Impasto Unit

Impasto (and painting with a palette knife) is a a new concept to almost any public school student, given the fact that teachers barely have time to devote to a notoriously messy medium. Paint treated with a thickening agent is not runny though, and is therefore easier to manage than tempera or even watercolor. Take advantage of this novelty to teach any number of painting concepts.

Impasto Technique Lesson
is a technique for painting that relies on very thick paint. Almost every painter has used impasto at some point or another. It is easy to make marks on impasto’s thick but soft surface. Find the printable lesson here: Impasto Lesson.

Duration for Adults: 1 – 1.5 hrs
Adult Objectives: Recognize impasto in other paintings. Complete one or more impasto paintings.

Duration for Teens: Two sessions of 45 min to 1 hr
Teen Objectives: Mix colors using thick paint. Complete one impasto painting. Recognize impasto in other paintings.

Duration for Children: One 30 min session for motivation and procedures, one 45 min session to begin painting, and perhaps another one to finish, depending on the group.
Child Objectives: Complete one impasto painting. Identify impasto painting as what they are doing.

General Preparation
Prototype: Make a small impasto painting that does not require drawing ability. Make another small  painting with regular paint.

For the lesson itself: Cardboard, white paint, water-soluble paint (tempera or acrylic) in several colors, plastic spoons and knives, plastic lids. Cornstarch, a metal can or container you do not use to prepare food, and a stick to mix with.

Photo of paint thickened with corstarch.

Mix paint with cornstarch and cold water, then add hot water over a low fire while you stir.

Make The Cornstarch Mix
If you have a budget, buy half a gallon of molding or modeling paste at the art store, and you can use this mix in place of the cornstarch mix. This video shows you how to thicken the paint at home by mixing cold water with cornstarch. Add small amounts of tempera or acrylic paint to the cornstarch mix until you have the color you want, and a little salt as a preservative. Pour this on a metal container not used for food preparation, then add hot water and place over a low fire while you stir. You are aiming for a mayo-like consistency. Two teaspoons of cornstarch with 1/3 of a cup of cold water and 1/2 cup of hot water yield enough mix for five students.

Make a red mix, a blue mix, a yellow mix, and a black mix. For a group of 15 students, you will need about a quart-sized container of each color. You want thick paint (with the consistency of mayo) because it is the most manageable. Once you make your colors, place them in the fridge in a closed container until the day you’ll teach.

Painting Surface
At home, get a box cutter and cut square or rectangular pieces of cardboard for each students, about 10 – 12 inches on each side. Make it larger and they might not finish. They can always make another little painting if they finish early. If you have time spray-paint the cardboard white.

For classroom management, collect: tarps or fabric with which to quickly cover the tables when you arrive.Set the tables up in advance, and place several markers or pencils on the table so kids can write their names on the back of the cardboard pieces. If you don’t have tarps or paper, get a 5 gal bucket and fill it halfway with water and some sponges.  Get empty yogurt containers for water or paint. The younger the students the smaller the container should be. Trash bags make great smocks for children 8 and younger.

Photo of a cornstarch mix in a plastic container.

Paint thickened with cornstarch should be placed in a closed container and refrigerated.

Procedure for Children
Bring everybody to a circle.To introduce this concept, begin with the prototypes. Use them to compare the regular painting to the impasto painting. Explain that impasto is a way to paint, not a special type of paint. Maybe you can find a children’s book illustrated with this technique.

While you still have the kids in a circle, demonstrate how to load paint on a knife or spoon (use the back of the spoon) in order to spread it on the cardboard surface. Using the school norms as a starting point, discuss your expectations for this lesson (“everyone will paint something”), personal space, and ways to address classmates.

Young students can use various objects to vary the texture once they’ve covered the cardboard surface with impasto. Forks, the tip of a pencil and regular brushes are some examples. Texture-making tools should be placed on a container in the middle of each table to discourage students from grabbing random objects from the room. Designate an area for placing finished paintings. One way to quickly transport them is to use a large piece of cardboard as a tray. Once most kids are finished, have the ones who finish early help with the cleaning, then move them to the circle.

Procedure for Teens and Adults
Isolate this concept by showing your prototypes. Compare a “regular” painting to the impasto painting prototype you made. Explain that impasto is a way to paint, not a special type of paint. You might show images of impasto paintings to help students understand the importance of texture in painting. Do not spend more than 5-7 minutes on this.

A demo idea is to cover the whole cardboard area with one color and show them how it is possible to create various textures on the impasto using common objects.  As an extension, you can challenge your students to create secondary colors, brown, or even black.

It is important to ask adults how much feedback they would like, or at least develop a system so that needier adult students do not monopolize your time as an instructor. One instructor I know makes two complete loops around the room and students are free to pass. Another asks her students to place a signal in their work area that means they would like feedback at that moment.

Small painting of clouds, hills and grass

Realistic effects are part of the impasto mystique.

Discussion for Children
The stems “I noticed…” or “I see…” encourage observation skills and steer students away from judgment. Model these language structures while incorporating the art term for this lesson, i.e. “I see Jason used a knife to create a texture on most of his painting.” Beyond simple observation, you can frame other questions around the Studio Habits of Mind.

Discussion For Teens
These stems can help teens discuss their own artistic process without having to worry about how they sound to their peers. You can ask them to write a sentence or two beforehand, then read it to a partner. Or you can give one of the stems to the whole group to do a quick write, and facilitate a discussion based on what they write.