many times but never had it explained this clearly. It was a term that was a bit of a mystery to me. Thanks for clearing it up and for sharing all your great insights

  4. Dan,
    You are an inspiration!
    I have only been painting 4 years but it has become very important to me.
    I love the last article- painterly.
    I plan to take a class- I need to finish one online I’ve signed up for.
    I follow wolf Kahn and have branched out recently.
    More of a colorist landscape artist plus…

  5. I’m watching a YouTube video of Pompberry doing a Krampus look. She does amazing make-up and she kept using the word Painterly and I didn’t know what she was talking about, son of course I googled it and you came up. I Love this style of Art and you explained it perfectly, Thank You.

  6. I love your approach to teaching. You explain the subject you address very clearly and the examples you use in your tutorial are inspiring. THANK YOU


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