Skip to content

Art 101 - Art Terminology


Abstract Art: The opposite of Representational Art; Abstract art does not intend to represent anything recognizable in the visible world. The painting may be created completely independent of a subject or elements of visible subject may be distorted and reduced to basic colors, shapes and possibly textures.

Achromatic: White, black and gray; without color. Achromatic is the opposite of Chromatic.

Acrylic Paint: Essentially "plastic" paint, used since the 1940's. Quick drying and versatile, it is made by suspending a pigment in acrylic resin dispersed in either turpentine or water.

Assemblage: Creating a three-dimensional work of art by using found objects. Assemblages can be freestanding or mounted on a panel. See also Collage.

Block Print: A print made by pressing an engraved wooden block on to a surface to make a design, like a more sophisticated (and larger) stamp. Can be used on different materials, such as paper or fabric.

Bristol Board: A stiff, durable cardboard that can be used for drawings or watercolor.

Bronze: A combination of copper and tin, bronze has been a favorite of sculptors since antiquity. The combined metals make bronze harder, stronger and more durable than a single metal alone. Most bronze sculptures have a base created from another substance such as wood or marble.

Canvas: Canvas is a heavy woven fabric that is used by artists to paint on. It can be used for either acrylic or oil paint. Canvas can be made of all sorts of materials, such as linen, cotton, twill or jute. Usually it is stretched on a stretcher frame for display.

Ceramic: Ceramic is a term that refers to the ancient artistic process of making an object out of clay and firing it in a kiln.

Chalk: Made of calcium carbonate, chalk crayons are a dry medium used in the same manner of charcoal. Once a chalk drawing has been completed, it requires a fixative to hold the finished image in place and prevent smudging.

Charcoal: One of the oldest drawing materials, charcoal is composed of charred wood, usually willow. Like chalk, charcoal is a dry medium and smudges easily and requires a fixative to hold it in place.

Chiaroscuro: Initially introduced in the Renaissance, chiaroscuro is a technique that uses a bold contrast between light and dark to create the illusion of depth. Painters who used this technique include Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt.

Chromatic: Chroma = color. The degree of vividness, hue and saturation of a color other than black, white or gray. Chromatic is the opposite of Achromatic.

Clay: Clay is a mixture of kaolin, feldspathic (feldspar-like) rock and other anhydrous aluminous materials. Depending on its composition and the size of its soil particles, clay may have one of many colors or be less or more plastic, making it harder or easier to work with. Clay has been used to create pottery and sculpture for thousands of years. It offers a sculptor great flexibility, since it can be added to and changed as long as it stays damp. Once the piece is finished, the creator “fires” the piece at high temperatures in a kiln. After firing, clay becomes solid and durable.

Collage: From the French term coller, meaning to gum. Collages are made by attaching two-dimensional objects to one another to make a composite, relatively flat design (i.e. Cutting pieces of paper and fabric into a design and gluing them to another piece of paper, or wood). See also Assemblage.

Conté Crayons: Conté is the trade name of a brand of French crayons. They are grease free and composed of pigments and a binder. Sometimes square or encased in wood (like pencil crayons), they are available in different shades and consistencies (harder or softer).

Craquelure:: Any crack in a painting can be called craquelure. In an older painting, craquelure is a sign of age. People attempting forgeries often add it to create the illusion of a much older work of art. Artists and collectors can attempt to prevent premature cracking in many ways. This includes controlling the methods of displaying and storing the piece, avoiding extremes of temperature or handling the canvas roughly. Some artists purposely add craquelure as a textural effect to their work.

Cross-hatching: Cross-hatching is the use of close parallel lines, crossed over one another, to indicate shading in a drawing or engraving. See Hatching.

Découpage: Covering an object completely with cutout pictures or designs to create a decoration. Découpage is similar to a Collage.

Diptych: A painting composed of two panels, which may or may not be connected. See Triptych.

Earthenware: Any opaque ceramic ware fired under 2000° F, unlike porcelain, which is fired at a higher temperature. Quite coarse and dense, it is commonly reddish in appearance.

Electroplating: A process by which a surface or object is covered with a thin layer of metal. The object is placed in a salt solution in which a metal has previously been dissolved by an electric current. Once the object has been submerged, the charged metal in the water then fixes to the object, giving it the appearance of being entirely coated with the metal in the solution. This process can utilize many different metals, such as gold and silver. Materials that can be coated include brass, copper and even wax, plaster or wood if they have been properly treated beforehand.

Embossing: Creating a raised design on a surface. Leather, paper, metal, and cloth can all be embossed by impressing an image firmly into the object so that the design is raised on the object’s opposite surface.

Enamel: Enamel is a vitreous porcelain or ceramic glaze with a hard smooth finish that is applied to a surface, such as pottery or metal. It is finished by firing in a kiln, and comes in varying colors and opacities.

Encaustic: Encaustic is a method of painting that uses molten beeswax mixed with pigment instead of paint. This type of painting takes a fair amount of skill: the surface must remain relatively even and the beeswax must stay warm enough for the artist to be able to manipulate it. This “hot wax painting” technique is very old, dating back to the time of the Ancient Egyptians.

Engraving: The process or scratching or incising a design onto a hard surface with a sharp pointed tool. Engraved plates are called intaglio printing plates if they are on copper, or a relief print block, if wood is used. The resulting design can then be covered in ink and pressed to create a reversed image on paper. See also Etching, Intaglio.

Etching: The process of using an acid to burn a design onto a metal plate, resulting in an intaglio printing plate. The design on the plate can then be covered in ink to create a reversed image on paper. Glass can also be etched. This is done by using an acid to eat away a top layer of glass, which leaves behind an opaque decorative pattern. See also Engraving, Intaglio.

Firing: In ceramics, firing is the method of applying intense heat to an object to harden it permanently.

Fixative: A substance that can be sprayed over a chalk, charcoal, or pastel drawing to prevent smudging. Usually composed of a volatile solvent and a resinous or glutinous binder, the fixative is sprayed on the picture and initially appears wet. As the fixative dries, the solvent evaporates and the resinous substance fixes the drawing to the surface.

Found Object: An object that the artist finds and chooses to display without changing it in any way. The term was first used by the Dadaists and Surrealists, and refers to objects that are created by man or nature. See Ready-Made.

Fresco: The art of painting with lime proof pigment in water on wet lime plaster. As a technique, one of its greatest advantages is the permanency of the painting or mural. As the work dries, the fresco becomes a part of the plaster of the wall. Requiring a great deal of work and skill, frescos have many layers and must be done in a timely fashion to avoid problems. However the end result can be stunning, with bright colors and a matte finish. The most famous example of a fresco is on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

Gel Medium: A gel that can be added to paint to add transparency and smoothness.

Gesso: A combination of calcium carbonate and a pigment, usually white, used to prime canvases for acrylic or tempura paint.

Giclée: From the French verb gicler, meaning, “to spray.” It is pronounced “zhee-clay”. The giclée process uses an incredibly accurate computer-controlled jet to apply ink to watercolor paper, canvas or etching paper. These unique jets are able to vary the width of the ink stream to as small as 1/100th the width of human hair. Giclées have a higher resolution than offset lithographs and the dynamic color range is greater than serigraph. Giclée reproductions are used to produce museum quality, fine art reproductions. In the art world it is generally regarded as the highest quality reproduction available.

Glaze: 1. Mixing paint with a transparent, resinous medium to create a thin, shiny, layer over a painting or, 2. a thin, vitreous coating used in ceramics to create a waterproof or colorful surface after firing.

Gouache: An opaque, reflective variant of watercolor created by adding chalk to the traditional watercolor formula.

Graphite: A type of carbon unsuitable for use in a chalk, like charcoal, but ideal for use in pencils.

Hatching: Hatching is the use of close parallel lines to indicate shading in a drawing or engraving. See Cross-Hatching.

Horizon Line: A line in a painting, either visible or imaginary, where the horizon is located. This line creates the illusion of depth by helping viewers discern how near, far, small or large an object is supposed to be depending on where the object is located in relation to the line.

Hue: Hue means color. For instance, purple, green and red are all hues: hue and color can be used interchangeably.

Impasto: Paint applied to a surface in thick textural strokes or layers; anything distinguished by not being a flat paint surface.

Intaglio: Essentially, a printmaking technique that uses an incised surface to create the image. The areas and lines that form the image lie beneath the surface and hold ink; when paper is pressed onto the etched surface the ink is deposited from the depressed lines and creates the image.

Kiln: A furnace used to fire ceramic objects at high temperatures and render their shapes and colors permanent. See Firing.

Landscape: A painting or drawing featuring a natural outdoor scene.

Leaf: Metal beaten flat to extreme thinness and used to cover (or gild) an object or surface. Different types of leaf include gold, silver, palladium, and aluminum.

Limited Edition: To create replicas of an original work of art in a limited number. These reproductions are then called the edition, and each piece is given a number to indicate that it is part of that edition (i.e. A bronze that is in a limited edition may be 4 of 50; therefore its edition number is 4/50). See also Giclée.

Line Drawing: A drawing that is composed completely by lines, with no color, shading or other embellishment.

Linocut: Similar to a woodcut, a linocut is a block of wood covered by a thick piece of linoleum on top. The image is carved into the thick surface of the linoleum, making a relief of the desired image. The linocut is then inked and pressed on fabric or paper to create a print.

Lithography: A process that creates prints by using a flat surface that has been chemically sensitized so that ink adheres only to the areas that have been treated and is not attracted to the blank areas. By using the basic incompatibility of oil and water, a design is formed. The flat surface (a lithographic stone, made of limestone) is drawn or painted on with a greasy substance (like a crayon, or other “oily” tool). The stone is then inked. The areas covered in the oil design repel the ink, creating a design on paper pressed against the stone. While this description of lithography is rather basic, there are many different ways of using this versatile method of printmaking, such as transfer, offset and color lithography. Many famous artists, including Degas, Munch, Miro, Picasso, Braque and Toulouse-Lautrec, have all used lithography.

Lost Wax Process: This process is commonly used for the creation of hollow bronze statues, but can also be adapted for small items such as statuettes and jewelry. First, a plaster cast is made of the original object. Then a hollow mold is made of the plaster cast. This hollow mold is then coated with molten wax, to create a hollow wax model, which is then packed with a firm sand, called foundry sand. At this point the sculptor can rearrange the form if necessary. Once this is completed and the sculptor is satisfied, rods of wax are attached to the model and it is encased in heat resistant plaster or clay. Metal pins are inserted to keep the core in place. The whole thing is then baked in an oven until the mold is dry and the wax has run out (this is where the term “lost wax” comes from) through the vents created by the wax rods. Bronze is then poured into the space that was previously full of wax. After the bronze has cooled, the sand is shaken out of the sculpture and the cast is cleaned and finished.

Marble: A hard stone traditionally used for sculpting and building. Marble is mostly composed of calcite, a crystalline form of calcium carbonate. Marble is prized for its various colors and veins, which are referred to as marbling, and for its smooth shiny finish when polished.

Masonite: The trade name of a dense wallboard created by pressing wood fibers tightly together and fixing them in place with a glue-like binder.

Masterpiece: An artist’s work that represents the pinnacle of his talent.

Matte: Any surface with a flat appearance and no shine.

Medium: The most common use of this term in art is used to refer to the specific tools and material used by the artist, i.e. ‘the medium of this painting is acrylic on paper”. It can also refer to the liquid added to paint to increase its manipulability without changing its essential adhesive properties, or to refer to the mode of expression chosen by an artist to express his or herself, i.e. “Her chosen medium is sculpture.”

Mezzotint: Mezzotint is in the same printmaking family as intaglio. A copper or steel plate is abraded (scraped) to create relief patterns of differing depths and styles. Once impressed on paper, this method creates a print with many different levels of colors or tones. Mezzo is Italian for half, and mezzotint translates as “half-tone’. Mezzotints can be either color or black and white with shades of gray.

Monochrome: Painting using only lighter and darker shades of one color.

Mosaic: Creating an image by gluing fragmented glass or tiles to a surface. Mosaic is one of the oldest and most durable artistic methods.

Mural: A painting created directly on a wall or ceiling. Murals have their own set of requirements for artists, such as making sure the scale and perspective are correct for the space. They usually have matte surfaces so that viewers are not inconvenienced by a glare while looking at the image.

Oil Paint: Slow drying but rich in color, oil paint is basically composed of pigment particles suspended in oil, most commonly linseed oil, but hemp, poppy, walnut and soy can also be used. Some of the benefits of using oil paints are their richness of color and, once dry, their durability. The long drying time also allows an artist to continue blending new colors onto the canvas as long as paint remains wet.

Opacity: An objects ability to transmit light. In regards to paint, an opaque paint transmits no light and allows nothing to show through from beneath it. A semi-opaque paint transmits some light and allows some of what is beneath it to show through. A transparent paint lets light in and shows what is beneath it clearly. Glazes are a good example of transparent or semi-transparent paint because they put a thin layer of color or shine over the color or substance beneath it, but they do not impede viewers seeing what is under them.

Outline Drawing: An outline drawing is created by using only the outline of a subject to depict them, with no added shading or specific features.

Paper Mâché: French for “chewed paper”, paper mâché is an easy molding technique that uses strips of paper affixed together with a flour paste. It can be used for many different types of objects, and can be painted or varnished.

Pastel: A pastel is a crayon composed almost completely of pigment with a small amount of aqueous binder to hold it together.

Patina: The most common use of the word patina is used in reference to bronze or copper objects. Bronze and copper oxidize over time and with exposure to the elements, resulting in a thin greenish film forming over the surface of the object. Patina adds to the value of an object, because it not only gives an impression of its age, but it also adds to the overall appearance of the piece. Patina can also refer to any mellowing of a surface due to age and use.

Perspective: Perspective is the method of taking a two dimensional surface (or picture plane) and creating an image on it that looks three-dimensional. Artists visually place objects nearer or farther on the picture plane in relation to the horizon line and the vanishing point (or points), creating the illusion of depth. There are many different ways to express perspective and traditionally geometry is used to keep objects proportional. The most rigidly geometrically correct proportions are defined as the rules of linear perspective, which were first solidified in the 15th century by some of the era’s foremost painters and architects. A few artists of that era to successfully use these rules to create realistic depth were Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci. See also Vanishing Point.

Pewter: A metal alloy composed almost entirely of tin, with a small amount of copper and sometimes lead. Lower grades of pewter can contain a great deal of lead. Pewter is used to create tableware and other decorative objects. It is very soft and malleable, making it easy for artisans to work with.

Plein Air: In French, plein air means, “in open air”: to paint outside.

Pointillism: Pointillism refers to a technique of painting an entire picture out of dots or small strokes. From a distance, the dots are imperceptible but close to the canvas they are easily seen. Pointillism was developed as a branch of French Impressionism. One of the most famous painters to use this technique was Georges Seurat.

Polychrome: Polychrome means multicolored. A specialized use of the word refers to the decoration of wood and stone in full color, as the Greeks and Egyptians did for some of their works of art.

Porcelain: Usually white or light gray in color, porcelain is the highest quality of ceramic ware there is. Composed of clay, feldspar and flint, it is very durable despite the fact that it can appear quite delicate, and is fired at a very high temperature. It was first produced by the Chinese during the T’ang Dynasty.

Portrait: Any likeness of a person. Traditionally it is a person depicted from the chest up, including the shoulders, neck and face. A portrait the artist creates of him or herself is called a self-portrait.

Pottery: Ceramic ware fired at a low temperature and typically fired at a much lower temperature than porcelain. See Earthenware.

Primary Color: One of the three colors that, when mixed, can create all of the other hues, tones and shades. These primary colors are red, yellow and blue.

Ready-made: A man-made, mass produced object not created as “art”, but displayed as such. The most famous example and earliest of a ready-made is a urinal displayed by Marcel Duchamp in 1917. He did not create it or adjust it, but simply named and displayed it as art. See also Found Object.

Relief: A work of art where the figures in the design project from the background at varying levels. How low or high the relief is depends on how far out the figures project. Low relief is called Bas Relief, and then comes Middle and High Relief, which are self-explanatory. Figures projecting inward are referred to as Hollow Relief.

Replica: An exact copy executed in the same manner, and in the same materials by the artist that created the original or by someone supervised by the original artist. Usually considered to be of the same value as the original.

Representational Art: The opposite of Abstract art. Representational Art depicts recognizable objects within the physical world, such as people, objects or elements of nature.

Saturation: The vividness or intensity of a color.

Secondary Color: A secondary color is one of the three colors that is a result of the mixing of the primary colors: green, orange and violet.

Serigraph: Also known as silk-screening or screen-printing, the main concept behind a serigraph is the same as making an image using a stencil. A porous screen is set up on a frame and either a stencil of the image is put on top of the screen or certain parts of the screen are made impermeable to prevent ink from coming through. A paper or cloth is placed below the screen and the ink is then spread evenly across the screen with a squeegee, creating an image on the material below. Though he was not the first artist to use a serigraph, Andy Warhol is arguably one of the most famous people to use one, and certainly had a lot to do with its popularity during the 1960’s Pop Art era.

Shade: The degrees by which a color can be lighter or darker.

Silk Screen: See Serigraph.

Sketch: A preliminary drawing, roughly executed and possibly lacking some detail. Sketches are sometimes used as preparation or a guide for a final, more detailed project, or just to quickly catch the impression of a moment.

Spectrum: The rainbow of color that can be seen when sunlight is passed through a prism; the visible range of light the human eye can see.

Stained Glass: Art created by assembling colored glass into a window frame or painting glass with color to create a picture or a thematic story. Despite the fact that stained glass can be traced as far back as the 4th century, the 13th century is considered a pinnacle for stained glass art, due to the construction of some of the great cathedrals in Europe (such as Notre Dame and Chartres, in France) that featured large stained glass windows.

Statue: A carved or modeled figure.

Still Life: A drawing or painting of a group of inanimate objects. Fruit and flowers are some of the most common objects depicted in a still life.

Stretcher: The wooden frame on which an artist’s canvas is stretched.

Stucco: Stucco is a type of plaster used to finish walls. Color can be added to it to create a design or a painting (see Fresco) and its texture can be rough or smooth, depending on the effect desired.

Tertiary Color: Mixing the secondary colors creates a tertiary color. The result is usually a shade of gray or brown.

Texture: The condition of the surface of a painting and how it feels to the touch: for example, whether it is bumpy or smooth, shiny or grainy.

Tone: A term used to describe the quality of chroma, or hue. For example, painting painted to appear full of light may have a yellowish tone.

Triptych: A painting composed of three panels, which may or may not be connected. See Diptych.

Trompe l’oeil: A French term meaning, “to fool the eye”. Trompe l’oeil refers to a style of painting that is almost photographically rendered so that the viewer almost believes that the scene depicted is real. This technique is especially effective when used to simulate architectural elements on walls, ceilings or floors.

Value: Degrees of lightness or darkness, measured on a scale running from black to white. The degree by which something is lighter or darker is referred to as a key (i.e. a lighter or a darker key).

Vanishing Point: When using the principles of Linear Perspective (see Perspective), the vanishing point is a point on the horizon line where two parallel lines converge, drawing the viewer’s eye towards an imaginary distant spot. The illusion created by the eye traveling to the vanishing point is an important part of creating the feeling of three-dimensional depth on a two dimensional page, as objects can be defined as larger or smaller by their relation to the horizon line and the vanishing point.

Wash: A term used in watercolor painting. A wash refers to the application of a diluted watercolor paint to paper, creating a lighter, more transparent color.

Watercolor paint: Watercolor paint is composed mostly of pigment, with gum arabic to add body and glycerin and honey to assist the bonding of the pigment to the chosen surface. It comes dry and must be added to water before it can be used. Paintings made using watercolor paint are referred to as watercolors, and are most commonly painted on paper but they can work on other objects and surfaces. Usually looser in style than oil or acrylic paintings, watercolors allow the texture and brightness of the paper beneath to shine through. They are a popular choice for artists because they are quick drying, non-odorous and easily transported.

Woodcut: Woodcuts are a type of relief printing technique. A design is cut into a wood block, which is then inked and pressed against a paper or cloth in a press. The areas carved into the woodcut retain the ink when the paper or cloth is pressed and an image is created. The concept is very similar to that of a stamp.