Expressionist Painting: Techniques & Characteristics
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 7 min read


Immerse yourself in the world of art with a deeper understanding of the expressionist painting style. This remarkable art movement has shaped the way we see, interpret, and engage with visual creativity. Let's dive in and explore the vibrant universe of Expressionist painting.

What is Expressionist painting?

Expressionist painting is more than just an artistic movement; it's a bold declaration of emotion and personal perspective. Originating in Germany around the early 20th century, this style has become a significant player in the world of art, impacting numerous artists and art enthusiasts across the globe.

The Origin of Expressionism

The birth of Expressionism occurred during a time of significant social and cultural upheaval. Artists began to deviate from the traditional norms of painting, seeking new ways to express their emotions and views. This led to a dramatic shift in the art world, with the focus shifting from realistic representation to emotional intensity.

Defining the Expressionist Painting Style

The expressionist painting style is characterized by its bold use of color and distorted forms. It's not about creating a perfect replica of reality, but rather, it's about capturing the emotional and psychological experiences of the artist. In other words, if a painting makes you feel something intense or makes you see the world from a new perspective, it might just be an example of Expressionist art.

Notable Periods in Expressionism

Expressionism evolved over time, with two major periods influencing its development:

  • The Bridge (Die Brücke): This was a group of German artists who sought to create new and innovative artistic forms. They combined elements of traditional and contemporary art, paving the way for the expressionist painting style.
  • The Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter): This group, also from Germany, focused on the spiritual and symbolic aspects of art. They believed in the power of color and form to express deep emotional and spiritual experiences.

With this understanding, you are now equipped to delve deeper into the intriguing world of Expressionist painting. Let's continue our exploration by examining its key characteristics.

Characteristics of Expressionist painting

Now that you have a basic understanding of what Expressionist painting is, you might be wondering: what makes a painting expressionist? What fundamental characteristics set it apart from other art movements? Let's delve deeper and explore these unique features.

Emotional Intensity

One of the most significant hallmarks of the expressionist painting style is the emphasis on emotional intensity. Unlike other art forms that may strive for an accurate depiction of the physical world, Expressionist artists use their work as a conduit for raw emotion. You can feel the painter's passion, fear, joy, or despair radiating from the canvas.

Distorted Forms

Expressionism isn't about mirroring reality—it's about bending it to convey emotions and ideas. You'll often see distorted forms in Expressionist art. Artists manipulate shapes and proportions to create a sense of unease, tension, or to emphasize certain aspects of their subject matter. This distortion isn't random—it's a calculated choice to communicate something deeper.

Bold Use of Color

Color in Expressionist painting isn't just a tool to fill in the lines—it's an integral part of the storytelling process. Expressionist artists use bold, vivid, and often non-naturalistic colors to evoke specific emotions or to create a particular mood. A sky doesn't have to be blue, and trees aren't always green in the world of Expressionist painting. It's all about what the color represents, rather than what it realistically is.

Subjective Perspective

Expressionism is all about the artist's personal perspective. It centers on subjective emotions and responses rather than objective observations. This tendency towards subjectivity creates a unique connection between the viewer and the artwork, as it invites you to step into the artist's mind and see the world through their eyes.

By recognizing these characteristics, you'll be able to identify and appreciate the nuances of Expressionist painting. Next, we'll look at some techniques that Expressionist artists employ to communicate their unique visions.

How to identify Expressionist painting

Now that we've covered the characteristics of Expressionist painting, let's turn our attention to how you can identify this style in the wild. You don't have to be an art historian to spot an Expressionist painting—you just need to know what to look for.

Look for Intense Emotion

Remember, Expressionist art is all about emotion. Artists use their work to express their feelings, and those emotions often come through loud and clear in the artwork. If a painting evokes strong feelings or appears to be a visual representation of intense emotion, it might be an example of Expressionist art.

Spot the Distortion

Expressionist artists often distort forms and figures to communicate deeper meanings. If you notice that shapes and proportions seem a bit off or purposefully exaggerated, you might be looking at an expressionist painting. It's not about depicting the world as it is, but rather as the artist feels it to be.

Pay Attention to Color

Color in Expressionist art is often bold, vivid, and used in unexpected ways. If the colors in a painting seem to clash, or if they're used to convey emotion rather than to accurately represent the world, you're likely dealing with Expressionist art.

Seek Subjectivity

Finally, Expressionism is about the artist's subjective experience. If a painting seems to offer a very personal perspective or communicate the artist's inner world, it may be an example of the expressionist painting style.

Armed with these identifying features, you'll be better equipped to recognize and appreciate the nuances of Expressionist art when you encounter it. Next, let's move on to the techniques that define this impactful style.

Techniques of Expressionist painting

Just like a baker has a unique recipe, every Expressionist artist has their own approach to their work. However, there are a few common techniques that many artists in this genre use to create their signature style. Let's dive in and learn about these techniques.

Use of Bold Color

One of the main techniques in the expressionist painting style toolbox is the use of bold, vivid color. These artists often choose their colors not for their realistic portrayal of the subject, but for the emotional impact they can deliver. Don't be surprised to see a bright red sky or a neon green face—these artists play with color to evoke specific feelings.

Distortion and Exaggeration

Many Expressionist artists use distortion and exaggeration to convey their emotional truth. Rather than striving for perfect proportions and realistic rendering, they might elongate a figure's limbs, exaggerate the size of an object, or twist a landscape into an unrecognizable form—all in the name of expressing their inner world.

Brushwork and Texture

Expressionism also often involves a visceral, tactile approach to painting. The artists might use thick, impasto brushwork, adding layers of paint to create a textured, almost sculptural effect. If a painting makes you want to reach out and touch it, there's a good chance it's an Expressionist piece.

Non-Traditional Materials

And finally, Expressionist artists aren't afraid to experiment with materials. They might mix sand into their paint to create texture, use newspaper clippings for a collage effect, or paint on unconventional surfaces.

These distinctive techniques help to give Expressionist painting its unique visual identity. Now that you know what to look for, you'll be able to better appreciate the artistry and intention behind these works. As we move on to famous Expressionist artists and their works, you'll see these techniques come to life in their masterpieces.

Famous Expressionist artists and their works

While techniques give us a taste for the expressionist painting style, it's the artists and their works that truly bring this style to life. Let's take a closer look at some of the artists who've made a significant impact in this genre.

Edvard Munch

Probably the most famous Expressionist painter of all is Edvard Munch, best known for his iconic painting "The Scream." This painting, with its distorted figure and bold, swirling colors, perfectly exemplifies the Expressionist approach. Munch's use of color and form to convey raw, primal emotion is at the heart of the expressionist painting style.

Wassily Kandinsky

Next on our list is Wassily Kandinsky, who is often credited as the pioneer of abstract art. His painting "Composition VII" is a prime example of his work. Forget about seeing real-world objects or people in Kandinsky's paintings—he preferred to express his inner state through abstract shapes and bright, contrasting colors.

Egon Schiele

Another notable Expressionist artist is Egon Schiele. Known for his intense, often unsettling portraits and self-portraits, Schiele's work is characterized by its thin, elongated figures and bold line work. One look at his painting "Portrait of Wally" and you'll see what I mean.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a founding member of the German Expressionist group Die Brücke, is another artist you should know. His painting "Street, Dresden," with its distorted perspective and intense color palette, highlights his unique approach to the expressionist painting style.

These artists, with their unique styles and innovative techniques, have left a lasting legacy in the world of Expressionist art. But their influence doesn't stop at the borders of Expressionism—it extends into the broader art world as well, as we'll see in the next section.

Influence and legacy of Expressionism in modern art

The impact of Expressionism on the world of art is as vivid as the colors on a Kandinsky canvas. The expressionist painting style has influenced numerous artists and movements, shaping the way we view and create art today. Let's look at some of the ways Expressionism has left its mark.

Influence on Abstract Expressionism

One of the major movements influenced by Expressionism is, unsurprisingly, Abstract Expressionism. This movement, which took off in the mid-20th century, was all about conveying emotion through non-representational forms. Sound familiar? Artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko took the emotional intensity of Expressionism and ran with it, creating works that spoke directly to the viewer's emotions.

Impact on Film and Theatre

But the influence of Expressionism isn't limited to the canvas—it's also made a big splash in film and theatre. Ever watched a film like "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" or a play by Bertolt Brecht? Then you've seen the expressionist painting style at work, using exaggerated visuals and intense emotional performances to convey a message.

Legacy in Contemporary Art

Even today, the ripple effects of Expressionism can be felt in contemporary art. Artists continue to use the expressionist painting style to explore their inner worlds and communicate intense emotions. Whether it's through bold, expressive brushstrokes or abstract forms, the spirit of Expressionism is alive and well in the art world.

So next time you're at a modern art museum, take a moment to appreciate the Expressionist roots in the artwork around you. Who knows—maybe it'll inspire you to pick up a paintbrush and create your own Expressionist masterpiece.

If you enjoyed learning about expressionist painting and want to expand your knowledge on painting techniques, don't miss the workshop 'Classical Painting in the Modern Day' by Eric Drummond. This workshop will help you understand how classical painting techniques can be applied to modern art, allowing you to further develop your skills and artistic expression.