Auerbach is a figurative painter, usually taking personal friends as his subject, with three people being used time and again: his wife Julia; the professional model, Juliet Yardley Mills (usually referred to as J. Y. M. in titles); and his personal friend, Stella West (usually referred to as E. O. W.). He has also made a number of landscapes of scenes close to his London home, often taking building sites as the subject rather than the traditional hills and sheep.
Auerbach's work might broadly be called expressionist. Many of his paintings display an extremely thick impasto, something which he was criticised for at his first solo show in 1956. The impasto is sometimes so heavy that the paint seems to have been sculpted rather than brushed on. In his building site pictures in particular, lines are sometimes defined not by their colour, but by a mark left by the stoke of Auerbach's painting-knife through thick paint.