Painterly is a literal translation of German Mälerisch, hence 'malerisch' one of the opposed categories popularized by the art historian Heinrich Wolfflin (1864 - 1945) in order to help focus, enrich and standardize the terms being used by art historians of his time to characterize works of art. The opposite character is linear, plastic or formal linear design. For further clarification of the meaning of malerisch read Gilles Deleuze in 'Francis Bacon - The Logic of Sensation'

An oil painting is "painterly" when it is obvious that it has been painted with oil paints: when there are visible brush strokes, and a rough impasto surface. Painterly characterizes the work of Pierre Bonnard, Francis Bacon (painter), Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Rembrandt or Renoir. Linear characterizes the work of Vermeer or Ingres. The Impressionists and the Abstract Expressionists tended strongly to be "painterly;" movements such as Pop Art or photo-realism emphasize flatness; Roy Liechtenstein attempted to make a comment on Abstract Expressionist painterliness when he created images of brush strokes, rendered with comic book style inks and colors, complete with Benday dots and other attempts at imitating commercial reproduction processes on the flat picture plane. What Rembrandt is to light Delacroix is to color. Colorists tend to substitute relations of tonality for relations of value and render the form and shadow and light and time through pure relations of colour.

"Painterly" art makes strong coloristic use of the many visual effects produced by paint on canvas such as chromatic progression, warm and cool tones, complementary and contrasting colors, broken tones, broad brushstrokes, impressionism, impasto and also of the artist's experience in painting. Jackson Pollack's "action paintings" are more "painterly" than Frank Stella's super-graphics.

Of course, "painterly" finally refers to paint, though some forms of sculpture make such use of surface texture and stroke that they could almost be called painterly; nevertheless, the application of the term outside painting is a little self-conscious, and may not genuinely help the reader experience the character of Auguste Rodin's surfaces or Richard Strauss's flow of chromatic harmonies. But see Wood as a medium, Green new art. Photography can also be described as painterly.