The Top 90 Art Terms in Plain English

In Acrylic Painting, Color, Framing, Gouache, Photography, Watercolor by Chris BreierLeave a Comment

Primary Colors

The red, yellow, and blue primary colors. Cadmium Yellow Light, Pyrrole Red, and Ultramarine Blue.

Primary colors are the base colors that you can mix all other colors from. Traditionally, the primary colors that are Red, Yellow, and Blue. However, the true primary colors are Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow. Most printing processes use these colors as the primary colors. The range of colors that can be mixed from the primary colors depends upon which pigments you use.

The Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow primaries.

Secondary Colors

Mixing two primary colors will create a secondary color. If you mix Cadmium Yellow and Phthalo Blue it will make Green. Yellow and red makes orange.

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors are the result of mixing a primary color with a secondary color. Mixing Yellow and Green will result in a Yellow-Green. This is more obvious on a color wheel .

Complimentary Colors

Colors that are the opposites of each other are complementary colors. In the RGB color model that computers use, you can use math to calculate complimentary colors. If you create a gradient with them, the two complementary colors will create a neutral gray in the middle of the gradient.

The colors that are found opposite of each on the color wheel are also complementary colors. But this is more theory than it is practical. The accuracy is not as precise as calculating complimentary colors with a computer. The general idea of complementary colors is to split colors up into warm and cool colors.

Mixing Complements

Two colors that create a neutral Gray when mixed are mixing complements. Examples of mixing complements are below. I use the mixing complements to mix the black swatch at the left. Then I dilute the black with water to make a transparent wash which is the swatch in the middle. For the third swatch, I add white to the black to create gray. The original colors are at the top right of each swatch, with their names listed in pencil. In another post, I demonstrate 11 ways to mix black paint.

Phthalo Blue and Van Dyke Red.
Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber.
Light Green Permanent and Dioxazine Purple.

Pigments behave differently than light, so these complements aren’t the same as the complementary colors that created from light as in the RGB color model.

Warm and Cool Colors

Contrasting warm colors with cool colors is a strategy that many painters often employ in their work. Warm colors are typically Yellows, Oranges, and Reds. Cool colors are Blues, Greens, and Purples.

This is similar to the concept of complimentary colors except it’s much more general, the colors don’t have to be exact complements.

“Warm” and “cool” are subjective terms. Some colors can be warm or cool depending upon the colors that surround them. For example, a Yellow-Green may look warm in comparison to dark Blue-Greens.

Mahlstick

I’m resting my hand on the bottom part of a T-square. I removed the top part of the T-square so it’s more like a yardstick.

A mahlstick is a stick that an artist uses to steady their hand without having to rest it on wet paint.

Traditionally, mahlsticks are made from wood dowels. The end of it has a leather padded ball that rests on the canvas. However, you can use improvise a mahlstick on your own as shown above.

I often use a yardstick to steady my hand while painting. The end of the stick doesn’t have to rest on the painting, you can rest the end of it on part of the easel.

Ferrule

The tubular metal part of a paint brush, just above the bristles, is the ferrule. It’s crimped around the bristles which keeps them attached to the handle. There’s also adhesive inside of the ferrule. 

It’s best not to store wet paint brushes in a jar with the bristles facing up because it will cause water to collect in the ferrule. I have many other tips on how to take care of paintbrushes.

Gouache

This is a gouache study from my sketchbook.

Gouache is pronounced “gwash.” Gouache behaves similar to watercolor except it’s opaque. Watercolor is difficult because it’s transparent and that makes it almost impossible to cover over mistakes.

Since gouache is opaque you can cover over previous layers of paint. However, gouache remains water soluble after it dries, so you may end up lifting some of the previous layers of paint as you brush over it.

You can use gouache in thin washes of color in a manner similar to watercolor. Even though it’s mostly opaque, thin washes of it will be semi transparent.

Acrylic Gouache

This painting is Liquitex Acrylic gouache on canvas.

Acrylic gouache is acrylic paint that has an appearance similar to regular gouache. The difference is that the acrylic gouache isn’t water soluble when it dries. This is an advantage if you like to work in layers and don’t want to disturb the previous layers.

It’s usually thinner in consistency than heavy body acrylics and it has a very matte finish. There are a few varieties of acrylic gouache on the market. I wrote an entire review of Liquitex acrylic gouache which includes a video.

Impasto

“Two Apples and a Pear” 5″x7″ Acrylic on gessobord. See the closeup below for a better view of the impasto.

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the word “Impasto” is an Italian word that means “paste.”

In painting, impasto is a technique of applying paint in a thick manner. Palette knives work well with this technique. Although, brushes and other tools work well too.

You can apply impasto over the entire surface of the painting. Another option is to paint thinly and then add thick areas of paint to the focal point to draw more attention to it.

There are some issues you have to consider when painting in very thick layers. Thick oil paint can take a long time to dry. If you paint with oils, you may want to use an impasto medium to avoid other problems such as having the paint wrinkle as it dries.

You can add acrylic gels and mediums to acrylic paint to make it thicker.

This is a close up of thick layers of paint in the painting of apples from above.

Glazing

The yellow stripe is Cadmium Yellow Medium. After it dried, I glazed over it with colors that are diluted with acrylic gloss medium. From left to right the colors are: Prism Violet, Napthol Red Light, Phthalo Blue, and Quinacridone Magenta.

Glazing is a technique where you paint a transparent layer over an existing dry layer of paint. It will allow you to alter the color of the painting without covering over the existing image. In other words, you can glaze over a painting to tint it with another color.

Transparent pigments work very well with glazing techniques. Most of the organic pigments are transparent. Phthalo Blue, Quinacridone Magenta, and Hansa Yellow Medium are examples of organic pigments.

Acrylics are suitable for glazing techniques because they dry quickly. You can apply many transparent glazes of color in one painting session. If you’re working with oils, then you will have to wait for the painting to dry before you can glaze over it. Otherwise, you may lift or smear the previous layers.

Glazing can add another level of sophistication to your paintings because you can build up layers of transparent colors. It has a different look than when you strictly paint with opaque paint. When you paint with opaque paint, each brushstroke covers up the previous brushstrokes.

Alla Prima

This is a plein air painting that I tried to complete in one session. I got most of it done onsite, but I did touch it up in the studio.

“Alla Prima” is an Italian phrase which means “at once” or “first attempt.”

Traditionally, oil paintings may take weeks to complete because the first layer would have to dry before adding additional layers. “Alla Prima” is an oil painting technique where the painting is completed in one session. It takes quite a bit of skill to master because oil paints dry slowly, so you’re always working into wet paint.

You can apply the idea of completing a painting in one session to other mediums.

Dry Brushing

Dry brushing has a “broken” appearance that highlights the texture of the canvas or paper.

There are many different ways to apply paint to a canvas. Dry brushing is when you use a brush with very little paint on it and drag it across the canvas.

Dry brushing on canvas highlights the texture of the canvas. You can use it to quickly imply different textures such as foliage or rough surfaces such as roads and gravel. This technique works with a variety of painting mediums such as oils, acrylics, watercolor, and gouache.

Any surface that has texture will work well with dry brushing. It does work on smooth paper or canvas but it doesn’t have as much texture. The brushstrokes have a broken appearance instead of highlighting the texture of the support.

Painterly

“Early Spring” Acrylic on gessobord. 8″x10″

A “painterly” painting allows the brushstrokes to show through in the final painting. The emphasis is on the brushwork, texture, and color. There’s less blending and you can even exaggerate the brushstrokes for effect.

Many of the paintings from the Impressionists have a painterly quality to them. Paintings by Monet and Van Gogh have thick textures and the brushstrokes are very obvious.

This is in stark contrast to other styles of painting that work to hide the brushstrokes. The Photorealism movement of the 1970’s aren’t painterly, they worked to eliminate any evidence of the brushstrokes. The paint also has a flat, smooth texture.

Nocturne

“Main Street at Night” Acrylic on gessobord. 8″ x 10″

A nocturne is a painting of a scene at night. Painting at night is obviously more difficult than painting during the day. Although working from a photograph allows you to work in your studio instead of working outdoors in the dark.

The range of colors in a nocturne are typically limited, and the values are predominately dark.

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