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Whether you’re interested in getting started with a new creative hobby or simply looking for a different form of art to try, expressive painting is an intuitive (and surprisingly unintimidating) way to develop your unique artistic talent.

In this post, we’ll explain what exactly expressive art is, some of the different painting styles you can find in the expressionism style, along with a few tips on how to get started with your own pieces.

What Is Expressive Art?

Expressionism is a style of art in which the creator is trying to depict their subject matter in terms of emotions, rather than making it entirely realistic. The goal is to make the viewer think and feel, rather than simply observe. 

An example of this type of art is the famous painting by Edvard Munch, “The Scream”:

Source: Source: wikimedia
“The Scream” is one of the most famous examples of expressive painting in the world.

As you can see, the screamer doesn’t have detailed features like we would expect from a typical portrait. Instead, Munch has used distortion and exaggeration techniques to create movement that feels jarring and dynamic. This is meant to make us, the viewer, react and feel a particular way, rather than observe the image as a still life of a real scene.

starry night
Source: moma
Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” takes natural elements and contrasts them with fantastical interpretations.

The history of expressionism goes all the way back to the early 20th century, where it was popularized by German and Austrian creatives in both the music and art worlds. Although influenced by the abstract colors and symbolic subject matter of post-impressionist painters like Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cézanne, the expressionist movement leaned heavily on the idea that their work was subjective. Ultimately, the meaning of expressionist art is left up to the viewer.

For many painters, Pablo Picasso’s work is often a starting point for them to explore their own expressive art.

Some of the most famous expressionist painters include Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault, Max Beckmann, and Pablo Picasso. While they all chose their own unique style and subjects, these artists all relied on typical expressionism painting styles and techniques to bring a deeper meaning to their work.

Expressionism in Painting

red and black and white
Expressive art is all about taking what you see in the world and bringing depth and emotion to the painting through spontaneous brushstrokes and bright colors.

Expressionism painting isn’t about making your finished piece look polished and perfect. The erratic brushstrokes that are typical of this artistic style often make paintings look rough and hurried. This is intentional and is supposed to help the viewer feel whatever emotion the artist is trying to get across. So if you’re nervous to pick up your paintbrush because you’re inexperienced or new to the medium, don’t be! 

In fact, expressive painting is one of the best places for new artists to start because it gives you the most freedom to play and experiment. What might be a “mistake” in true-to-life painting fits in perfectly in expressionist art. You can even take bold steps into mixing different styles or techniques as you explore expressionism. 

Art—especially expressionist art—is meant to be a creative process, so don’t be afraid to be led by your feelings and your brush, rather than a need to be perfect and true-to-life (that’s more common in impressionism).

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Expressionism Painting Styles

There are several ways you can use the expressionism style within your paintings. These usually fall into two distinct categories: subject matter and technique.

In most cases, the subject matter of expressive paintings is based in real life, but takes elements like the human experience and alters them to represent deeper feelings like fear or anger. While the subject matter is still identifiable as an experience or setting, the overall image being created is something else entirely.

A stark contrast to the serene scenes of promenades or flower fields favored by the impressionists of the century before, expressionist artists of the early 1900s were more drawn to those on the fringes of polite society. The German painting group Die Brücke was famous for depicting Dresden’s dancers and prostitutes who frequented the city’s nightclubs and streets. The goal was to make the viewer think—to reflect on the people who were seen as outcasts in their world. 

Modern artists like Julian Schnabel have been heavily influenced by the expressionist movement.

Today, painters working in the expressionist style still largely focus on the human experience as the subject of their artwork, drawing on topics like mental health and the cult of celebrity to modernize this unique painting style.

Just like with the subjects of these pieces, you’ll notice that, when it comes to technique, there’s significant overlap between the great expressionist painters. Brushstrokes that look messy or energetic, the blending of different textures on the canvas, and vibrant color palettes are all characteristic of this painting style. If you’re not used to this type of approach with your paintings, let’s dive into some of the ways that you can practice these techniques on your own.

Expressionism Painting Techniques

Go With Your Gut

Sometimes the best art is created when you haven’t pre-planned what you’re going to paint and simply let the brush take you wherever you’d like. We know this can feel daunting, especially if you’re more used to carefully crafting drawings or paintings of exactly what you see in front of you. But next time you’re in the mood to paint something new, give this approach a try.

There are plenty of ways that painters can work with this kind of freedom—Jackson Pollock is a perfect example. Although he painted after the end of the expressionist movement, his work was heavily influenced by the ideas that it birthed. He was a fan of what’s known as “action painting,” or using quick, spontaneous brushstrokes when painting the canvas. This gives the hurried, chaotic feel that expressive paintings are known for and is a great place for beginners to start feeling comfortable with this style of art. It may feel messy, but that’s the point!

Bring in Some Props

You may think that your only tools will be a pencil, paintbrush, and your color palette, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Expressionist painters can use any kind of material or object to help create their artwork, from string and sticks to knives and spoons. 

Add texture to your images using tools like spatulas or knives to create a 3D effect.

Texture is a key part of expressionism painting techniques, so grab something that you don’t mind getting paint all over and drag it across your canvas. Stack a few different layers of paint together to create a completely unique texture, like using the edge of a knife to make score marks in one color, before smoothing another over the top with the end of a ruler.

Experiment With Color

If you’ve been studying art for a while, you’re likely familiar with concepts like color theory and know how to use a color wheel to find complementary and contrasting colors. You may even have some knowledge of color psychology and using different shades and tones to evoke certain feelings in the viewer. Expressionism painting is one of the best styles to put everything you know into practice, or even flip it all upside down.

Picasso was a true master of this technique, using darker tones and different shades of gray to convey his feelings about war and suffering, before moving onto reds and yellows in his work depicting joyous circus performers. Try using different colors to bring certain emotional messages into your paintings as the expressionists of the 1900s did, or see what you can do by contrasting the paint color with the brushstrokes for a truly conflicting final piece.

Switch It Up

Have you ever tried drawing or painting with your non-dominant hand? If you’re stuck for ideas for how to break the habit of drawing lifelike images, grab a pencil and start sketching with the opposite hand. Yes, it’ll feel really awkward and you probably won’t even be able to hold the pencil properly, but this is one of the best ways to jump into expressionism with very little effort!

contour drawing
Exercises like blind contour drawing will instantly give you an imperfect, expressionist-style look.

Blind contour drawing is another way to achieve the same outcome. It’s amazing how quickly your artwork changes when you’re not allowed to lift the pen from the paper or even look down at what you’re working on. Imperfection is the goal here, so find some new ways to explore expressionist techniques while creating your own pieces.

It’s Time to Express Yourself

Now that you have a better idea of what exactly expressive art is, you’re ready to start incorporating this style and the unique techniques that it uses into your artwork. 

Remember, there’s no right or wrong here—it’s all about your creativity and artistic expression. 

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