Painting terms

Abstract: art that looks as if it contains little or no recognizable or realistic forms from the physical world. Focus is on formal elements such as colors, lines, or shapes.

Abstract Expressionism:
art that rejects true visual representation. It has few recognizable images with great emphasis on line, color, shape, texture, value; putting the expression of the feelings or emotions of the artist above all else.

A detail, brushstroke, or area of color placed in a painting for emphasis.

Acrylic: Paint made from pigments and a synthetic plastic binder, water-soluble when wet, insoluble when dry. This popular alternative to oil paint can also duplicate many of watercolour's unique characteristics when used in a fluid manner.

Analogous colours: A grouping of related colours next to each other on the colour wheel. Example: Yellow, Yellow Green, and Green.

Aquarelle: The French term for the process and product of painting in transparent watercolour.

Art deco: a style of design and decoration popular in the 1920's and 1930's characterized by designs that are geometric and use highly intense colors, to reflect the rise of commerce, industry and mass production.

Art nouveau: a decorative art movement that emerged in the late nineteenth century; art characterized by dense asymmetrical ornamentation in sinuous forms, it is often symbolic and of an erotic nature.

Atmospheric perspective: Suggesting perspective in a painting with changes in tone and colour between foreground and background. The background is usually blurred and hues are less intense.

Background: The area of a painting farthest from the viewer. In a landscape this would include the sky and horizon. In a still life or portrait it could be a wall or room interior.

Binder: That which holds the paint together, such as linseed oil for oil painting, polymers for acrylics, gum arabic for watercolours and gouache.

Blending: Fusing two colour planes together so no discernable sharp divisions are apparent.

Blotting: using an absorbent material such as tissues or paper towels, or a squeezed out brush, to pick up and lighten a wet or damp wash. Can be used to lighten large areas or pick out fine details.

Casein: A water-soluble protein found in milk that is used as a binder for creating casein paints. Casein is sometimes used as an underpainting for oil or acrylic painting.

Cast Shadow: The dark area that results when the source of light has been intercepted by an object.

Colour Temperature: Colours are warm, hot or cold in appearance; orange, red, blue. This is true within each category of colour. There are hotter and colder colours in every category.

Collage: A composition made of cut and pasted pieces of different materials, sometimes photographs or drawn images are used.

Commission: refers to the act of hiring someone to execute a certain work of art or set of artworks.


Complimentary Colours: Red and green; blue and orange; yellow and purple... Colours that are opposite one another. When placed side by side they will intensify one another, making each more vibrant.

Composition: The arrangement of elements of form and colour within an artwork.

Cross-hatching: Using fine overlapping planes of parallel lines of colour or pencil to achieve texture or shading. Used in traditional egg tempera technique; drawing in pencil, chalk, pen and ink; and engraving, etching, and other printmaking techniques.

Cubism: art that uses two-dimensional geometric shapes to depict three-dimensional organic forms; a style of painting created by artists like Pablo Picasso whereby the artist breaks down the natural forms of the subjects into geometric shapes.

Dry Brush: Any textured application of paint where your brush is fairly dry (thin or thick paint) and you rely on the hairs of your brush, the angle of attack of your stroke, and the paper's surface texture to create broken areas of paint.

Encaustic: Encaustic paints a blend of oil paint and beeswax and must be heated for use.

En plein air: French for "in open air," used to describe paintings that have been executed outdoors, rather than in the studio.

Etching: an impression made from an etched plate; an intaglio process in which an image is scratched through an acid-resistant coating on a metal plate. The plate is then dipped in acid which eats into the exposed surface.

Expressionism: Post-World War I artistic movement, that emphasized the expression of inner experience rather than solely realistic portrayal.

Ferrule: The metal cylinder that surrounds and encloses the hairs on a brush. Customarily made of nickel or nickel-plated base metal.

Flat Colour: Any area of a painting that has an unbroken single hue and value.

Flat Wash: any area of a painting where a wash of single colour and value is painted in a series of multiple, overlapping stokes following the flow of the paint. A slightly tilted surface aids the flow of your washes. Paper can be dry or damp.

Foreground: The area of a painting closest to the viewer. In a landscape this would include the area from the viewer to the middle distance.

Foreshortening: The technique of representing a three dimensional image in two dimensions using the laws of perspective.

Fresco: Meaning "fresh" in Italian, fresco is the art of painting with pure pigments ground in water on uncured (wet) lime plaster. An ancient technique used world wide by artists of many ages and cultures. Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel is a famous example fresco painting. Durability is achieved as the pigments chemically bind with the plaster over time as it hardens to it's natural limestone state.

Gesso: Ground plaster, chalk or marble mixed with glue or acrylic medium, generally white. It provides an absorbent ground for oil, acrylic, and tempera painting.

Glaze: Glazes are transparent colours applied thinly over an opaque colour. It's usually brushed over a lighter hue. Glazes will intensify a colour or subdue a colour.

Gouache: A water-based paint, much like transparent watercolour but made in opaque form.


Graded Wash: A wash that smoothly changes in value from dark to light. Most noted in landscape painting for open sky work, but an essential skill for watercolour painting in general.

Grain: The basic structure of the surface of paper, as in fine, medium and rough grain.

Highlight: A point of intense brightness, such as the reflection in an eye.

Hue: This is the name of a colour within a spectrum colour. For example, Prussian Blue, Ultramarine Blue and Cerulean Blue are all blues which are close in hue. When describing close or similar colours, the word hue is often used.

Impasto: Thickly applied oil or acrylic paint that leaves dimensional texture through brushstrokes or palette knife marks.

Impressionism: a loose spontaneous style of painting. The impressionist style of painting is characterized chiefly by concentration on the general impression produced by a scene or object and the use of unmixed primary colors and small strokes to simulate actual reflected light.

Juxtaposition: Colors place side by side.

Lightfast: A pigments resistance to fading on long exposure to sunlight.

Masking fluid: A latex gum product that is used to cover a surface you wish to protect from receiving paint. Also referred to as liquid frisket.

Medium: The liquid mixed with paint to thin, aid or slow drying, or alter the working qualities of the paint.

Opaque: A dense paint that obscures or totally hides the underpainting in any given artwork.

Palette: The paint mixing and storing surface of various shapes and being made of plastic, metal, glass, ceramic, or enameled trays for watercolor. Glass, palette paper, formica, and oiled wood are used for oil painting; and glass, metal, styrofoam, and palette paper are used for acrylic painting palettes.

Pastels: Ground pigments, chalk, and binder formed into sticks for coloured drawing.

Perspective: Representing three-dimensional volumes and space in two dimensions in a manner that imitates depth, height and width as seen with stereoscopic eyes.

Pointillism: a painting technique in which pure dots of color are dabbed onto the canvas surface. The viewer's eye, when at a distance, is then expected to see these dots merge as cohesive areas of different colors and color ranges.

Pop art: a style of art which seeks its inspiration from commercial art and items of mass culture (such as comic strips, popular foods and brand name packaging). Certain works of art created by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein are examples of pop art.

Primary colours: Red, yellow, and blue, the mixture of which will yield all other colours in the spectrum but which themselves cannot be produced through a mixture of other colours.

Realism: a style of painting which depicts subject matter (form, color, space) as it appears in actuality or ordinary visual experience without distortion or stylization.

Receding Colours: Pale or cool colours tend to recede into the background, thus they give us the impression of distance.


Relief: The apparent or actual (impasto, collage) projection of three-dimensional forms.

Secondary Colours: Green, Orange and Purple. The combination of two primaries results in a secondary colour. Red and Yellow makes Orange.

A rough or loose visualization of a subject or composition..

Still life: Any work whose subject matter is inanimate objects.

Study: A comprehensive drawing of a subject or details of a subject that can be used for reference while painting.

Support: The surface on which a painting is made: canvas, paper, wood, parchment, metal, etc.

Surrealism: an art style characterized by using the subconscious as a source of creativity to liberate pictorial subjects and ideas. Surrealist paintings often depict unexpected or irrational objects in an atmosphere of fantasy, creating a dreamlike scenario.

Tempera: Pigments mixed with egg yolk and water. Also, a student-grade liquid gouache.

Tertiary Colors: This is a mixture of a primary and secondary colour. Red and Orange makes Red-Orange.

Texture: The actual or virtual representation of different surfaces, paint applied in a manner that breaks up the continuous colour or tone.

Tints: A colour is referred to as a tint when white is added, e.g. by adding white to red, a tint of pink is created.

Tone: The light and dark values of a color.

Trompe l'oeil: A term meaning "Fool the eye" in French. It involves rendering a subject with such detail and attention to lighting and perspective that the finished piece appears real and three-dimensional.

Underpainting: The first, thin transparent laying in of colour in a painting.

Variegated Wash: A wet wash created by blending a variety of discrete colours so that each colour retains it's character while also blending uniquely with the other colours in the wash.

Vignette: A painting which is shaded off around the edges leaving a pleasing shape within a border of white or colour. Oval or broken vignettes are very common.

Wash: A transparent layer of diluted colour that is brushed on.

Watercolour: Painting in pigments suspended in water and a binder such as gum arabic. Traditionally used in a light to dark manner, using the white of the paper to determine values.

Wet-in-wet: A technique used in painting in which the colours flow together. There's a risk of creating a muddy look when painting in this manner. Many brilliant masterworks have been painted using this technique.

Wet-on-dry-: Painting over a dry layer of paint. It's much easier to control than wet-in-wet. Most acrylic painters use this technique.

[taken from a variety of sources for this page]


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