The term painterly is used to describe a painting done in a style that celebrates the medium that it was created in, be it oil paint, acrylics, pastels, gouache, watercolor, etc., rather than a style that tries to hide the act of creation or the medium used. It is a loose and expressive approach to the process of painting in which the brushstrokes (or even knife strokes, if any paint was applied with a palette knife) are visible. It contrasts with a style of painting that is controlled and tries to hide the brushstrokes. The Tate Gallery's glossary says the term painterly "carries the implication that the artist is reveling in the manipulation of the oil paint itself and making the fullest use of its sensuous properties."
In centuries past (and in various modern art movements, such as photorealism), painters worked hard to eliminate or conceal any evident brushmarks or texture in a painting, blending and smoothing colors to hide all evidence as to how the work was created.
Making a painterly artwork does not mean the piece has to be done impasto—a painting in which the paint is applied thickly, sometimes even thick enough to make the piece appear 3-D—though an impasto painting is, in fact, painterly. Paint can be thin and still be applied in a painterly way. The surface of a sculpture might even be said to be painterly if the carved or modeled marks resemble brushstrokes or are visible.
The painterly style is often contrasted with linear painting. Linear painting, as the name suggests, is based on outline and boundary, much like cartoon drawing, although not necessarily so explicit, with objects and figures isolated. Shapes are drawn first and then carefully painted over and delineated with hard edges or further emphasized with line. Forms are sharply defined, and gradations of value are subtly rendered. "The Birth of Venus" by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1484–86) is an example of linear painting. The subject of the painting depicts movement, but the application of the paint itself does not.
In contrast, a painterly style clearly shows its brushstrokes and applied paint and the energy of the gesture that went into making the marks on the work's surface. The style is dynamic and expressive and shows texture. There are soft edges and hard edges and movement, with one shape of color merging into the next. "Rain, Steam, and Speed" by J. M. W. Turner (1844) is an example of painterly style. The technique of Peter Paul Rubens, the great Baroque artist of Belgium, is often described as painterly.
A painting can have characteristics of both linear and painterly styles, but the overall effect will be of one or the other.
The close-up details in expressionist paintings by Van Gogh and others are examples of a painterly style. The term could be applied to many other artists, including Rembrandt van Rijn, John Singer Sargent, Lucian Freud, Pierre Bonnard, and the abstract expressionists of the post-World War II era.