Glossary of Art Terms

A

Abolitionist

A person who favored, and often fought for, the end of slavery.

Abstract Expressionism

An artistic movement made up of American artists in the 1940s and 1950s, also known as the New York School, or more narrowly, action painting. Abstract Expressionism is usually characterized by large abstract painted canvases, although the movement also includes sculpture and other media.

Action painting

A term coined by art critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952 to describe the work of artists who painted with gestures that involved more than just the traditional use of the fingers and wrist to paint, including also the arm, shoulder, and even legs. In many of these paintings the movement that went into their making remains visible.

Aesthetic

Relating to or characterized by a concern with beauty or good taste (adjective); a particular taste or approach to the visual qualities of an object (noun).

Allover painting

A canvas covered in paint from edge to edge and from corner to corner, in which each area of the composition is given equal attention and significance.

Alter ego

Another side of oneself, a second self or identity.

Aluminum

Aluminum is a relatively soft, durable, lightweight, ductile, and malleable metal with appearance ranging from silvery to dull gray. It is nonmagnetic and does not easily ignite. It is the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust.

Angular

An object, outline, or shape having sharp corners, or angles.

Art Nouveau

Decorative style of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that flourished principally in Europe and the U.S. Although it influenced painting and sculpture, its chief manifestations were in architecture and the decorative and graphic arts. It is characterized by sinuous, asymmetrical lines based on organic forms.

Arts and Crafts

Informal movement in architecture and the decorative arts that championed the unity of the arts, the experience of the individual craftsperson, and the qualities of materials and construction in the work itself.

Assemblage

A three-dimensional composition made from a variety of traditionally non-artistic materials and objects.

Atelier Populaire

French for “popular workshop,” the renegade print workshop established at Paris's École des Beaux-Arts during nationwide protests in France in May 1968. The workshop created new images daily to respond to events.

Automatism

The process of writing or creating art without conscious thought. The term was borrowed from physiology, which uses the term to denote involuntary processes that are not under conscious control, such as breathing. The Surrealists later applied to techniques of spontaneous writing, drawing, and painting.

Avant-garde

French for “advanced guard,” this term is used in English to describe a group that is innovative, experimental, and inventive in its technique or ideology, particularly in the realms of culture, politics, and the arts.

B

Ball Bearing

A type of bearing designed to reduce friction, a force that resists motion between moving parts.

Batik

A wax-resist dyeing technique that is often used to make highly patterned cloth.

Bauhaus

A German school of art, design, and architecture, founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius. The school’s curriculum aimed to re-establish the bond between artistic creativity and manufacturing that had been broken by the Industrial Revolution.

Belle Époque

French for “beautiful era,” a term that describes the period in French history beginning in 1890 and ending at the start of World War I in1914, which was characterized by optimism, relative peace across Europe, and new discoveries in technology and science.

Ben-Day dots

Colored dots (generally in four colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) used to create shading and secondary colors in the mechanical reproduction of images.

Binder

A component of paint that creates uniform consistency or cohesion.

Biomorphic

Derived from the Greek words bios (life) and morphe (form), a term referring to abstract forms or images that evoke associations with living forms such as plants and the human body.

Body language

The gestures, facial expression, and postures that convey a person's physical, mental, or emotional state.

Bourgeois

A person whose political, economic, and social values are believed to be determined mainly by concern for material wealth and conventional respectability (noun). Characteristic of those persons (adjective; often used synonymously with "middle-class").

Brushwork

The manner in which a painter applies paint with a brush.

Built Environment

Human-made surroundings that provide the setting for human activity.

C

Calligraphy

Decorative handwriting or lettering.

Caricature

A rendering, usually a drawing, of a person or thing with exaggerated or distorted features, meant to satirize the subject.

Cartes-de-visite

Small handheld photographic cards, first popularized in the 1850s. Inexpensive and mass-produced, these cards depicted individual or celebrity portraits, and were popularly traded or collected in albums.

Cartography

The study and practice of making maps.

Catholicism

The faith, doctrine, system, and practice of a Catholic church, especially the Roman Catholic Church.

Ceramics

Objects, such as pots and vases, made of clay hardened by heat.

Chine collé

A printmaking technique that transfers an image to a lightweight paper that is bonded to a heavier surface.

Chromogenic color print

Photographs made from a positive color transparency or a negative. The color is achieved in the print by the layering of silver salts sensitized to the three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. After each emulsified layer has been exposed, colors emerge in a chemical development process.

City planner

An individual who helps guide and shape the future development of a community. A city planner considers environmental and social issues, and what kinds of resources are needed to improve the quality of life for the community residents, particularly in terms of what types of new building projects may be necessary.

Cityscape

An image with urban scenery as its primary focus; an urban environment.

Civil Rights Movement

A mass movement in America, lasting from the early 1950s to the late 1960s, through which African Americans used nonviolent protest and legal action to secure social equality and educational and voting rights.

Cladding

A metal covering that sheathes a metal structure.

Classical

Relating to ancient Greece and Rome, especially in the context of art, architecture, and literature.

Classicism

The principles embodied in the styles, theories, or philosophies of the art of ancient Greece and Rome.

Cold War

The period of protracted conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union and their allies that lasted from the late 1940s through the 1980s.

Color Field paintings

Paintings of large areas of color, typically with no strong contrasts of tone or obvious focus of attention.

Column

A decorative or structural feature, most often composed of stone, typically having a cylindrical or polygonal shaft.

Combine

The technique of affixing cast-off items to a traditional support, like a canvas.

Communist party

A political party advocating communist principles and ideologies, as developed by such political figures as Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.

Complementary colors

Colors located opposite one another on the color wheel. When mixed together, complementary colors produce a shade of gray or brown. When one stares at a color for a sustained period of time then looks at a white surface, an afterimage of the complementary color will appear.

Compression

The state of being pressed down under a weight or squeezed together.

Concentric

Two or more things having a common center.

Concept

A scheme; a plan. An idea.

Conceptual

Emphasizing ideas rather than objects.

Conceptual art

Art that emerged in the late 1960s, emphasizing ideas and theoretical practices rather than the creation of visual forms. In 1967, the artist Sol LeWitt gave the new genre its name in his essay “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” in which he wrote, “The idea itself, even if not made visual, is as much a work of art as any finished product.”

Conscious

In psychoanalysis, waking awareness; the activity of the mind directly perceptible to and under the control of a person.

Constraint

Something that restricts, limits, or regulates.

Constructivism

Developed by the Russian avant-garde at the time of the October Revolution of 1917, the goal of this idealistic movement was to make art universally understandable and essential to everyday life.

Consumer

A person who acquires goods or services for direct use or ownership.

Consumerism

A preoccupation with and an inclination toward the buying of manufactured goods.

Content

The subject matter or significance of a work of art, especially as contrasted with its form.

Contour

The outline of something.

Contrast (photography)

In photography, the range of light to dark areas in the composition. An image with high contrast will have a greater variability in tonality while a photograph with low contrast will have a more similar range of tones.

Cor-Ten steel

A steel alloy that develops a rust-like appearance when exposed to weather for several years, eliminating the need for repainting. Because of this quality, it is also called weathering steel.

Cropping

In photography, editing, typically by removing the outer edges of the image. This process may happen in the darkroom or on a computer.

Cubic

Having the shape of a cube.

Cubism

An artistic movement begun in 1907, when artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque together developed a visual language whose geometric planes and compressed space challenged the conventions of representation in painting. Traditional subjects—nudes, landscapes, and still lifes—were reinvented as increasingly fragmented compositions. Its influence extended to an international network of artists working in Paris in those years and beyond.

Cultural icon

A person, symbol, object, or place that is widely recognized or culturally significant to a large group of people.

Culture

The customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.

Curator

A person whose job it is to research and manage a collection and organize exhibitions.

D

Daguerreotype

A photographic technique invented by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in 1839. A daguerreotype uses a silver or silver-coated-copper plate to develop an image in a camera obscura. The image is formed when the light-sensitive plate is exposed to light through a camera lens. A daguerreotype was a unique, direct positive image that could not produce copies.

De Stijl (The Style)

Meaning “the style” in Dutch, a term describing a group of artists and architects whose style is characterized by the use of primary colors, rectangular shapes, and asymmetrical compositions. The movement was a direct response to the chaotic and destructive events of World War I, and its members believed that developing a new artistic style represented a means of rebuilding and creating a harmonic order.

Decorative Arts

A term used to describe the design and aesthetics of functional objects with an emphasis on unique and hand-crafted forms often available in limited quantity.

Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider)

Artist group active in Munich, Germany, from 1911 to 1914, and closely associated with the development of Expressionism. The group’s aim was to express their own inner desires in a variety of forms, rather than to strive for a unified style or theme.

Design brief

A written record describing the elements and scope of a design project.

Designer

A person who conceives and gives form to objects used in everyday life.

Die Brücke (the Bridge)

Artist group active in Dresden, Germany, from 1905 to 1913, and closely associated with the development of Expressionism. The group is associated with an interest in the distortion of reality and expressive use of color to respond to the turmoil of modern urban society.

Diptych

A work of art made up of two parts, usually hinged together.

Direct positive

A photographic term referring to a positive image made directly by exposure to light and by development without the use of a negative. In a direct positive print an image is produced on a surface and then treated chemically to imitate the tonal range of nature.

Documentary photography

A genre of photography that aims to objectively chronicle a subject or event.

Dome

In architecture, a hemispherical roof or ceiling.

Draftsman

A person who draws plans or designs, often of structures to be built.

Drawing

A work of art made with a pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements, often consisting of lines and marks (noun); the act of producing a picture with pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements (verb, gerund).

Drypoint

A type of intaglio printmaking process that involves using an abrasive or sharp-pointed tool to scratch lines into the surface of a metal plate. The term may also refer to the process or to the tool used.

Ductile

The ability to alter a material’s shape under tensile stress, such as stretching or pulling.

E

Earthwork

Artistic manipulation of the natural landscape, typically though not exclusively enacted on a large scale.

École des Beaux-Arts

French for “school of fine art,” a term for art schools that advance a classical approach to art, design, and literature based on ancient Greek or Roman forms.

Elevation

A scale drawing of the side, front, or back of a structure.

Embroidery

The craft of decorating fabric or other materials with thread or yarn using a needle.

Emulsion

A combination of two or more liquids that do not blend easily on their own, such as oil and water. For example, painters can use egg yolk to emulsify oil paint and water.


Enamel

A type of paint made from very fine pigments and resin that form a glossy surface. Also, the application of this paint to a material in order to create a smooth and glossy surface.


Enlargement

A photographic print that is bigger than the original negative. Because enlargements can be made, cameras can remain small and portable yet photographers can still produce big photographic prints. Before the development of enlargement techniques, the size of a photograph was determined by the size of its negative.

Ephemera

Transitory written and printed matter (receipts, notes, tickets, clippings, etc.) not originally intended to be kept or preserved.

Etching

A type of print made by scratching marks onto the surface of a metal plate (usually copper, zinc, or steel) that has been treated with an acid-resistant waxy ground. When the plate is placed into a vat of acid, the acid bites through the exposed portions of the plate. The plate is inked, and an image is created by running the plate and paper through a printing press.

Ethnicity

The shared cultural identity of persons from a particular national, linguistic, or geographical group.

Ethnography

The branch of anthropology that scientifically describes specific human cultures and societies.

Existentialism

A philosophical attitude emerging from the early 20th century, associated especially with Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, which stresses the free will of the individual in determining his or her relationship to the external word.

Expressionism

An international artistic movement in art, architecture, literature, and performance that flourished between 1905 and 1920, especially in Germany and Austria, that favored the expression of subjective emotions and experience over depictions of objective reality. Conventions of Expressionist style include distortion, exaggeration, fantasy, and vivid, jarring, violent, or dynamic application of color.

Exquisite Corpse

A game in which each participant takes turns writing or drawing on a sheet of paper, folds it to conceal his or her contribution, then passes it to the next player for a further contribution. The game gained popularity in artistic circles during the 1920s, when it was adopted as a technique by artists of the Surrealist movement.

F

Facade

Any public-facing side of a building, often featuring decorative finishes.

Fantastic

Based on or existing only in fantasy; unreal; strange or fanciful in form, conception, or appearance.

Fauves

French for “wild beasts,” the term was coined in 1905 by art critic Louis Vauxcelles to describe paintings by artists like Henri Matisse and André Derain, which were characterized by a tendency toward vibrant color and bold brushstrokes over realistic or representational qualities.

Fauvism

The style of painting practiced by les Fauves (French for “wild beasts”) in the early 20th century, associated especially with Henri Matisse and André Derain, whose works emphasized strong, vibrant color and bold brushstrokes over realistic or representational qualities

Feminism

The belief in and advocacy for equal legal and social rights and conditions for women.  

Figure

A representation of a human or animal form in a work of art.

Film still

A photograph taken during the production of a film that shows a particular moment or scene. These photographs are often used as advertisements or posters for the film.

Font

A specific size and style of a typeface design (for example, Arial 12pt bold, or Times New Roman 10pt italics). The term is often confused with typeface, which is a particular design of type.

Formal

Relating to the shape or structure of an object.

Found objects

An object—often utilitarian, manufactured, or naturally occurring—that was not originally designed for an artistic purpose, but has been discovered and repurposed in an artistic context.

Framing

The method by which information is included or excluded from a photograph. A photographer frames an image when he or she points a camera at a subject.

Free association

A technique developed by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud to help discover ideas and associations that a patient had developed, initially, at a subconscious level.

Frottage

Technique of reproducing a texture or relief design by laying paper over it and rubbing it with some drawing medium, for example pencil or crayon. Max Ernst and other Surrealist artists incorporated such rubbings into their paintings by means of collage.

Futurism

An Italian movement in art and literature, founded in 1909 by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, characterized by an aesthetic that glorified the mechanical world, war, and dynamic speed.

G

Gelatin silver print

A black-and-white photographic print made by exposing paper, which has been made light-sensitive by a coating of gelatin silver halide emulsion, to artificial or natural light; a photographic process invented by Dr. Richard Leach Maddox in 1871

Gender

The socially constructed identity assigned to a person as a result of their sex.

Genre

A category of artistic practice having a particular form, content, or technique.

Gesture

A category of artistic practice having a particular form, content, or technique.

Globalization

The transformation of a local or regional phenomenon into a global one.

Gouache

An opaque watercolor paint; a painting produced with such paint.

Graphic

A visual representation or design on a surface.

H

Haitian Revolution

A slave revolt in the former French colony of Saint-Domingue, lasting from 1791 to 1804. Led by freed slave Toussaint L’Ouverture, it culminated in the abolishment of slavery there and the founding of the modern-day Republic of Haiti.

Happening

A performance, event, or situation considered as art, especially those initiated by the artists group Fluxus in the early 1960s. Such events are often planned, but involve elements of improvisation, may take place in any location, are multidisciplinary, and frequently involve audience participation.

Hardboard

Stiff board made of compressed and treated wood pulp.

Harlem

A neighborhood in northern Manhattan, New York City. In the 1920s and 1930s, the area was epicenter of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural and intellectual movement in which arts, literature, and music by African-Americans flourished.

Harlem Renaissance

An African American literary, artistic, and intellectual flowering, centered in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem and spanning the 1920s to the mid-1930s. Considered one of the most creative periods in American history, it fostered a new African American cultural identity.

Harlequin

A clown figure, traditionally presented in a mask and multicolored costume.

Hegemony

The political, economical, or ideological dominance of one group or nation over another.

Hieroglyphics

A pictographic communication system, closely associated with the ancient Egyptians, in which many of the symbols are stylized, recognizable pictures of the things and ideas represented.

Hinduism

A major world religion originating in India. Hinduism is characterized by the beliefs in one absolute being, who has multiple manifestations, reincarnation; and karma, or the idea that a person’s actions in this life will decide his or her fate in the next.

Horizon line

A line in works of art that usually shows where land or water converges with the sky.

I

Iberian Peninsula

Landmass in southwestern Europe divided into present-day Spain, Portugal, and Andorra. Its name derives from its ancient inhabitants, whom the Greeks called “Iberians.”

Iconoclasm

The doctrine or practice of attacking settled beliefs or institutions.

Iconography

Subject matter in visual art, often adhering to particular conventions of artistic representation, and imbued with symbolic meanings.

Identity politics

The organizing around shared cultural characteristics such as race, class, and religion.

Image

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

Impasto

An Italian word for “paste” or “mixture”, used to describe a painting technique where paint (usually oil) is thickly laid on a surface, so that the texture of brush- or palette-knife strokes are clearly visible.

Impressionism

A 19th-century art movement, associated especially with French artists, whose works are characterized by relatively small, thin, visible brushstrokes that coalesce to form a single scene and emphasize movement and the changing qualities of light. Anti-academic in its formal aspects, Impressionism also involved the establishment of independent exhibitions outside of the established and official venues of the day.

In situ

In its original position or place.

Inclined plane

A flat slanting surface, connecting a lower level to a higher level. Examples include slides, ramps, and slopes.

Industrial design

A field of design concerned with the aesthetics, form, functionality, and production of manufactured consumer objects.

Industrial Designer

Someone who deals with design problems of manufactured objects.

Industrial Revolution

The development of industry from the late 18th century through the 19th century, made possible by advancements such as machinery, factories, and steam power. The Industrial Revolution marked a major turning point in the development of Western civilization and had profound social and economic consequences.

Institutional critique

An art term describing the systematic inquiry into the practices and ethos surrounding art institutions such as art academies, galleries, and museums, often challenging assumed and historical norms of artistic theory and practice. It often seeks to make visible the historically and socially constructed boundaries between inside and outside and public and private.

Intaglio

A type of print made by first applying a “ground” (an acid-resistant coating) to a metal plate. The artist then uses different types of special tools to remove the ground wherever they desire, and the plate is then submerged in acid. The acid bites into the exposed parts of the plate. Ink is then applied to the plate using a rolled up cloth or roller. The ink stays only on the exposed areas, creating an image. The image is printed onto dampened paper using a printing press.


Intellect

The ability to learn, think, and reason; the capacity for knowledge and understanding.

Interaction Design

The practice of designing digital environments, products, systems, and services for human interaction.

Interior Design

A discipline of design that focuses on the functional and aesthetic aspects of indoor spaces.

International Style

A style of architecture that appeared from 1932 to 1960 and favored boxy structures, lack of decoration, and the use of materials such as steel, concrete, and glass.

Irony

An expression or statement in language or imagery that signifies its own opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.

Islam

A major religion characterized by the belief in one god, Allah, as revealed by the Prophet Muhammad. Although Islam is generally associated with the Middle East and Arab countries, Muslims are found all over the world.

J

Jury

A committee, usually of experts, that judges contestants or applicants in a competition or exhibition.

Juxtaposition

An act of placing things close together or side by side for comparison or contrast.

K

Kinetic sculpture

Sculpture that depends on motion.

Kinetoscope

Motion picture viewer comprising a wooden box with an eye-hole in the top where observers can watch the electrically controlled film.

L

Lacquer

Any of various clear or colored synthetic organic coatings that typically dry to form a film.

Lever

A rigid bar that pivots on a point and is used to lift or move loads. Examples include shovels, nutcrackers, seesaws, and elbows.

Lithography

A printmaking technique based on the repulsion of oil and water, in which an oily substance is applied to a stone or other medium to transfer ink to a paper surface.


M

Magic lantern

Apparatus used to project an image, usually onto a screen. In use from the 17th to the early 20th century, it is a precursor of the modern slide projector. A transparent slide containing the image was placed between a source of illumination and a set of lenses to focus and direct the image.

Malleable

The ability to alter a material’s shape under compressive stress, such as hammering or rolling.

Mandala

A sacred Hindu and Buddhist art form, generally circular, that symbolizes the universe.

Manifesto

A public declaration, often political in nature, of a group or individual’s principles, beliefs, and intended courses of action.

Mass Production

The production of large amounts of standardized products through the use of machine-assembly production methods and equipment.

McCarthyism

Joseph McCarthy was a Senator from Wisconsin from 1947 to 1957. McCarthyism is a term used to describe the tactics employed by him during the early years of the Cold War. McCarthy was known for aggressively pursuing those whom he believed were Communists or spies for the Soviet Union. His methods included baseless accusations and attacks on a person's character or patriotism.

Medium

The materials used to create a work of art, and the categorization of art based on the materials used (for example, painting [or more specifically, watercolor], drawing, sculpture).

Metaphysical

Transcending physical matter or the laws of nature. Metaphysics refers to the branch of philosophy that studies that fundamental nature of being and knowing.

Mexican Muralist movement

This art movement began in Mexico in the early 1920s when, in an effort to increase literacy, Education Minister José Vasconcelos commissioned artists to create monumental didactic murals depicting Mexico's history on the walls of government buildings. Artists of the Mexican Muralist movement include José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Middle ground

The part of the picture that is between the foreground and background.

Migrant

A person who moves from one location to another, frequently in search of improved employment opportunities or a better life.

Migration

The movement from one part of the world to another. Emigration is the act of leaving a place, while immigration is the act of moving to a new country.

Minimalism

An artistic movement of the 1960s in which artists produced pared-down three-dimensional objects devoid of representational content. Their new vocabulary of simplified, geometric forms made from humble industrial materials challenged traditional notions of craftsmanship, the illusion of spatial depth in painting, and the idea that a work of art must be one of a kind.

Minotaur

A monster in classical Greek mythology that is half man and half bull.

Model

A detailed three-dimensional representation, usually built to scale, of another, often larger, object. In architecture, a three-dimensional representation of a concept or design for a building.

Monochrome

Having a single color. A work of art rendered in only one color.

Multiple

A term for small-scale, three-dimensional works conceived by artists, and often produced commercially, in relatively large editions.

Mural

A large painting applied to a wall or ceiling, especially in a public space.

Muse

The guiding spirit that is thought to inspire artists; source of genius or inspiration (noun).

N

Nastaliq

A traditional form of calligraphy used mostly for Persian, Urdu, and Malay manuscripts.

Naturalism

Faithful adherence to nature; factual or realistic representation.

Negative (photographic)

A previously exposed and developed photographic film or plate showing an image that, in black-and-white photography, has a reversal of tones (for example, white eyes appear black). In color photography, the image is in complementary colors to the subject (for example, a blue sky appears yellow). The transfer of a negative image to another surface results in a positive image.

Neo-Impressionism

A term applied to an avant-garde art movement that flourished principally in France from 1886 to 1906. Led by the example of Georges Seurat, the Neo-Impressionists renounced the spontaneity of Impressionism in favor of a measured painting technique grounded in science and the study of optics. Neo-Impressionists came to believe that separate touches of interwoven pigment result in a greater vibrancy of color than is achieved by the conventional mixing of pigments on the palette.

Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity)

A representative style of art that was developed in the 1920s in Germany by artists including Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and George Grosz. Artworks in this style were often satirical in nature, sending a critical eye upon contemporary taste and the postwar society of Germany. In both content and style, artists of this movement directly challenged and broke away from the traditions of the art academies they had attended.

Nomadism

The way of life of people who have no permanent home but move from one location to another, often following the seasons, trade routes, or food supplies.

O

Obelisk

A tall, four-sided monument that tapers into a pyramid-like form.

Oceania

A term referring to the islands of the southern, western, and central Pacific Ocean, including Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. The term is sometimes extended to encompass Australia, New Zealand, and the Malay Archipelago.

Oil Paint

A paint in which pigment is suspended in oil, which dries on exposure to air.

Opaque

Impenetrable to the passage of light.

Open source

In computer software, open source refers to source code that is freely available and may be modified. Open-source software is often developed publicly and collaboratively.

Organic

Having characteristics of a biological entity, or organism, or developing in the manner of a living thing.

Ornamentation

Accessories, decoration, adornment, or details that have been applied to an object or structure to beautify its appearance.

P

Painter

One who applies paint to canvas, wood, paper, or another support to produce a picture.

Painting

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

Palette

1. The range of colors used by an artist in making a work of art; 2. A thin wooden or plastic board on which an artist holds and mixes paint.

Palette knife

A flexible, thin blade with a handle, typically used for mixing paint colors or applying them to a canvas.


Panel

A flat board, sometimes made of wood.

Papier-collé

French for “glued paper,” a collage technique using cut-and-pasted papers.

Papier-mâché

French for “chewed-up paper,” a technique for creating three-dimensional objects, such as sculpture, from pulped or pasted paper and binders such as glue or plaster.

Paranoiac critical method

Emerging from psychological methods, a creative process, developed by Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí in the 1930s, for the exploration of the creative potential of dream imagery and subconscious thoughts.

Pastel

A soft and delicate shade of a color.

Perspective

In art, a technique used to depict volumes and spatial relationships on a flat surface, as in a painted scene that appears to extend into the distance.

Photocollage (also see Photomontage)

A collage work that includes cut- or torn-and-pasted photographs or photographic reproductions.

Photogram

A photographic print made by placing objects and other elements on photosensitive paper and exposing it to light.

Photogravure

A printmaking process in which a photographic negative is transferred onto a copper plate.

Photomontage (also see Photocollage)

A collage work that includes cut- or torn-and-pasted photographs or photographic reproductions.

Photostat

A machine that makes quick duplicate positive or negative copies directly on the surface of prepared paper. Also, the resulting copies.

Pictograph

An image or symbol representing a word or a phrase.

Pictorialism

An international style of photography in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, characterized by the creation of artistic tableaus and photographs composed of multiple prints or manipulated negatives, in an effort to advocate for photography as an artistic medium on par with painting.

Pigment

A substance, usually finely powdered, that produces the color of any medium. When mixed with oil, water, or another fluid, it becomes paint.

Plan

A scale drawing or diagram showing the structure or organization of an object or group of objects.

Plane

A flat or level surface.

Plastic

A term applied to many natural and synthetic materials with different forms, properties, and appearances that can be molded.

Plastic Art

A term broadly applied to all the visual arts to distinguish them from such non-visual arts as literature, poetry, or music.

Plasticizer

Any of a group of substances that are used in the manufacture of plastics or other materials to impart flexibility, softness, hardness, or other desired physical properties to the finished product.

Plate

In printmaking, the flat surface onto which the design is etched, engraved, or otherwise applied.

Pliable

Capable of being shaped, bent, or stretched out.

Plywood

A material made of thin layers of wood that have been heated, glued, and pressed together by a machine.

Pointillism

A technique of painting developed by French painters Georges-Pierre Seurat and Paul Signac, in which small, distinct points of unmixed color are applied in patterns to form an image.

Polyethylene

One of the most common forms of plastic known for being tough, light, and flexible. Made of synthetic materials, polyethylene is commonly used in plastic bags, food containers, and other packaging.

Pop art

A movement composed of initially British, then American artists in the 1950s and 1960s, which was characterized by references to imagery and products from popular culture, media, and advertising.

Portrait

A representation of a particular individual.

Positive

In photography, images capable of being produced in multiples that result from the transfer of a negative image to another surface, such as a photographic print on paper.

Post-Impressionism

A term coined in 1910 by the English art critic and painter Roger Fry and applied to the reaction against the naturalistic depiction of light and color in Impressionism, led by Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Georges Seurat. Though each of these artists developed his own, distinctive style, they were unified by their interest in expressing their emotional and psychological responses to the world through bold colors and expressive, often symbolic images. Post-Impressionism can be roughly dated from 1886 to 1905.

Primary color

One of three base colors (blue, red, or yellow) that can be combined to make a range of colors.

Prime

To prepare a surface for painting by covering it with primer, or an undercoat.

Primitive Art

A term initially used to refer to the arts of all of Africa, Asia, and Pre-Columbian America, later used mostly to refer to art from Africa and the Pacific Islands. By the late 20th century the term, with its derogatory connotations, fell out of favor.

Procession

An organized group of people advancing in a formal succession for ceremonial purposes.

Profile

A side view, usually referring to that of a human head.

Propeller

A type of screw that propels an object through air or water when spun by an engine.

Proportion

Refers to the harmonious relation of parts to each other or to the whole.

Prototype

An early sample built to test a concept or process.

Pulley

A simple machine that uses grooved wheels and a rope to raise, lower, or move a load. Examples may be found on a flagpole or crane.

PVC

Polyvinyl chloride, abbreviated PVC, is a common type of plastic often used in clothing, upholstery, electrical cable insulation, and inflatable products.

R

Race

A classification system that organizes humans into large and distinct groupings based on appearance or geographical lineages. The concept of race has been criticized for being a simplistic, socially constructed categorization that has led to racism, or the unequal and unfair treatment of people based on race.

Ratio

The relation between two similar values or objects with respect to the number of times the first contains the second. For example, having twice as much of an item is to have a ratio of two to one, written 2:1 or 2/1.

Rayograph

A term invented by Man Ray to describe what is conventionally known as a photogram, or photographic print made by placing objects and other elements on photosensitive paper and exposing it to light.

Readymade

A term coined by Marcel Duchamp in 1915 to describe prefabricated, often mass-produced objects isolated from their functional context and elevated to the status of art by the mere act of an artist’s selection and designation.

Relics

Body parts or personal belongings of saints and other important figures that are preserved for purposes of commemoration or veneration.

Rendering

A representation, executed in perspective, of a proposed structure.

Rural

An area, generally agricultural, that is not densely populated.

S

Santería

An African-based religion similar to Voodoun (also Voodoo), originating in Cuba, that combines the worship of traditional West African Yoruban deities with the worship of Roman Catholic saints.

Satire

A genre of visual art that uses humor, irony, ridicule, or caricature to expose or criticize someone or something.

Scene

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

School of Paris

A loosely defined affiliation of international artists living and working in Paris from 1900 until about 1940, who applied a diversity of new styles and techniques to such traditional subjects as portraiture, figure studies, landscapes, cityscapes, and still lifes. Among the artistic movements associated with the School of Paris are Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, and Symbolism.

Screenprinting (also Silkscreening)

A printing technique in which areas of a silkscreen, comprised of woven mesh stretched on a frame, are selectively blocked off with a non-permeable material (typically a photo-emulsion, paper, or plastic film) to form a stencil, which is a negative of the image to be printed. Ink is forced through the mesh onto the printing surface with a squeegee, creating a positive image.

Screw

A threaded cylindrical pin or rod with a head at one end, used as a fastener to hold things together or lift materials. Examples include corkscrews, drills, and threaded jar lids.

Sculptor

One who produces a three-dimensional work of art using any of a variety of means, including carving wood, chiseling stone, casting or welding metal, molding clay or wax, or assembling materials.

Sculpture

A three-dimensional work of art made by a variety of means, including carving wood, chiseling stone, casting or welding metal, molding clay or wax, or assembling materials.

Secondary color

A color made by mixing at least two primary colors.

Segregation

The enforced separation of different racial groups in a country, community, or establishment.

Sex

The biological classifications, usually male and female, that are determined by chromosomes, hormonal profiles, and internal and external sexual organs.

Shutter

A mechanical device for controlling the aperture, or opening, in a camera through which light passes to the film or plate. By opening and closing for different amounts of time, the shutter determines the length of the photographic exposure.

Silkscreening (also Screenprinting)

A printing technique in which areas of a silkscreen, comprised of woven mesh stretched on a frame, are selectively blocked off with a non-permeable material (typically a photo-emulsion, paper, or plastic film) to form a stencil, which is a negative of the image to be printed. Ink is forced through the mesh onto the printing surface with a squeegee, creating a positive image.

Site-specific

Describes a work of art designed for a particular location.

Sketch

A rough or unfinished version of any creative work, often made to assist in the completion of a more finished work (noun); to make a rough drawing or painting (verb).

Social construct

A concept or practice that doesn’t exist innately in the world but is instead created by society.

Solvent

A substance capable of dissolving another material. In painting, the solvent is a liquid that thins the paint.

Spring

A flexible mechanical device, such as a coil, that stores and releases potential energy, as in a spring mattress.

Stain

In artistic contexts, paint thinned by a considerable amount of solvent. Stains are absorbed into the canvas, rather than remaining on its surface.


Stencil

An impervious material perforated with letters, shapes, or patterns through which a substance passes through to a surface.

Stereotype

Standardized and oversimplified assumptions about specific social groups.

Still life

A representation of inanimate objects, as a painting of a bowl of fruit.

Street photography

A type of photography that captures subjects in candid moments in public places.

Strobe

Fast bursts of intermittent light used to illuminate moving subjects.

Subject matter

The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.

Sublime

Awe-inspiring or worthy of reverence. In philosophy, literature, and the arts, the sublime refers to a quality of greatness that is beyond all calculation.

Suburban

Relating to or characteristic of an area, usually residential, on the outskirts of a city.

Suprematism

A term coined by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich in 1915 to describe a style of painting that conforms to his assertion that art expressed in the simplest geometric forms and dynamic compositions reigned supreme over earlier forms of representational art.

Surrealism

A literary, intellectual, and artistic movement that began in Paris in 1924 and was active through World War II. Influenced by Sigmund Freud’s writings on psychology, Surrealists, led by André Breton, were interested in how the irrational, unconscious mind could move beyond the constraints of the rational world. Surrealism grew out of dissatisfaction with traditional social values and artistic practices after World War I.

Sustainable

Relating to a system or resource use that maintains its own viability by allowing for continual reuse, rather than depletion.

T

Tactile

Touchable, or sensed by the touch.

Tempera

A type of paint in which pigment is mixed with a water-soluble binder, such as egg yolk.

Tenement

An urban dwelling made up of several apartments, often overcrowded and located in economically depressed sections of a city.

Tension

The state of being stretched or strained; in construction, the level of tautness when a load is applied to a structure.

The Great Migration

A movement in the United States in the early 20th century in which many African Americans relocated from rural areas in the South to northern industrial cities in search of jobs and a better life.

Tint

In painting, a color plus white.


Tone

The lightness or darkness of a color. In painting, a color plus gray.


Translucent

Permitting the passage of light.

Triptych

A work of art consisting of three parts, usually hinged together.

Turpentine burn

A turpentine burn is made by soaking a rag in solvent and scrubbing the canvas directly. This technique removes paint and leaves a stain on the canvas.


Typeface

A particular design of type. Characters in typefaces include letters, numbers, punctuation marks, and symbols. Some of the most common typefaces include Arial, Times New Roman, and Verdana. The term is often confused with font, which is a specific style and size of a typeface.

Typography

The art and technique of designing and/or arranging type letters, numbers, and punctuation marks, and of printing from them.

U

Underground Railroad

A vast network of people who helped fugitive slaves escape from the American South to the North and to Canada, operating from the late eighteenth century to the end of the American Civil War in 1865.

Urban

Relating to or characteristic of a city.

Utopian

Having the characteristics of Utopia, an ideal or visionary system of political or social perfection.

V

Vantage point

A position or place that affords an advantageous perspective; in photography, the position from which a photographer has taken a photograph.

Vernacular photography

Images by amateur photographers of everyday life and subjects, commonly in the form of snapshots. The term is often used to distinguish everyday photography from fine art photography.

Victorian

Of or pertaining to the period of Queen Victoria’s reign in Great Britain (1837–1901); having the characteristics associated with that period, especially the observance of a conservative worldview or prudish thought and manner.

Viewpoint

The position from which something is viewed or observed.

Vignette

A brief, evocative description, account, or scene.

Visa

A document allowing a passport-holder to enter, leave, or stay in a foreign country.

Viscosity

The thickness of a liquid. In painting, the viscosity of oil paints is altered by adding a binder (such as linseed oil) or a solvent (such as turpentine).


Voodoun

A religion of West African origin practiced chiefly in Haiti and other Caribbean countries, based on animism, magic, and elements of Roman Catholic ritual, and characterized by belief in a supreme God and a large pantheon of local and tutelary deities, deified ancestors, and saints, who communicate with believers in dreams, trances, and ritual possessions. Also called Voodoo.

W

Watercolor

A paint composed of pigment mixed into water; a work of art made with this paint.

Wax-print cotton

Cotton fabric printed on both sides in a wax-resist dye process.

Wedge

An object with two faces meeting sharply at an acute angle, used for raising, holding, or splitting objects, as in a knife or ax.

Welding

A process of joining two pieces of metal together by heating the surfaces to the point of melting and then pressing them together.

Wet-collodion

A photographic process invented in 1848 by F. Scott Archer, in which a glass plate, coated with light-sensitive collodion emulsion, is placed in a camera, exposed, developed, and varnished for protection before being used to create prints.

Wiener Werkstätte

An association of Vienna-based visual artists, craftspeople, and designers established in 1903 around the idea that fashionable art, design, furniture, and household goods should be accessible to everyone.

Woodcut

A term loosely applied to any printmaking technique involving a relief image cut into the surface of a wooden block. The wood is covered with ink and applied to a sheet of paper; only the uncut areas of the block will print, while the cut away areas do not receive ink and appear white on the printed image.

World War I

A war fought from 1914 to 1918, in which Great Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Italy, Japan, the United States, and other allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria.

World War II

A global war, one of the most widespread in human history, fought between 1939 and 1945, and resulting in the wholesale reshaping of nations, populations, and worldwide balances of power.

Y

Yoruba

The traditional religious and spiritual concepts and practices of the Yoruba people, who live principally in southwestern Nigeria and the adjoining areas of Benin and Togo.

Z

Ziggurat

A terraced pyramid form comprising successively receding stories.

Zoetrope

19th century motion-picture device, invented by William George Homer, in which a strip of paper with a changing sequence of images is placed in the bottom of a circular drum. The drum has slots cut at equal distances around the outer perimeter, through which a viewer peers while the drum is turned, producing a rapid succession of images and creating the illusion of movement.

Zoopraxiscope

19th-century motion-picture device, designed by Edweard Muybridge, in which light is projected through rotating glass disks applied at the rim with a changing sequence of images, creating the illusion of movement.