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Art terms: The ultimate artist's glossary

art terms glossary
(Image credit: Alice Achterhof on Unsplash)


Art terms are a fundamental part of creating art because they summarise complicated concepts succinctly. And given that the terminology is used by course instructors and educational books across the board, it’s a good idea to get yourself familiar with them if you want to further your skills.

After all, even if you’ve picked up the best pencils for artists, they can only take you so far if you don’t know how to get the most out of them.

To help you learn the lingo, we’ve compiled this handy glossary which makes important art terms easy to understand. These expressions are designed to be of practical assistance to creators, so if you feel like you’ve plateaued or you need to brush up on the basic theories behind drawing and painting, there’s a good chance they can help you out of a creative rut. For more guidance, see our how to draw tutorials.

A

Abrasion

A process whereby paint is removed to reveal layers beneath the surface. Usually done via friction or scratches. Can be accidental or deliberate.

Accelerated perspective

A deliberate exaggeration of perspective. It is often used to make a shallow surface appear deeper than it actually is.

Acrylic paint

A type of paint where the pigment is suspended in an acrylic polymer emulsion. Acrylics are a popular medium with artists thanks to their fast drying time, bold colours and flexibility when mixed with water. Get the most out of them with our acrylic painting tips.

Ambient light

Light that is already present in a scene. This can include either natural or artificial light.

Axis lines

A straight line, either implied of visible, that runs through an object in its dominant direction. It helps to give structure to an object or composition.

B

Background

An area of a painting that appears to be furthest from the viewer. Objects in the middle ground and foreground appear closer, as if they are placed on top.

Balance

The arrangement of elements in a piece of art that creates a sense of visual equilibrium.

Binder

A paint substance which holds together the pigment and ensures that it sticks to surfaces. Also gives the paint a uniform consistency.

Blending

A painting technique where the transition between colours and shades appears smooth or gradual.

Blocking in

Painting process where the artist roughly establishes the composition and structure of the subject. It’s a popular technique with portrait artists.

Body colour

An opaque paint that can completely obliterate an underlying colour.

Brushwork

The way in which an artist applies paint to a support with a brush. Used to refer to the characteristics of the artist in question.

C

Canvas

A closely woven cloth that acts as a support for paintings. Get started with them with our beginner's guide to canvas painting.

Chiaroscuro

From the Italian for ‘light-dark’. Used to refer to a strong contrast between light and dark in drawings and paintings. Often used to create a sense of volume.

Cityscape

An image where urban scenery and buildings are the main focus.

Closed composition

A piece of art where everything sits comfortably inside the borders of the image. 

Collage

From the French verb coller, meaning ‘to glue’. Used to refer to the technique and resulting piece of art where materials are fixed to a supporting surface with glue or another substance. Here’s what to consider when creating a collage.

Colour

The perceived hue of an object or substance. Also used to refer to a dye, pigment, or paint that imparts a hue. Become a master of colours work with our guide to colour theory.

Colour wheel

A circular diagram of the spectrum of colours. Useful for artists because it shows how the relationships between primary, secondary and tertiary colours.

Combine

A painting that works various objects into the surface material.

Complementary colours

A pair of colours which cancel each other out when mixed together. They are situated opposite one another on the colour wheel.

Composition

The arrangement of visual elements as distinct from the subject in a piece of art. It means ‘putting together’ and can be used in visual arts as well as music, writing and photography.

Contour

From the French for ‘outline’, this refers to the technique where an artist draws a line that defines a form or edge. As its word origin suggests, it creates an outline of the subject.

Convergence

Refers to linear perspective in a drawing or painting. It’s the phenomena whereby all parallel lines converge together as they run along to a point at a person’s eye level.

Cross-hatching

A mark-making process where lines that run in different directions are layered on top of each other to provide the illusion of shade.

D

Depth

The apparent distance from the foreground to background, or near to far, in a work of art.

Diptych

A piece of art, usually a painting, made on two panels that are traditionally attached by a hinge.

Doodle

A loose, fun drawing that often has little regard for accuracy. Usually completed while the artist’s attention is elsewhere. Check out some of our favourite examples of doodle art.

E

Elevation

A drawing of the front, side and rear of a structure. Usually used in architecture and scale drawings.

F

Figure drawing

The depiction of the human body in art. Master how to draw the human body with this guide to figure drawing.

Focal point

The area of a piece of art that is designed to draw the viewer’s attention.

Foreground

Visual elements in a drawing or painting that are positioned nearest to the viewer in terms of depth. These elements appear on top of the middle ground and background.

Foreshortening

A technique used in perspective drawing to create the illusion that an object, usually parts of the human body, recede strongly into the distance or background.

Frottage

A technique where textures are obtained by rubbing pencils, chalk or charcoal over a granular or relieflike surface.

G

Geometric

A piece of art made out of geometric shapes.

Gesture

A quick drawing that captures the most basic elements of the subject.

Gouache

A water-soluble paint that appears opaque on the support. Dries quickly and can be reactivated when mixed with water. This guide teaches you how to paint with gouache.

H

Hardboard

A uniform and stable surface for painting. It doesn’t have a grain which makes it easier to prime.

Hard-edge

A painting technique where the transitions between colours are abrupt. The opposite of blending.

Horizon line

A horizontal line that runs across a page or canvas that represents the viewer’s eye-level, or to represent where the sky meets the ground.

Hue

The actual colour of something. Often referred to as a colour, but hue is more technically correct.

I

Illusion

When a piece of art tricks the eye into perceiving a particular effect. For some amazing examples, check out our collection of the best trompe l’oeil art.

Impasto

A painting technique where paints are laid down on the support in very thick layers. Often, brush marks or palette strokes are still visible.

L

Landscape

A piece of art that focuses on natural scenery such as mountains, forests and coasts.

Line drawing

A fundamental type of mark making made up of a stroke of a pencil, pen or a brush. Consists of straight or curved lines. Used to represent shape and form.

Linear perspective

A technique where the illusion of depth is created on a flat surface.

M

Medium

The materials that are used to create a piece of art.

Middle ground

The central elements of a painting in terms of depth. Sandwiched between the foreground and background.

Mixed media

A piece of art made up of multiple mediums.

Monochrome

A painting created using only one colour or hue.

Negative space

The empty space between objects and structures in a piece of art. Can be used by artists to more accurately define the form of the subject. See how these brilliant examples of negative space make an impact.

O

Oil paint

A paint where the pigment is held in a drying oil binder. Oil paint is usually slow to dry.

P

Paint

Coloured substance which is spread over a support with tools including a brush and palette. Made up of pigment and binder. Get the most out of paints by choosing the right brush.

Palette

A surface on which an artist mixes colours.

Palette knife

A blunt plastic or metal blade which is used to mix colours and spread them on a support. 

Pastel

Solid art medium in the shape of a stick. Made up of pure powdered pigments and binder. Supplied in soft, pan and hard varieties. Artists can choose from oil and water-soluble pastels. This guide shows you how to get started with pastel art.

Perspective

A technique for creating the illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional surface. A crucial method to master for drawing realistic pictures. Start learning perspective basics with this guide to one point perspective.

Pigment 

The colouring component of art mediums such as paint and pastels, as opposed to the binding agent.

Plane

A flat surface within a painting, picture or sculpture. Also used to refer to the flat surface on which a picture is created.

Portrait

A piece of art where the facial features of the subject are the focus. Also used to refer to a vertical orientation, as opposed to a landscape picture. These simple steps show you how to draw a face.

Pose

The position of the subject in a piece of art. Often in reference to the stance of a human model.

Profile

A side view of a subject, usually the human head.

Proportion

The harmonious relationship of parts to each other or to the whole.

R

Representation

The visual interpretation of a subject.

S

Scale

The ratio between the size of the subject and its artistic representation.

Sfumato

From the Italian for ‘smoke’. A painting technique that softens the transition between two colours and tones in such a way that they appear to melt into one another.

Shade

In colour theory, shade is a pure colour with black added (and not white or grey).

Sketch

A rough or unfinished drawing or painting of a subject. Usually completed to aid the creation of a more thorough study. Make your mark with these sketching tips.

Soft edge

When the boundaries of a subject in a painting appear to fade into the background. The opposite of a hard edge.

Still life

An artistic study, either a drawing or painting, of either natural or man-made objects, or both. This guide shows you how to paint expressive still life images.

Stylised

The representation of a subject that conforms to the rules of a certain style, as opposed to a natural depiction.

Subject

The primary focus of a piece of art, such as a building, human or object.

T

Tempera

A paint in which the pigment is held in a water-soluble binder. Also used to refer to a painting completed in this medium.

Tint

When white is introduced to a colour to make it appear brighter. The opposite of shade.

Tone

The intensity and strength of colours in a piece of art.

Triptych

A painting completed on three separate panels, or three paintings on different supports that are thematically linked.

V

Value

The relative lightness or darkness of colour. The highest value will be white, and the lowest value will be black.

Vantage point

The position of the viewer in relation to the subject they are representing.

Vanishing point

A point of disappearance in perspective drawings. At this point, receding parallel lines appear to converge.

Volume

The representation of mass in a piece of art.

W

Watercolour

Art medium where the pigment is held in a water-soluble solution. Also used to refer to pictures completed with these substances.

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