25 List of Art Terms

Art is a very diverse and expressive form of human communication and has been around for thousands of years. From cave paintings to Mona Lisa, art has developed and transformed in many ways. Artists use different mediums to transmit their ideas, thoughts, and experiences despite differences in trends, styles, and expression. Art terms can be a little intimidating, and sometimes, we don’t even completely understand the existing art terms. Here is a list of art terms for you to familiarize yourself with to become more proficient in your field of study and art.

Art terms are a lot of fun to use, and most people don’t even notice when you say them. Art terms can stir up a few emotions – confusion, curiosity, and comfort. Many people feel intimidated by these words because they don’t understand them or think they are too “artsy” for their own taste. But, as an artist, you must learn to embrace these terms to express your ideas with confidence. To help you overcome the blank canvas of confusion, we have compiled this list of art terms to help start the creative juices flowing.

25 List of Art Terms

artist making a art

Art is a visual representation of stories, feelings, emotions, and pure thoughts. The use of art and creative expression in different eras evolved drastically over the centuries.  Artists had unique perspectives and interpretations of the world around them. The definition of art includes all forms of visual arts. This 25 list of art terms was written below to give you a broad overview of key art terms commonly used in the art world. Let’s begin.

1. Abstraction

Abstract art is an art that employs a significant degree of abstraction. Within the visual arts, abstraction refers to any imagery that does not aim to represent an existing object, where the lack of realism has a particular appeal. This can be achieved through scale, color, line quality, and even content (i.e., subjects are simplified and drawn ornamentally).

Abstraction is the process of extracting or pulling away to remove complexity to express the fundamental essence of something. The art term abstraction refers to making something abstract (removing characteristic features only generalities). It commonly refers to an art movement that seeks to create images that convey an essential quality or meaning.

Abstraction is a painting structured around the absence of objects or their presence only as implied by color or form. The abstraction demonstrates the artist’s struggle to reduce the portrayed subject to its essential qualities. Abstraction enjoyed its heyday in the early 20th century. Abstraction enjoyed its heyday, when artists simplified, stylized, or distilled forms to pull them away from the “real” world.

2. Alla Prima

The first definition of this Italian art term Alla prima is “at first sight”, but it is also an Italian term of art that refers to painting in oil-based paints using brushes.  Alla prima, or AP, is when an artist paints using only one layer of paint, applied straight from the tube or brush to the canvas. It can be translated as “in the first style” or “on the first attempt.” It means that the artist paints without any preparatory drawing and paints all figures, objects, etc., in one sitting without going back to any part.

A wet-into-wet painting is an Alla prima painting technique in which the artist paints in one session. The artist must work quickly and decisively to ensure the surface paint doesn’t dry. This type of painting resembles direct painting, with bold, expressive, and painterly results.

3. Allegory

One of the most widely known and recognizable art forms is allegorical painting. This style incorporates specific objects or people into an image to convey a particular message or story. These images are made up of visual symbolism, though typically, they’re not difficult to figure out.

The Greeks invented the term allegory: allegoria is the Greek for “transfer” and algere for “to carry, or bring.” An allegory is a story in which real life things stand for ideas or qualities. For example, using animals to describe human characteristics is called an animal fable. An artistic expression of morality and virtue in representation can appear as an inspirational form of abstract art.  Allegory communicates much more than the plot does, and it often uses the tools of exaggeration and personification to create a vivid image in the audience’s mind.

4. Appropriation

Appropriation is the use of an existing object or image with little or no changes to make a new piece of art. The original idea is usually ripped off without permission from the person who came up with it. Thus, a “new” piece of art is born by re-contextualizing the “old” work.

Appropriation is a practice in the arts of taking work that already exists and modifying, reusing, or recycling it somehow. In the most basic sense, it’s an act of cultural borrowing. It comes from the Latin verb “appropriare” which means “to make one’s own.”

In the art world, the line between permissible appropriation and quoting or riffing off work is a topic of debate for centuries between artists and lawyers. Appropriation is a controversial art movement that arose in the 1960s. A group of artists questioned conventions and definitions of art through their creations, of course was a radical concept.

5. Brushwork

When you look at a painting, you are likely looking at something created by a brush. In order to handle and apply paint, artists have utilized a variety of brush techniques over time, including dragging, scumbling, and stippling. Besides size, shape, and texture, it also refers to the way lines are drawn.

In art, the brushwork is the application of paint. The brushwork in the art can apply to any painting technique, from broad strokes to detailed lines, but most often refers to painting with brushes rather than Painting with a bristle brush or applying paint with a palette knife. Brushes are versatile applicators and regarded by some as an essential tool for painterly panache.

6. Chiaroscuro

Chiaroscuro (an Italian term that means “light-dark”) is an art technique. The artist uses strong tonal contrasts between light and dark to three-dimensional model forms, typically with shading done by impeding the light source. In principle, the best way to attain solidity in a form is to have light fall against it. Among the artists who developed this technique were Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio among the artists who developed this technique. Today, it is a term that has a somewhat narrower meaning than technique: in contemporary usage, it means art that uses strong contrasts between light and dark to shape forms.

7. Color Theory

color wheel to get color theory

Visual artists consider the color theory to be an essential component. Color theory is a study of how different colors combine together. Each color has its own place in a color scheme and can apply separately to create artwork.

Color theory is the practice of using colors to complement each other. This helps to create a certain mood, emotion, or tone. Designers often work with color theory to make sure their designs appeal to certain people with good aesthetic understanding. 

8. Composition

The word composition comes from Latin and means “putting together.”  A composition is a piece of art made up of many parts.  It can be in any visual art medium. 

Composition is the placement or arrangement of visual elements or strands in a work of art. This can include the way colors, shapes, and lines interact with each other within the work and the way those elements relate to the subject and background. The term ‘composition’ can also use more broadly to encompass both color and shape in addition to the line, tone, and texture, or one could even say that composition is all about scale in relation to spatial relationships.

9. Contrapposto

Contrapposto is a figure sculpture position in which the body’s weight rests on one leg, with the other leg relaxed and slightly extended. This can be use to describe both the position of a single human figure and that of a group. It’s easy to remember: “Con” means “with,” so this pose is “against” or “counter.” The “post” part refers to being against something such as a wall.

Contrapposto is excessive muscular tension in the opposite leg and arm muscles so that there is a visual expression of contrapposto. This tension gives the impression of the whole body being supported by one leg. The furthermost leg leads the body forward while throwing its weight onto the rear leg. This creates a type of diagonal between the posterior chain (the backside) of both legs.

10. Distortion

Distortion is a condition in which objects appear to be irregular and have a change in their shapes due to applying some kind of pressure or force. In art, distortion exists in several types. You can use them for emphasis by making an object look different than its size or shape, like some gravity-defying work of art. In the visual arts, distortion is most often used to emphasize a specific object within a scene that may be used as the focal point. The most common form of distortion is foreshortening.

Distortion is one of the most widely used and important artistic techniques. It can help make an image more emotional or create a sense of movement. Distortion is the deliberate modification of an image to make it unexpected.

11. Figurative Art

Figurative art, also known as representational art, encompasses art that is meant to represent something in reality or the world and can include landscapes, portraits, and still-lifes. Everything that surrounds us and that we see in our daily lives is considered to be in the fields of figurative art. Representational art includes a wide array of styles as well because it also includes non-realistic representation, which contradicts the very meaning of this type of visual arts where realism is almost a must.

12. Genre

Genre refers to the category or type of art, such as landscape painting, portrait sculpture, and mosaic. The biggest difference between styles is in their focus; for instance, the main aspect of a genre may be realism, where of a style might be expressionism.

Genre for arts is difficult for many, but it can be relatively easy with the right jargon and sentence structure. A genre is usually a spectrum of works that share certain characteristics. Some genres have hard boundaries, and others have elastic boundaries, making it difficult to create a hierarchy of genres.

13. Glazing

Glazing is a painting technique where you glaze a layer on top of the previous one to mute or modulate colors, values, and/or textures. It gives depth and transparency to a painting. In essence, “to glaze” means “to overlay with a transparent or semi-translucent preparation.”

Glazing is often used in painting where multiple thin layers of the same color are applied to the canvas or other surface. The layers must be allowed to dry between applications in order to form a uniform coating. Glazing differs from impasto and scumbling in that multiple very thin layers are painted on rather than one thicker layer.

14. Impressionism

The Impressionism is a painting style that uses consistent brushstrokes and color to give the impression of a scene or emotion rather than precisely representing reality or details.

Impressionism was the first modern movement in art and developed out of a new philosophy of subjectivity. It was an avant-garde movement during the late 1800s and featured light studies, visible brush strokes, pastel colors, and a bold sense of design.

15. Mixed media

Mixed media uses more than one medium in a single work of art. It is a fine art technique. An artwork using mixed media may incorporate painting, drawing, collage, and digital media and maybe finished as a photo-realistic work that appears to incorporate real materials. It can also refer to an object made from various natural and/or synthetic materials. In colloquial usage, mixed media art tends to refer to more experimental works that usually defy traditions and conventions of established media.

Mixed media is a contemporary art term that covers a wide range of art practices, blending two or more concepts or artistic disciplines to create artwork. The origins of the term are unknown, but most trace it back to the 1960s.

16. Motif

The motif is a key term in the art that describes recurring subject matter. Motifs are similar to subjects and can repeat within an artwork or apply throughout an artist’s entire body of work. Artists choose motifs as a foundation for their paintings and drawings, just as writers choose the subject matter for their writing. A motif commonly repeated throughout an artwork is the primary focus of that piece.

17. Perspective

types of perspective in art

Perspective is the technique that used to create the illusion of space on a flat surface. Artists use it to create a sense of depth and distance in their work and create the illusion of movement. It’s a complex topic, but one which artists must understand in order to make their images look three-dimensional.

18. Plein air

Plein air is a French term meaning “open-air.” In English, this term is usually uses to refer to the act of painting outdoors. It has been traditionally used by painters who want to attempt to capture the essence of a landscape and its weather and light conditions. Plein air developed as a genre in the mid-19th century alongside impressionism. Painters who employ the style often paint outdoors or in public places such as parks; northern France and Belgium were large centers for Plein air painting.

19. Proportion

Proportion is a very important thing to consider when creating artwork. The proportion helps work out the scale of things, and without it, things can end up looking really weird. It helps to make things look more realistic and in balance, which can help you draw something with people or animals or anything else that doesn’t have a fixed shape or size.

Proportion is usually use to refer to how the elements of a visual composition relate to each other and the space around it, or else the comparison of the size of one part of a thing with respect to other parts.

20. Realism

Realism is a visual art movement that began in France and came to life by Gustave Courbet, Jean-François Millet, and others. Realist artists endeavored to create works of art using specific techniques to ensure that they appeared realistic. They also focused on the subjects of rural life in order to capture the common person.

Realism was an artistic movement that began in the 19th century to portray real life and nature in art, imitating photography and depicting people and objects as they appear in the slice of life.

21. Sfumato

The term ‘sfumato’ describes a painting technique that is based on the idea of a smooth transition of colors. Sfumato, the Italian word for smoke, is the basis for the signature painting, arguably the most famous of all time, the Mona Lisa.

Sfumato is a painting technique that uses soft and fuzzy outlines to create figures, faces, objects, and scenes. The term comes from the Italian “sfumare” which means to “vaporize.” The speed of evaporation from a solid to a gas controls how long the transition will take to blur the edges of an object gradually. It’s usually successfully depicting a sense of light, shade, and aerial perspective into a work of art.

22. Symbolism

Symbolism was an artistic movement in Europe at the end of the 19th century.   It developed as a reaction to Impressionism and aimed to evoke a sense of mystery. It is a way of expressing an idea or image by using symbols. A symbol can be anything that can carry meaning. For example, an object, person, color, or shape can all become symbols.

23. Texture

texture example in art

The texture is a familiar attribute to anyone who has spent time walking through an art museum or gallery. Looking at depictions of landscape, portraiture, and still life, a viewer can intuitively understand that the artist did something special to generate the tactile effects. Some painted their surfaces with thick pigments, and others made textural attributes integral to their compositions with fibers and mixed media.

The texture of a work of art is its surface quality. This refers to the visual sense of touch and as such, it is a tactile and visual experience. Its main component is generally the tactile component of smooth, rough, hard, soft, coarse, and fine. The term texture refers to works that make use of the material substance in an identical manner.

24. Trompe l’oeil

Trompe l’oeil is part of the broad class of visual illusions known as perceptual distortions. In trompe l’oeil paintings, realistic imagery is employed to create the illusion that an object exists in three dimensions when it is only two-dimensional or even flat.

25. Value

Like hue and chroma, value is one of the fundamental aspects of visual art. It is the difference in lightness or darkness between adjacent areas. The relative lightness or darkness of a color is what gives it its visual interest. This is the measure of the amount of space that area holds within the composition. In other words, how the larger shapes fill up space in the painting or drawing is one major aspect that defines its value.

Final Words

Art terms are basically the words and phrases which are used in art. They help to explain the meaning of the art, whatsoever it is. The importance of the art terms can never be ignored as students cannot understand any kind of Artwork without verbal explanation.

As a graphic designer and artist, you should familiarize yourself with the fundamental terminologies because these words will help you be able to explain what it is you do by drawing business leads that could go viral. Choose the right words to describe yourself, your work, and your services. This list of art terms could also be your guide in explaining a design/art concept to non-artists or clients so they can understand it better.

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