In this post, I cover the top 90 art terms that are most relevant to drawing, painting, and photography. There are many terms that are unique to art. You’ll encounter new words and phrases when learning about art through books, magazines, and workshops. If you don’t understand what they mean, it will be difficult to follow the discussion.
Some of the lingo may seem intimidating at first, but the actual concepts are often very simple. Many art terms are Italian or French words that have easy to understand translations. Common words such as “value” or “ground” can take on a different meaning when discussing art.
While they’re not in alphabetically order, I grouped related terms together. I wrote it so that you can read straight through it as if it’s a small book. Or you can use the table of contents below to jump around to the definitions you’re interested in. If you click on a link in the table of contents, it will take you to the exact location of the definition. To get back to the table of contents, simply click on the “back” button in your browser.
GENERAL ART TERMS
Plein air is French for “open air” and it refers to painting outside. It’s pronounced “plain air” or “plen air.” I’ve heard artists pronounce it both ways. There are arguments about which way is correct.
Plein air painters generally finish a painting in one session, although some artists will return to the same location repeatedly. This is more common among artists who paint large canvases because it’s difficult to complete a large piece in an afternoon.
Painting outdoors offers many challenges to the artist. There are many frustrations that you have to deal with compared to working indoors. The light is constantly changing. You have to contend with insects, poison ivy, poor weather, and the sun.
There’s a higher level of urgency when painting outdoors. You have to capture the scene before the conditions change too much. This gives plein air paintings a more spontaneous and direct appearance compared to paintings completed from photographs in the studio.
Some artists consider plein air paintings to be studies that they’ll use to make larger works from. Other artists frame them and present them as finished works of art.
Painting outside will definitely attract onlookers if you paint in a public space. Very few people get to see artists at work in their studios so it piques their interest. They’ll often stop by to see what you’re up to and offer a bit of encouragement. This is a nice change to working on a painting by yourself indoors.
Pochade box is pronounced “po shod.” Shod is pronounced the same as it is in the word “slipshod.” It’s a French word that roughly translates to “pocket.” So “pochade box” loosely translates to “pocket box.”
A pochade box is a small wooden box for painting outdoors, it makes the tools of painting more portable. They’re useful for storing and transporting supplies such as brushes and tubes of paint. The lid of the box is opens up to an angle that supports a canvas or wood panel. You can can make your own from an empty cigar box.
Commercial pochade boxes are well thought out and offer more features than the improvised cigar boxes. For example, my favorite pochade box has tripod mount on the bottom so that I can mount it on a tripod. This allows the box to be set up anywhere I want. If the box doesn’t have a tripod mount, you’ll have to use it a table or in your lap.
Pochade boxes often include a wood palette for mixing colors. Stiff oil paints can be left on the palette if you plan on working on another painting within the next few days. Otherwise, you should clean them off the palette before they dry.
Paint that has a thin consistency will run, so you’ll have to clean it off the palette before you pack up.
When shopping for art supplies, you may notice that some products are labeled as being “archival.”
Archival products are expected to last a long time without any noticeable changes in appearance. For example, “archival paper” is typically acid free which means that it shouldn’t yellow or become brittle as it ages.
Archival drawing inks shouldn’t fade or change colors as they age.
Something to keep in mind is that these products are archival when stored under museum conditions. Museums are climate controlled, and the artwork isn’t exposed to direct sunlight. You can still damage archival artwork by displaying them in harsh conditions. Displaying art in a humid environment can lead to mold growth and water damage.
Art materials that have a neutral pH are advertised as being “Acid Free.” Papers that are acidic will turn yellow and become brittle with age. If you want your artwork to last a long time then you should strive to use acid free paper and adhesives in your work.
Many colorants will fade over time. Certain fabrics can fade if they receive enough direct sunlight. It’s the UV light that causes these dyes to fade. Lightfastness is the materials ability to resist fading.
The lightfastness of art supplies is a concern for artists who want their work to last for years. Many art supplies have lightfastness ratings. Artists paints have ratings of excellent, good, and fair. Some pigments aren’t rated so their lightfastness is unknown.
Testing lighfastness involves exposing paint samples to excessive amounts of UV light. This is a way to simulate the amount of UV it would receive over a longer period of time, 100 years for example. The lightfastness rating is usually found on the tube of paint or in the color charts.
Some pigments are more susceptible to fading than others. The ones that fade easily will have a poor rating. See “fugitive pigments” below.
Pigments that fade in time are often referred to as being fugitive. Most professional paint manufacturers avoid pigments that are fugitive.
I’ve noticed that there are some watercolors and gouache that are fugitive. I believe this is because some commercial art only has to last long enough to be photographed and printed. The fact that it may fade in the future may be disappointing, but the illustration serves a purpose.
Tinting strength refers to the extent that a pigment will tint a color mixture. A pigment with a high tinting strength would only require a small amount of paint to alter the color.
An example of a paint that has high tinting strength is Phthalo Blue. A small touch of Phthalo Blue will tint a much larger proportion of Titanium White. Some artists refuse to use Phthalo Blue because it can overpower the other colors in a painting.
Zinc White has a low tinting strength. You have to add more of it to lighten a color than Titanium White, which has a higher tinting strength.
Some manufacturers list the tinting strength on the label or in their color charts. However, most artists develop a feel for how potent a color is through experience. Organic pigments tend to have more tinting strength than inorganic pigments.
Viscosity refers to the consistency of the paint. Heavy body acrylic paint has a high viscosity. It has a thick, frosting like consistency similar to oil paint.
Low viscosity paint has a thin consistency. Golden High Flow acrylics is a low viscosity acrylic that has a consistency similar to ink.
You can change the viscosity of paint by adding various mediums or additives to it. For example, you can add water to thin acrylic paint. Acrylic gels have a high viscosity so you can add it to acrylic paint to thicken it. In fact, there are gels available that are thicker than the standard heavy body acrylics.
The technique that you’re using often dictates the viscosity of the paint that you should use. Since low viscosity acrylics have an ink like consistency, they’re suitable for achieving watercolor effects with acrylics.
On the other hand, if you’re trying to achieve very thick texture in your paintings it’s best to use a paint with high viscosity so that the paint can be built up on the canvas. High viscosity paint will retain the marks that are made by the bristles of the brush. Palette knife paintings that have thick frosting like textures also require a thick, high viscosity paint.
Oil paint tends to only be available as thick paint in tubes. Oil painters use mediums and solvents to adjust the viscosity of the paint to their liking.
Organic vs Inorganic Pigments
Pigments fall into one of two categories: organic or inorganic.
Inorganic pigments are the traditional pigments that artists have been using since the beginning of art history. These pigments are naturally occurring and are mined from the Earth. They’re opaque so they have good covering power. Some examples of inorganic pigments are Burnt Umber, Raw Sienna, Cadmium Red Medium, and Titanium White.
Organic pigments are manufactured through chemistry. These pigments are typically transparent, and are more saturated than the natural inorganic pigments. Hansa Yellow Medium, Phthalo Blue, Phthalo Green, and Quinacridone Magenta are examples of organic pigments.
In watercolor painting, organic pigments are known as staining pigments because they stain the paper. When you try to lift them they leave a little bit of color on the paper. They also tend to have more tinting strength than inorganic pigments.
You can think of binder as the glue that makes the pigment stick to the canvas. It holds the tiny particles of pigment together and creates a solid paint film as it dries. A good analogy is the binder is similar to the cement that holds the gravel together in concrete.
It’s generally the binder that gives paint certain characteristics. Linseed oil is the binder in oil paints. Oil paints dry slowly because linseed oil dries slowly. Acrylic paint is flexible because the acrylic plastic is flexible.
Acrylics use a liquid acrylic emulsion as the binder. The picture at the left is a small puddle of acrylic gloss medium, which is essentially acrylic paint without the pigment. Acrylic medium has a cloudy appearance when wet but it dries crystal clear. This is the reason why acrylic paint dries darker.
Gum arabic is the medium found in watercolors.
There are two meanings to the word “medium.”
The first meaning is a reference to the different types of paint that are available for artists to paint with. For example, I might say that “Acrylics are my favorite painting medium.” Other examples of painting mediums are watercolor, gouache, oils, and casein.
The second definition of medium is more specific. A medium is a substance that you can use to alter the properties of the paint. For example, acrylic gel is a medium that you can add to acrylics to make them thicker and more transparent. Acrylic mediums contain binder so that you can use as much of it without affecting the strength of the paint film.
You can add oil painting mediums to make oil paint dry faster, thin it out, or change the surface sheen.
A painting support is the substrate that you paint on. Examples of supports include paper, canvas, fabric, metal, and wood panels.
Artists use different supports for the advantages they offer. Canvas has a nice texture that readily accepts paint. You can accentuate the texture of the canvas by using techniques such as dry brushing. Wood panels are smoother and allow for more detail.
Wood panels don’t flex or stretch like canvas so the paint is less likely to crack when you use a wood support.
A ground can also help the paint adhere better to the support. Oil painting requires a ground to protect the canvas from the linseed oil in the paint. Acrylics can be painted directly onto the canvas, although there are some advantages to using gesso as a ground.
The ground is the primer that’s applied to a painting support. Gesso is the most common ground that artists use to prepare canvas and wood panels.
In the past, rabbit skin glue was used to prepare canvases. Some artists still use it but most artists use gesso. As the name implies, rabbit skin is made from the collagen from the hides of rabbits. An alternative would be to use acrylic matte medium which dries to a transparent and matte surface similar to rabbit skin glue.
There are oil painting grounds available which are made from linseed oil and marble dust. However, you still need to coat the canvas with rabbit skin glue or an acrylic medium to protect the canvas from the linseed oil. You also shouldn’t paint with acrylics over oil painting grounds. In general, painting with acrylics over oils is not a sound practice.
Grounds can be tinted with a color. The bright white canvas can make it difficult to judge colors against, so artists often tint the gesso with a color. I sometimes like to work on a neutral gray ground. If you’re using acrylic gesso, I’ve found that fluid acrylics mix more readily into the gesso than the thicker heavy body acrylics.
You can paint acrylics directly onto canvas without first applying a ground.
Gesso is a ground that you can use to prime a support such as canvas or paper. Modern gesso is a combination of acrylic emulsion and marble dust. It creates a matte and absorbent surface that’s suitable for drawing and painting.
Priming a canvas with gesso is necessary with oil painting. The gesso will help protect the canvas from the linseed oil, which will eventually break down the fibers of the canvas. Applying a few coats of gesso will also make the canvas a little sturdier than raw canvas.
Acrylics don’t require gesso, but many artists use it because it offers many advantages.
Hue is another word for color. It’s more of a general term for a family of colors. For example, Cadmium Red and Napthol Red Light are Red hues.
Another use of the word “hue” in painting is in the names of colors. When you see the word “hue” in the name of a color on a tube of paint, it means that it uses a substitute pigment. It may be a mix of multiple pigments that approximate the original color.
For example, Liquitex “Cadmium Orange Hue” is made from Perinone Orange, Titanium Dioxide, and Diarylide Yellow. There’s no cadmium in it at all. Manufacturers make hue colors for a variety of reasons.
Sometimes the original color is fugitive, which means it will fade. Manufacturers then look to make a close approximation of the original color that’s more permanent. “Alizerin Crimson Hue” is an example of such a pigment.
Some pigments are expensive and hue colors offer artists an affordable alternative.
Hue colors are often replacements for pigments that are toxic. The cadmium pigments are toxic so you’ll see alternative hue colors such as “Cadmium Red Light Hue.”
Artists often avoid hue colors thinking they’re inferior but that’s not always the case. It’s true that a hue color may have different characteristics than the original pigment. Cadmium Orange Hue is a good example, the hue color might not be as opaque as the original Cadmium version.
However, Liquitex recently introduced Cadmium Free versions of all of their Cadmium colors. They behave exactly like the originals. This is a good example of an alternative pigment that’s just as good as the original. Whether or not these colors are made from multiple pigments is unknown because they don’t disclose which pigments they contain.
Saturation / Chroma
Saturation and chroma both refer to the intensity of a color. A bright red fire truck has high saturation. Light pink cotton candy has low saturation.
Many beginners increase the saturation of every color they use in a painting. This is often a mistake because if all of the colors have a high saturation then it may become distraction. A painting with high saturation can work, it just requires some discernment.
If you observe your surroundings, you’ll notice that most of the objects in the natural world aren’t highly saturated. There are many neutral colors found in nature. Being able to accurately mix neutral colors will make your paintings look more realistic and natural. What appears to be a gray to a beginner may actually contain subtle colors.
You’ll often hear artists referring to the value of a color. Value is the lightness or darkness of a color.
A black and white photograph doesn’t capture color. What the black and white photograph captures is the value. If you take a black and white photo of an red apple, the apple would turn out as a dark gray. A banana would turn out as light gray because yellow has a light value.
Value is independent of the color. Two different colors can have the same value. Some of the objects in a black and white photograph may be the same shade of gray even though they’re two different colors. This is the challenge of black and white photography. It’s often the contrasting colors in the subject that captures our attention but none of this shows up in the photograph.
Artists often stress the importance of value in painting because it plays the most important role in regards to defining the shapes in a painting. It’s the way the shapes vary in value that creates contrast and makes them stand out. If all of the colors in a painting had the same value, it would look dull and flat. The shapes would be difficult to distinguish from each other.
Being able to perceive the value of a color can be difficult. Some artists use a black and white value scale to judge the value of a color.
A value study is a black and white or monochromatic sketch usually done in preparation for completing a larger painting. Value is often as important in painting as color.
You can sometimes improve a painting by altering the values in a painting to make parts of it stand out more. Value studies allow you to explore what your options are.
Although the subject may contain numerous values, a value study is often done with just a few tones. Some of my value studies are in black and two shades of gray. The white of the paper is another value.
Working through a few value studies can help you to determine if a subject is worth painting. If the image works in a value study, it’s more likely to be successful as a painting.
A Notan is a black and white design that captures the essence of an object. By reducing the subject into pure black and white shapes, it creates an abstract design.
Simplifying complex shapes is a skill that will help you with your painting. It can help you to determine what the essential shapes of the painting are. For example, it’s more effective to group trees into one large shape rather than painting every single leaf or branch.
In the sketch above, there were details in the black fabric that makes up the background. In this Notan sketch, it’s a solid mass of black.