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Art Glossary


Abstraction : Often used interchangeably with non-objective; more precisely, imagery which departs from representational accuracy (often to an extreme degree) for some affective or other purpose unrelated to verisimilitude.

Academic : Having to do with the affairs or ways of academies, or works of art that were done according to established, traditional ways.

Acrylic : A plastic-based painting medium which, because it is water soluble, dries quickly and cleans up easily. Especially popular in the 1960s and 1970s for effects ranging from translucent watercolour-like washes to opaque hard-edges in bright colours, acrylic seems to have been declining in popularity since the new image movement of the early 1980s restored interest in oil as a medium.

Aleatoric : Composition based on chance, usually, but sometimes also random accident and/or highly improvisational execution.

Altarpiece : Any of a variety of decorated panels, screens or shrines rising behind an altar to signify its importance and authority, to tell an associated legend, and so on. The most common type of altarpiece is a painting spread over several panels hung together like folding screens. A simple type consists of a central panel with two flanking half-sized doors to close over it. A three-part painting of this sort is called a triptych. Paintings with more complicated arrangements are called polyptychs. Altarpieces often have a decorated panel at the bottom called a predella. Some Baroque altarpieces are gloriously overblown flights of fancy, with painting, sculpture, and architectural accompaniments skillfuly interwoven for theatrical effect. Altarpieces are sometime called reredos or retables.

Applique : Cloth decoration cut out and sewn to a larger piece of cloth.

Archival : In reference to paper and mats, acid free; using archival materials, colors remain vivid and paper doesn’t yellow.

Art conservation : Principally, the technical study of the best ways to preserve and protect artworks from physical deterioration. However, some programmes in art conservation also address related issues, such as the ethics of conservation, art restoration, museology, and so on.

Artist : One who makes art.

Artists’ proof : Usually up to 10% beyond the numbered edition.

Artwork : A general term referring to any artistic production. Sometimes, like oeuvre, it can also signify an entire body of works. Related terms include artifact, commodity, object, piece. Also see signature.

Assemblage sculpture : A three-dimensional composition made of various materials such as found objects, paper, wood, and textiles.

Baroque : Once a term of disapprobation, « baroque » generally means a taste for extravagant forms, often heavy ornamentation, and dynamic effects, whether in architecture or in other media. In the seventeenth century, baroque design included classical forms, but it tended to create an effect of architectural muscularity with repetitions and massings (e.g., of columns on the façade of a building) or by breaking conventions (e.g., breaking a pediment or cornice open, to give it a jagged contour). In painting and sculpture, similar ends were sought, but the means included more dynamic compositions, raking effects of light, and the representation of more naturalistic attitudes and emotions.

Body colour : A rather opaque type of watercolour, sometimes used sparingly for emphasis and ornament and sometimes used for the entire image, at which point it is likely called a « gouache. »

Calligraphy : Careful hand-lettering, handwriting, or the decorative art of lettering in an ornamental style using brushes or pens. Or the lettering that is produced in this way.

Caravagism : Shaded drawings with light and darkness. There are other terms narrowing this range, like ‘sfumato,’ which refers to the soft, ‘smoky’ drawings, and ‘tenebrism’, which refers to sharply contrasted lights and darks, almost creating a spotlight effect, as in the works of Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Georges De La Tour. See Chiaroscuro.

Charcoal : Compressed burned wood used for drawing.

Chiaroscuro : A word borrowed from Italian (« light and shade » or « dark ») referring to the modeling of volume by depicting light and shade by contrasting them boldly. This is one means of strengthening an illusion of depth on a two-dimensional surface, and was an important topic among artists of the Renaissance.

Cibachrome print : Archival type of print greatly extending the expected lifetime of a photograph.

Classic, Classical : These terms are so frequently confused that the following distinction may not hold true in all cases: strictly speaking, « classic » means of the highest order or rank, whereas « classical » means characteristic of Greek and Roman antiquity and things made in emulation thereof. That is, it may have a certain staying power in history based on any number of assumptions, including quality, but it does not exhibit any characteristics associated with various classical schools, like rationalism and impersonal execution.

Collage : The gluing together of bits and pieces of originally unrelated images and parts thereof, including previously used commercial materials, to create something unprecedented.

Conceptual : Pertaining to concepts. More specifically, art possessing imagery that departs from perceptual accuracy to present a conception of the object, rather than its appearance alone. It has become fairly standard, for example, to characterize the rigidly formal art of ancient Egypt as conceptual, whereas Courbet’s Realism is perceptual. Lest it be thought that perceptual art is really without ideas.

Contrast : Generally, the exhibition of difference or juxtaposition of dissimilar elements in a work of art, as in the contrast of colours and textures.

Craft : Since the Renaissance, fine art has distinguished itself from craft in the conventional sense of ‘mere’ manual dexterity or technical skill.

Diptych : Two vertical panels hinged together in the centre. Ivory carvings with religious motifs so arranged were common in late Roman times, as were panels with Christ facing his mother in the late medieval era. For more complicated multi-panel works, see altarpiece.

Dovetail joints : A fan-shaped tenon that forms a tight interlocking joint when fitted into a corresponding mortise.

Drawing : The art of representing by line, delineation without color or with a single color, a sketch, initial idea or study; an outline with shading and tone; media may be pen, pencil, charcoal.

Easel : An upright frame for the stable display or support of a painter’s canvas or panel. Sturdier easels are the more blocky and heavy ones, while portable easels are light-weight and three-legged. Most contemporary easels can be folded for storage. An easel painting is one that is small enough to fit on an easel, and one with a support that permits it to be painted on one (unlike murals for instance).

Edition : The number of impressions printed (e.g. 250) from the same plate; the edition numbers are under the print on the left, the top number being the print number, the bottom number being the total prints in the edition.

Engraving : A method of cutting or incising a design into a material, usually metal, with a sharp tool called a graver. One of the intaglio methods of making prints, in engraving, a print can be made by inking such an incised (engraved) surface. It may also refer to a print produced in this way. Most contemporary engraving is done in the production of currency, certificates, etc.

Expressionism : Any of various styles and/or movements in art giving priority to the expression of inner experience, particularly where the manifestation is conspicuously deformed or paralinguistically altered.

Fantastic : There is no unequivocal consensus, but ‘fantastic’ is sometimes used to indicate an imaginative, subjective world of inner expression that transcends mere fantasy or science fiction.

Figurative : Describes artwork representing the form of a human, an animal or a thing; any expression of one thing in terms of another thing. Abstract artwork is the opposite of figurative art in certain ways.

Flat : Although it is an oversimplification of Clement Greenberg’s position, artists and artwriters of the 1960s and early 1970s agreed with his assertion that the essential characteristic of painting was its flatness. This led to post-painterly abstraction on the one hand and to minimalism on the other.

Foreshortening : A way of representing a subject or an object so that it conveys the illusion of depth — so that it seems to go back into space. Foreshortening’s success often depends upon a point of view or perspective in which the sizes of near and far parts of a subject contrast greatly.

Gallery : A room, building or institution where paintings and other artworks are exhibited; and often where they are also sold. Genres : 1. The various categories of subject matter in the traditional academic hierarchy, in descending order of importance: history, megalography (representations intended to glorify or idealize excessively some event, person or thing), mythology, religion, portraiture (including the portrait historié, a portrait of an historical figure playing the role of a character from history, literature, mythology or theatre), genre (see sense 2, following), landscape, still-life, and rhopography (representations of trivial bric-à-brac, including such things as the remains of a meal, garbage on the floor, etc.). 2. A little confusingly, one of the genres is ‘genre,’ the depiction of everyday life, ordinary folk and common activities.

Gothic : The name given to the style of architecture, painting, and sculpture which flourished in western Europe, mainly France and England, between the 12th and 15th centuries– the later Middle Ages.

Gouache : A heavy, opaque watercolor paint, sometimes called body color, producing a less wet-appearing and more strongly colored picture than ordinary watercolor. Also, any painting produced with gouache.

Gravure : French for engraving. There are several types of engraving, including copper-plate and wood engraving, rotogravure and photogravure. In English, gravure has been used broadly to cover any or all of these several types. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, prints have been referred to as ‘art gravures’ in order to distinguish them as art prints, rather than as merely commercial-grade prints. The line drawn between the two is a relatively subjective one. Seeing this term ON a print should raise suspicion that it is part of a huge edition, and/or for a relatively mass audience.

Highlight : The point at which an object reflects the greatest light, or the representation of same in drawing, painting, photography, watercolour, etc. Works which follow the logic of perception tend to orient highlights in such a way that the direction of the light source can be deduced from them, but there is no shortage of examples which ignore this principle and use highlights in a rather more intuitive manner.

Illusionism : The principle characteristic of an artwork which attempts to convince viewers that they are not looking at a representation but at the thing itself. In other words, illusionism means making an image as ‘realistic,’ in the conventional sense of the word, as possible.

Impressionism : An art movement and style of painting that started in France during the 1860s. Impressionist artists tried to paint candid glimpses of their subjects showing the effects of sunlight on things at different times of day. The leaders of this movement were: Camille Pissarro (French, 1830-1903), Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917), Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926), and Pierre Renoir (French, 1841-1919). Some of the early work of Paul Cézanne (French, 1839-1906) fits into this style, though his later work so transcends it that it belongs to another movement known as Post-Impressionism.

Installation : A type of art in which a given space is redefined by the (usually) temporary arrangement therein of objects and/or materials in quasi-sculptural and/or quasi-theatrical constructions.

Limited edition : Once a certain number is run, the original plate is destroyed and no more will be printed.

Lithography : In the graphic arts, a method of printing from a prepared flat stone or metal or plastic plate, invented in the late eighteenth century. A drawing is made on the stone or plate with a greasy crayon or tusche, and then washed with water. When ink is applied it sticks to the greasy drawing but runs off (or is resisted by) the wet surface allowing a print– a lithograph– to be made of the drawing. The artist, or other print maker under the artist’s supervision, then covers the plate with a sheet of paper and runs both through a press under light pressure. For color lithography separate drawings are made for each color. (pr. le-thog’ruh-fee)

Mannerism : Emphasis on the manner of presentation rather than the substance of the presentation, as in the cliché « all style and no substance. » This includes departures from normal appearance via distortion, eccentricity, exaggeration, stylization, etc. The most immediately recognizable type of mannerism is characterized by abnormally elongated but nonetheless graceful figures, ranging from Parmigianino’s elongated madonnas to Ingres’s various odalisques, Modigliani’s attenuated figures and beyond. Architectural mannerism is thought of as a playful misuse of the classical vocabulary of forms, as in the famous slipping keystones in the arches of Giuliano Romano’s Palazzo del Tè. In this respect, a good deal of architectural postmodernism is mannerist (e.g., Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans).

Marquetry : Decoration made by inlaying pieces of material such as wood into a veneer surface.

Modeling : In two dimensional work, modeling is a means to create the effect of light on a virtual three-dimensional form by manipulating the values of light, shadow, and color. In three dimensional work, modeling refers to the additive method — i.e., building up a form by progressively shaping a malleable material like clay. (Making a sculpture by carving is a subtractive method and is therefore not routinely referred to as modeling.)

Monochrome : A painting, drawing, or print in one color, including that color’s its tints and shades.

Mosaic : A picture or design made of tiny pieces (called tesserae) of colored stone, glass, tile or paper adhered to a surface. It is typically decorative work for walls, vaults, ceilings or floors, the tesserae set in plaster or concrete.

Naturalism : The representation of something in a manner thought to be consistent with natural appearance, as opposed to stylization.

Neoclassicism or neo-classicism : A nineteenth century French art style and movement that originated as a reaction to the Baroque. It sought to revive the ideals of ancient Greek and Roman art. Neoclassic artists used classical forms to express their ideas about courage, sacrifice, and love of country.

Oil paint : Slow drying paint made when pigments are mixed with an oil, linseed oil being most traditional. The oil dries with a hard film, and the brightness of the colors is protected. Oil paints are usually opaque and traditionally used on canvas. They can have a matte, semi-gloss, or glossy finish. To look at examples of works in oil paints, see the articles under the names of every period from the Renaissance onward.

Original print : Any image made directly from the matrix is an original print. An original print is the image on paper or similar material made via various processes: relief (woodcut, wood engraving), intaglio (engraving, etching, aquatint), lithographic or stencil (serigraph, silkscreen). Each medium has a special identifiable quality. More than one impression of each image is possible; therefore, « original » doest not mean « unique ».

Painting : Any of a variety of works of art made by applying paint on a surface. There is a wide variety of types of paint media, surfaces, application tools and techniques, and aesthetic preoccupations. The sky is the limit for aesthetic preoccupations, since even a brief list here would consitute a summary of much of the entire history of art.

Palette : – A slab of wood, metal, marble, ceramic, plastic, glass, or paper, sometimes with a hole for the thumb, which an artist can hold while painting and on which the artist mixes paint. – The term palette may also refer to the range of colors used in a particular painting or by a particular artist.

Pastel : Pigments mixed with gum and water, and pressed into a dried stick form for use as crayons. Works of art done with such pigments are also called pastels.

Periodicity : The state of being organized and categorized according to periods, as in Renaissance versus Baroque, Byzantine versus Modern, and so on. Since any such scheme streamlines, homogenizes, and ignores or downplays difference, much interesting material is lost.

Perspective : The technique artists use to project an illusion of the three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional surface. Perspective helps to create a sense of depth– of receding space. Fundamental techniques used to achieve perspective are: controlling variation between sizes of depicted subjects, overlapping some of them, and placing those that are on the depicted ground as lower when nearer and higher when deeper. In addition, there are three major types of perspective: aerial perspective, herringbone perspective, and linear perspective.

Pigment : Finely powdered color material which produces the color of any medium. made either from natural substances or synthetically, pigment becomes paint, ink, or dye when mixed with oil, water or another fluid (also called vehicle). When pressed into wax it becomes a crayon, pencil or chalk.

Post-Impressionism or post-impressionism : A French art movement that immediately followed Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism. The artists involved, usually meaning Paul Cézanne (French, 1839-1906), Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890), Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903), and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864-1901) showed a greater concern for expression, structure and form than did the Impressionist artists. Building on the works of the Neo-Impressionists, these artists rejected the emphasis the Impressionists put on naturalism and the depiction of fleeting effects of light. Other artists who were involved in this movement during a portion of their careers were Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954), Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973) and George Braque (French, 1882-1963).

Printmaking : A medium that always involves working on one material, i.e., a matrix (wood, metal, limestone, etc); the image made on a matrix is then transferred to another material – usually a piece of paper.

Proof : An impression taken at any stage in the making of a print.

Realism : 1. In popular parlance it means a generic species of representation that looks real, in the sense that some art history uses the word naturalism. In this sense, realism is the representation of a putatively unmediated world, by whatever means. One of the common themes of postmodernism is a challenge of this still-popular notion. 2. In traditional art history, Realism denotes the type of realism practiced in the nineteenth century by Gustave Courbet and his successors, often involving some sort of sociopolitical or moral message, if only by virtue of context.

Renaissance : A revival or rebirth of cultural awareness and learning that took place during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, particularly in Italy, but also in Germany and other European countries. The period was characterized by a renewed interest in ancient Greek and Roman art and design and included an emphasis on human beings, their environment, science, and philosophy. Examples of Renaissance works of art : Donatello, Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Raphael, Titian, Rosso Fiorentino, etc.

Reproduction : Usually refers to a photographic/mechanically reproduced version of an origianl work of art; the process and the surface are entirely different from printmaking.

Rococo : A term of disapprobation when first coined, « rococo » describes the last gasp of the baroque, especially in the eighteenth century in France. In choice of subjects, it emphasized what seem now to have been the unreflective and indulgent lifestyles of the aristocracy rather than piety, morality, self-discipline, reason, and heroism (all of which can be found in the baroque). Rococo form is characterized by delicacy of colour, dynamic compositions, and atmospheric effects. Because there is a tendency to preciosity and frivolousness (although this reputation over-simplifies what was going on), one might think of the rococo as « baroque-lite. »

Romanticism : Romanticism, and the Romantic school – A style of art that flourished in the early nineteenth century. It emphasized the emotions painted in a bold, dramatic manner. Romantic artists rejected the cool reasoning of classicism — the established art of the times — to paint pictures of nature in its untamed state, or other exotic settings filled with dramatic action, often with an emphasis on the past. Romanticism is emotional, usually melancholic, even melodramatically tragic. Paintings by members of the French Romantic school include those by Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix, filled with rich color, energetic brushwork, and dramatic and emotive subject matter. In England the Romantic tradition began with Henry Fuseli and William Blake, and culminated with Joseph M. W. Turner and John Constable. The German landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich produced images of solitary figures placed in lonely settings amidst ruins, cemeteries, frozen, watery, or rocky wastes. And in Spain, Francisco Goya depicted the horrors of war along with aristocratic portraits.

School : A group of artists whose style demonstrates a common origin or influence. A common origin is likely to be geographic (for example, Dutch school, or Viennese school, or New York school), but refers to the stylistic tendencies of artists in that area. A common influence may be a period, a movement (for example, Impressionist school), an attitude (for example, naturalist school), or a particular artist (for example, school of Rembrandt). When applied to a particular painter, this may either mean that the work in question was painted in that artist’s studio by one of his pupils or assistants (apparently with a certain amount of the master’s guidance), or that it is an imitation or copy of his or her work. Related terms are circle of, follower of, manner of, and workshop of.

Sculpture : The art of forming representation of objects in the round or relief, i.e., three dimensional; media may be stone, wood, clay, metal.

Seascape : A picture of a scene at sea or a scene prominently including a portion of the sea.

Serigraphy : A stencil method of printmaking in which an image is imposed on a screen of silk or other fine mesh, with blank areas coated with an impermeable substance, and ink is forced through the mesh onto the printing surface. Also called silkscreen process and screen-printing. A serigraph is a print made by this method.

Silk screen : Stencil method in which ink is forced through a design-bearing screen of silk or other fabric onto the printing surface.

Sketch : A quick drawing that loosely captures the appearance or action of a place or situation. Sketches are often done in preparation for larger, more detailed works of art. Lion by Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577-1640) was done in preparation for his painting of Daniel in the Lions’ Den. A sculptural sketch too is a quickly or loosely produced sculpture, typically made in working out ideas which the sculptor might later execute with more detail or in more expensive or more time-demanding materials.

Stamp : To crush or grind with a heavy instrument as with a foot, or to form or cut out by application of a mold, form or die. Also, to imprint with a mark, design, or seal; or the device used to do so. Also see chop, impression, numismatics, philately, relief, and signature.

Stencil : A sheet of material in which lettering or design has been cut so that ink or paint applied to the sheet will reproduce the pattern on the surface beneath.

Still life or still-life : A picture of inanimate objects. Common still life subjects include vessels, food, flowers, books, clothing. Study : A preparatory drawing, related to a sketch.

Surrealism or surrealism : A twentieth century avant-garde art movement that originated in the nihilistic ideas of the Dadaist and French literary figures, especially those of its founder, French writer André Breton (1896-1966). At first a Dadaist, he wrote three manifestos about Surrealism — in 1924, 1930, and 1934, and opened a studio for « surrealist research. » Influenced by the theories of the pioneer of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (German, 1856-1939), the images found in surrealist works are as confusing and startling as those of dreams. Surrealist works can have a realistic, though irrational style, precisely describing dreamlike fantasies, as in the works of René Magritte (Belgian, 1898-1967), Salvador Dali (Spanish, 1904-1988), Yves Tanguy (French, 1900-1955), and Alfred Pellan (Canadian, 1906-1988). These artists were partly inspired by Symbolism, and partly the Metaphysical Painting of Giorgio de Chirico (Italian, 1888-1978). Or, it could have a more abstract style, as in the works of Joan Miró (Spanish, 1893-1983), Max Ernst (German, 1891-1976), and André Masson (French, 1896-1987), who invented spontaneous techniques, modeled upon the psychotherapeutic procedure of « free association » as a means to eliminate conscious control in order to express the workings of the unconscious mind, such as exquisite corpse.

Triptych : See altarpiece.

Trompe l’oeil : Illusionism, most commonly in painting, but also in some sculpture, etc., intended to « fool the eye. »

Underpainting : Underpainting : The layer or layers of color on a painting surface applied before the overpainting, or final coat. There are many types of underpainting. One type is an all-over tinting of a white ground. Another is a blocked out image in diluted oil colors that serves as a guide for the painter while developing the composition and color effects.

Wash : A layer of thinned colour applied by brush, often rapidly, to roughly block in and/or model forms in paintings, watercolours, and some drawings. Famous applications range from colourful watercolour notes, as in the Moroccan sketchbooks of Delacroix, to the colourless but equally adept modelling in Tiepolo drawings.

Watercolour : Pigment in a water soluble medium, handled as a wash. Most watercolours are quite translucent and exploit effects peculiar to the medium, like reserve highlights and the appearance of spontaneous and rapid execution.

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