Guide to Artistic Terms

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In art there are words, mediums and movements which appear and reappeare in critical pieces of writing about the artistic work. This entry is to help people learn what a few of the main artistic terms for painting, graphic design, sculpture, craft and design as well as textiles and painting mediums. This entry does not include other art forms such dance or acting, instead it is restricted to art and design.


Abstract means that there is no distinguishable subject matter. It's a non-subjective art form, utilising shape, colour and texture, without representing real objects that the artist beholds.

Abstract Expressionism

Expressing feeling without direct reference to the subject matter. This style of painting was first used in the mid 1940s to describe the manner of contemporary painting and stayed popular until the late 1950's. It is the first art movement to have a European and American background and is still a popular painting style. Abstract Expressionism has two branches, firstly Action painting and also Colour Field painting, both were characterised by a non-representational style, which concentrated on stressing the psychological or emotional meaning of the piece. Examples of this movement can be seen in the work of Jackson Pollock (Arc-en-ciel gris) and Hans Hoffman (Fruit Bowl Version 6).

Aerial Perspective

The further away an object is, the less detail and tonal contrast there appears to be (therefore the bluer it appears) creating an illusion of deep space in lighting values, softening details and textures, reducing value contrasts, and neutralising colours in objects as they recede.


This term relates to when there is bare canvas around some elements within a painting.

Art Deco

The design style that came after Art Nouveau, which deals mostly with interior design and architecture. (Example: Tamara De Lempicka) This style concentrated on the organic and geometric styles, but in simplistic manner in which it took on a greater design related styling.

Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau or New Artwas a revolutionary movement in design and architecture during the 19th Century until the beginning of the First World War. The style characterised by an elaborate ornamental style based on asymmetrical lines, flowers motifs, leaves or tendrils, or in the flowing hair of a female (the idea of organic flowing forms). Art Nouveau came in two styles, Curvilinear which is easily recognisable by its use of curving lines and plant like or organic shapes, and Rectilinear, which is a largely geometric style which uses straight or slightly curved lines and bold shapes (Charles Rennie Mackintosh is a good example of both curvilinear and rectilinear styles being brought together>)

The Arts and Craft Movement

Developed in England during the second half of the 19th Century the Arts and Craft movement was a reaction to the poor quality of manufactured goods in production at that time. The movement centralised around the philosophy that a well designed environment, with beautiful and well crafted buildings, furniture, tapestries and ceramics would improve society spear headed by William Morris. A movement away from mechanical production for a return to true craftmanship was needed and 'Fitness for purpose' - or the linking of ornament to useful - became the objective for design theory and practice.


Meaning the lack of balance between volumes or proportions within a painting or photograph.


These are the oleoresins that are a viscous liquid secreted by coniferous'. Although they mix with oils and varnishes, they don't mix with water and probably the most popular use of a balsam in painting is in Venice (or Venetian) turpentine.


An educational establishment formed by the amalgamation of a traditional school for fine art and a much newer organisation devoted to the study of crafts (Literally translated as 'House of Art' it was founded in Germany in 1919. Founded by Henry van de Velde the Bauhaus style is characterised by its severely economic, geometric design and by its respect for materials, however this combination for students' studies was regarded as a false distinction between 'fine art' and 'crafts'.


Traditionally a ground for oil or acrylic paintings. Usually stretched taught on to frames called stretchers.


A very pronounced contrast between light and shade without regard for colour, Chiaroscuro is Italian, from chiaro meaning clear, light and oscuro meaning obscure or dark. This painting form first appeared in 1686.


Chroma is the intensity of hue and saturation and purity of colour or its freedom from white, black, or grey.

Complementary Colours

Two colours directly opposite each other on the colour wheel are considered to be complimentary. A primary colour is complementary to a secondary colour that is a mixture of the two remaining primaries such as red being complimented by green, which is a mixture of blue and yellow pigments.


Composition is the relation of masses, line and colour, in essence the arrangement and/or structure of all the elements within a painting, which therefore achieves a unified whole. Often used interchangeably with the term design.


Cubism is a method of visualisation developed by Pablo Picasso and George Braque in the early 1900s and the Cubists broke from centuries of tradition in their painting by rejecting the single viewpoint. Instead they used an analytical system in which three-dimensional subjects were fragmented and redefined from several different points of view simultaneously, breaking up the individual forms of a subject into sharp, angular shapes with a strong use of colour, some facets slipping, becoming transparent and merging with the background of the painting.


The root of this word in art is unknown; however, there are many theories surrounding it. Dada is not an art style but an attitude which first appeared just after the First World War around 1916 starting in Zurich and New York and later in Berlin and Paris. It was a reaction to the distruction of which man was now capable of because of the introduction of new technology. It took on the form of sculpture and painting by such artists as Kandinsky. The art works were to show that maybe all this new technology was not necessarily for the good and a few of the paintings showed man as machine. This style of painting was originally met with much controversy but is now considered one of the most important movements in the Twentieth Century.


In the artistic sense depth relates to the degree of colour saturation, or the degree of recession within a picture.


Design is a framework or scheme of construction on which artists base the nature of their total work. In a broader sense, design may be considered synonymous with the term form. Design relating more to craft and production rather than still life and portraiture.


Liquids used to thin down paint, such as turpentine or white spirit of oils and water for water-based paints.


Distressing is the deliberate ageing applied to frames and furniture.


A form of art in which there is a desire to express what is felt rather than perceived. Expressionistic form is defined by an obvious exaggeration of natural objects for the purpose of emphasizing an emotion, mood, or concept. It can better understand as a more passionate kind of Romanticism.


Simply the sensed line which runs across a painting, level with the artists eye.


This term has two meanings at first it was used to mean any painting that concerned itself with the representation of nature, human figures, landscapes, and still life's. Lately it has become used it mean any painting of the human figure. The later meaning is becoming more common.

Fine Art

Fine art is actually the visual arts which include painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture and some performance art but excludes other art forms such as poetry, literature, dance and music.


You can buy various sprays that are applied to a picture or drawing to hold the particles of pigment to the surface. The spray may be workable, allowing for some erasure or nonworkable and are much harder to work over. Most commonly used with pastel and charcoal drawings.


Combination of all the characteristics that establish its identity. The organisation or inventive arrangement of all the visual elements according to the principles that will develop unity in the artwork.


Italian, from fresco fresh this art form first appeared in 1598 and is the art of painting on freshly spread moist lime plaster with water-based pigments.


An Italian avant-garde art movement that took speed, technology and modernity as its inspiration, futurism portrayed the dynamic character of 20th century life, glorified the subject of war and the mechanical age, while also favouring the growth of Fascism.


A technique of applying oil or acrylic colour in thin, transparent layers so that the colour beneath shows through, modifying the colour of the glaze.

Golden Section

A traditional proportional system for visual harmony expressed when a line or area is divided into two. The ratio developed is 1:1.6180....or, roughly, 8:13, meaning that no division of the page should be equal to another and therefore making the painting unproportional. In photography this is a difficult ratio to achieve but easier than the Golden Helix.

Graffiti Art

An art form most popular during the 1970's and 1980's but still alive today, the word Graffiti is the plural word for scratch in Italian. The actual practice of graffiti goes back to the Egyptians but it was not thought of as an art form until the 1970's when the art world took interest in the work in the New York subways.


A form of artistic expression, usually on paper, through emphasis on lines, marks, or printed letters rather than on colour. It includes everything from drawing through print-making of all kinds including the art of typesetting and book design. It also refers to illustrations, diagrams or designs accompanying printed matter.


Ground is the surface on which painting or drawing is made, e.g. canvas, paper, and panel.


The artists application and manipulation of their medium.


Most basic attribute of colour (e.g. redness or yellowness.) Designates the common name of a colour and indicates its position in the spectrum or on the colour wheel. Hue is determined by the specific wavelength of the colour in a ray of light.


The imitation of visual reality created on the flat surface of the picture plane by the use of perspective, light-and-dark shading, etc.


This is a painting technique where the paint is thick enough to have actual form. The strokes themselves create some of the effect as by applying this thick paint with a brush, palette knife or fingers etc you can create different textures.


A movement of the late nineteenth century primarily connected with such painters as Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. The achievement pf a greater sense of 'naturalism' by exact analysis of tone and colour and the play of light on the surface of objects. This style puts emphasis on open air painting to be in emotional contact with the subject, the elimination of black shadows and outlines but instead using complementary colours to the object as the shadows. To use bold brush strokes in oil paints while introducing the 'Rainbow palette', the experimentation with broken colour techniques and also colour and light as more important factors than form itself.


Power, saturation, brightness and strength of a pigment or colour are all related to intensity.


Predominant range of colour values and tone in a painting.

High Key = predominant light/bright colours.

Low Key = predominant dark colours.


This tem refers to the "low-art" artefacts of everyday life by their association with gimmicks such as movie merchandise or comic items such as Elvis shaped cookie jars. The term comes from the German verkitschen meaning (to make cheap). It has been made popular in the years since the beginning of pop art. These objects are now revered by collectors as 'camp' making low art into high art.

Local Colour

Actual colour of object, disregarding light, dark etc in other words the colours as seen in the objective world (green grass, blue sky, red barn, etc.)

Magic Realism

Magic Realism is a method of painting which means the artist tries to make their subject as life like as possible (much like Trompe L'oeil), a good example of this painting style is that of René Margritte.


Broad, cohesive area that forms a significant element in the composition.


There are two meaning for medium firstly the material used for painting (or drawing), i.e. oil, water-colour, acrylic, pastel and secondly the liquid added to paint to alter consistency, drying time or durability. Traditional mediums such as poppy oil and linseed oil, or synthetic ones, such as Liquin, Wingel, or acrylic medium.


Minimal Art emerged as a movement in the 1950s and continued through the Sixties and Seventies. It is a term used to describe paintings and sculpture that thrive on simplicity in both content and form, and seek to remove any sign of personal expressivity. The aim of Minimalism is to allow the viewer to experience the work more intensely without the distractions of composition, theme and so on.

Modern Art

The term modern art is applied to almost all progressive or avant-garde phases of art from the time of the Impressionists in the late 1880's to the growth of Postmodernism in the 1960's.


Picture executed in light and dark shades of a single colour.


Collage made of printed and/or photographs.


A recurrent theme or pattern designed as a unit or pattern that is repeated often enough in a total composition to make it a significant or dominant feature.


The mount is the card surround around a paper picture to keep ink or paint surface from touching the glass this is usually decorated and an integral part of the finished picture.


Within the broad church of Post-modern art there exists a hard core of artists who have chosen to remain within the abstract manner. Most of them are influenced by the rich colour work of such artists as Frank Stella and Al Held.


A style initiated in the late 1700's in France, which centred upon a reintroduction of Classical Greek and Roman forms of art, as understood at that point in time. The main advocates of the Neo-classic methods were Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres.


Dating from the early 1980's, this style reaffirmed the psychic emotionalism of the early twentieth-century Expressionism. It became perhaps the most distinctive direction in Postmodernism.


'New Impressionism' particularly refers to the work of Seurat and his use of 'Pointillism' together with a rather formal compositional style. It is based on an exact mathematical framework.


A term used to define a range of work encompassing non-recognisable imagery that varies from pure abstraction (non-recognisable but derived from a recognisable object) to non-objective (not a product of the abstraction process, but deriving from the artist's mind).


A night scene from the word nocturnal meaning 'of the night'.

Oil Paint

Traditionally the main binding agent for pigment in non glazed paintings was linseed or stand oil. When dry the colour is non-soluble and can be exposed to the atmosphere. Unfortunately the oil takes a long time to dry to full dryness and many modern artists prefer to use acrylic paints which are soluble in water until dry which is only hours after application.

Op Art (aka Optical Art)

This term was coined in 1964 by George Rickey. As an abstraction by nature Op Art is based on trying to cause the illusion of movement with a stationary two dimensional surface. It reached its peak in popularity in the mid 1960's and then soon faded away but enjoyed a small resurgence in the 1980's. Some of the artists involved were, Bridget Riley, Yaacov Agam, and Victor Vasarely.


The amount of transparency of a colour or surface. The amount of light a surface will let go through it. All colours that have white added have certain about of opacity.


Any graphic system used to create the illusion of three-dimensional images and/or spatial relationships on a two-dimensional surface. There are several types of perspective: atmospheric, linear, and projection systems.


A collage technique that uses parts of photographs. One artist known for this is David Hockney.


A 3D appearance provided in a painting or drawing.


A small sketch or painting completed in one sitting.


Optical painting was developed from the impressionist movement and is where light and shape us translated into small dots of pure colour, which when viewed from a distance fuse together to produce an image. The equal size dots never quite merge in the viewer's perception resulting in a shimmering effect similar to the experience of a hot and sunny day. One of the leading exponents was Seurat to whom the term was first applied in regard to his painting 'La Grand Jatte' (1886).


The movement aimed to rediscover the painting styles of artists working earlier than the time of Raphael. The group, initially comprising Rossetti, his brother William, James Collinson, the sculptor Thomas Woolner as well as Hunt and Millais, specialised in detailed studies of medieval scenes strong on elaborate symbolism and noble themes.


The name given to the form of art which uses, often satirically, the mundane products of mass popular culture, such as newspaper, magazine, television, and billboard advertising; comic strips and books; supermarket shelves, and so on, as its subject matter.

Post Impressionism

A term unrelated to a particular approach to art but a critical and historical reference to the major post-impressionists who sought to break away from the Impressionists and restore formal organization, decorative unity, and expressive meaning to art. The leaders in this movement were Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh and Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec.

Post Modernism

Post-modernists forcefully expressed a desire to do away with art that seemed to have no meaningful content, and began to turn back to figurative art and the establishment of meaning. Other Post-modernists attempted to extend modern art in new ways by appropriating earlier styles, which they modified. Due to the sheer variety of sources and styles it is difficult to categorise Post-modern artists with the same ease of earlier styles or movements.

Primary Colours

A fundamental colour (red, blue, and yellow) that cannot be separated into any other colours. All other colours are produced from the mixing of primaries.


A style of art that retains the basic impression of visual actuality without going to extremes of detail. In addition, realism attempts to relate and interpret the universal meanings that lie below the surface appearance, art which is an accurate depiction of nature. This is a term that is used in the most general sense.


Impression of depth.


A mode of sculpture in which forms and figures are distinguished from a surrounding plane surface.


This movement began in Italy in the 14th century and the term, literally meaning rebirth, describes the revival of interest in the artistic achievements of the Classical world. It was a time when individual expression and worldly experience became two of the main themes of Renaissance art.


A movement of nineteenth-century artists such as Delacroix, Géricault, Turner, among others in which the romantic spirit is characterised by an experimental point of view and extolled spontaneity of expression, intuitive imagination, and the picturesque rather than a carefully organized, rational approach. It portrayed dramatic and exotic subjects perceived with strong feelings.


Pure intense colour, unmixed with any black or white.


A technique used in all the opaque media including pastels. Scumbling involves dragging a dry, fairly thick layer of colour in a deliberate uneven manner over a dried layer of another colour, thus creating attractive broken colour effects. It is the technique of putting a semi-dry paint over an existing dry paint in such a way as to create a haze. This is done with semi-opaque or opaque paint and is used mostly in oil and acrylic painting.

Serigraph (silk screen print)

Ink is squeezed onto the print surface through a mesh of silk or nylon gauze that has been prepared with blocked out areas. Printing process used for large scale printing i.e. posters, or fabric printing, or for special picture making processes that can be used without heavy duty presses.


Gentle graduation of tone to create form in oil painting.


A method whereby a layer of colour is scratched into with a point to reveal either another layer of colour below or the white of the ground, thus making a linear pattern.

Still Life

Popularised during the 16th Century still lives comprising of stationary objects to portray certain aspects of life. Fruit or flower pieces termed Ontbijt and if it has religious overtones termed Vanitas. The simplist explanation of a still life is a collection of objects.


Surrealism followed hard on the heels of Dada. It was a psychological approach to Dada art. It went in two directions in the 1920's, one the dream world of painters like Salvador Dali, which were painted in precise realist style, the other, was the work of painters such as Joan Miró and André Masson. These were loosely drawn figures or form shown in shallow space. The last official surrealism painter was Ashile Gorky working in New York. Other painters of note are Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, and René Magritte.


Originally, all water-based paint was 'tempered' with some form of gum known as tempera, but the term is now used mainly for egg tempera, which was the main painting medium before the development of oils. Tempera is a tricky medium to use but can achieve beautiful effects.


The relative warmth and coolness of hues or pigments

Tertiary Colours

Mixtures of a primary and its adjacent secondary: for example, red-orange or blue-green; also called intermediate colours.


Sense of touch.


The property of a colour that is the lightness of the colour. When a colour is lighter than it is in its pure form, it is said to be a tint of that colour.


The value or colour character of a surface, determined by the quantity of light reflected from it. The amount of light reflected can be determined by the character of the medium that has been applied to the surface, also the colour variety due to slight changes within the same hue.

Trompe L'oeil

A French phrase meaning 'trick of the eye'; a technique that copies a subject with such exactitude that the viewer is tricked into believing he is seeing the subject in its natural form. Often used in decorating.


Dead colour used before adding the final colour.


The property of a colour that can be seen when it is mixed with a large amount of white into a tint or spread very thin on a surface such as a watercolour wash therefore the stronger the undertone, the more pigment that is in the paint.


The degree of lightness or darkness of a colour.


Diluted watercolour or ink, spread evenly over the surface of the paper.

Water Colour

Water colour paints are made by binding finely ground pigment in soluble gum. Traditional water colours do not use white paint to lighten colour but instead rely on the transparency of the medium to reflect light through the paint film from the white paper below.


Laying a new colour before the previous one has dried and thus blending paints together. The effect in oils or acrylic is not as dramatic as with water-colours but each new colour is slightly modified by those below and adjacent, so that forms and colours merge into one another without hard boundaries.


Laying new (wet) colour over a dried layer below.

Working Drawing

A drawing made specifically as a basis for a painting, usually from earlier studies and/or photographs. Unlike a sketch, a working drawing establishes the entire composition, and is usually transferred to the painting surface.

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