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What Does “Brushwork” Mean In Art?

What Does “Brushwork” Mean In Art?

Paint in blue

“Paint in blue” by Denise Carrasco

Paintings don’t pop into existence all at once. They are created one piece at a time, or one brushstroke at a time. The paintbrush is the basic tool of painting and how that brush is used determines the mark that is made and what the final piece looks like. The word used to describe how a brush is used is brushwork.

It is worth adding that brushwork can be used to cover more than just work done with traditional paintbrushes. The word can cover scratches made with the handle of the brush, marks made with palette knives and the work of other paint manipulation tools. Just looking at a painting it can be hard to know for sure what tools were used so brushwork is a working term that can be used even if you know nothing about the specifics of the painting’s creation.

Get scratching

“Get scratching!” by starsandspirals

Why Should People Care About Brushwork?

You don’t have to be an artist to be interested in art. There are plenty of people who make their living in the art world without being able to draw anything beyond a stick figure. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t learn a bit about how art is made if you want to understand and appreciate work.

Understanding how art was made can help us to understand it on a deeper level. When we realize that an artist made a conscious decision to use rough and scratchy brushwork rather than making it as smooth as possible we can ask how that technique might relate to the meaning of the piece.

Smooth and carefully blended brushwork might be used to make a painting as realistic as possible, to help people forget that they are looking at a picture. Big globs of paint can be used to create a painting that is three-dimensional when seen in galleries. Rough scratches can make people feel uneasy, suggesting violence and aggression. The possibilities are practically endless, painters are always looking for new ways to use their tools to achieve their artistic goals.

The Starry Night

The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

What Is An Example Of Brushwork?

Brushwork is an essential element of any painting, but its importance is especially evident in Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night. This painting is one of the most iconic works of art of all time, recognized worldwide because of the way van Gogh depicted a nighttime image of a small town sleeping under a starry sky.

Many artists have depicted similar scenes, but van Gogh was able to get at something unique by abandoning the realistic and almost invisible brushwork of the old masters. Looking at The Starry Night it’s easy to see each individual brush stroke. Rather than carefully blending strokes together van Gogh uses the distinct shapes of his brush strokes to create a flow that goes through the whole work and captures the feeling of looking up at the night sky.

Imagine if van Gogh had taken the time to carefully blend his strokes together. He could have achieved something more realistic, an image more like a photograph, but would it have been a better painting? The brushwork served his goal, which is exactly what brushwork should do.

A watercolor painter working in Dolceacqua

Dolceacqua43 – Artista locale mentre dipinge un acquarello” by DongioOwn work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Looking For Brushwork Around You

While it’s possible to recognize brushwork looking at pictures online the best way to experience and understand it is in real life. There are two ways to do this, by looking at paintings in person or by painting yourself.

If you rarely visit museums or galleries now is the perfect time to start. One of the first things people notice when they view famous works of art in person is how different they look. Photos can look flat and smooth while art viewed up close tends to have a unique texture created by the brushwork used.

If you really want to understand brushwork you should do some painting yourself. You don’t have to sign up for a class or even spend more than a few dollars. If you get some cheap paint and brushes and start experimenting you can really get a sense of what artists go through as they create their paintings one movement at a time.

Whether you decide to pick up a brush or not just try and take a closer look at the paintings you see. Ask yourself, “why did the artist use this style of brushwork?” If you keep asking this question and looking for answers you are going to gain a deeper understanding of art and a new way of looking at it.

About Jon_Hanson

I'm an artist and writer from Washington State. I hope I can help you enjoy and appreciate art the way I do. Art isn't just for galleries, it's a way of life.

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