Glossary of Art Terms
Unpacking the vocabulary of art

Artwork that doesn't attempt to depict visual reality, but instead use shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks to achieve its effect. Related pages: Abstract Expressionism 

Abstract shapes or forms in artwork or sculpture, usually vertical, that stand in for the human form. The suggestion of a person, rather than a depiction of one. You'll start seeing these everywhere.

Alabaster is incredibly soft, at least as far as stones go. Alabaster is a gypsum based mineral, giving it a smooth, white coloring and making it a popular medium for sculpture. It's nearly translucent surface scatters light in a way uncannily similar to human skin. Beautiful stuff.

Invented by Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard in 1847, the albumen silver print was the first commercially viable method of photographic reproduction on paper. Its key ingredient, albumen, is found in egg whites, which were used to bind photosensitive silver nitrate to paper. Once dried, the treated paper was exposed under direct contact with a negative, ideally with ultraviolet light, and then fixed with sodium thiosulfate to prevent overexposure. It's science baby.

Alkyd paint is a relatively recently developed alternative to oil paint, where the paint's pigment is mixed into alkyd resin (a kind of polyester) mixed with a petroleum-based solvent such as naptha, rather than oil. Alkyd paints are a viable alternative to oils if you're looking for something with similar properties but a quicker drying time. 

A character, place or event used as a metaphor. Allegorical art often personifies moral, spiritual, or political concepts as people, and uses symbolic imagery to convey meaning.


Any structure used for sacrifice or worship. Altars may be used to display offerings, and are often the focal point in a place of worship. Related pages: Altarpieces 

The study of the structure of bodies. Depicting the human form is one of the oldest and most resonant forms of art, and understanding the skeleton, muscles and movement of bodies is central to it. Medical texts often included anatomical illustrations that are themselves profoundly artful.

In the 19th century in Europe, paintings and sculptures of animals were such a popular genre that some artists specialized exclusively in capturing the beauty, grace, and occasionally savage natures of fauna both wild and domestic. These artists were known as animaliers, and there were a lot of them, though remarkably few made it into the history books, make of that what you will.

As humans, we constantly project our traits onto things that aren't human. Anthropomorphism is derived from two greek words, ánthrōpos (human) and morphē (form), and means literally to give human form. While this is occasionally metaphorical, it's more often literal. Human body + cat head. You get the idea.

Aquatint is an incredibly beautiful, subtle technique for intaglio printmaking, that allows for rich, smooth fields of grays, dark grays and blacks, as opposed to the cross-hatched lines used to create value in traditional etching and engraving. To create an aquatint, an acid-resistant rosin powder is dusted onto the etching plate and affixed by heating. The plate is etched in acid bath as usual, and the acid eats into the metal around the particles creating a pattern of tiny indentations that print as an even, smooth tone. Aquatint is often used with other intaglio techniques as a way to create areas of dense, dark value. Developed in the 1760s, aquatint became popular in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Anything made or modified by a human can be considered an artifact, though the word is often used to describe old, mundane objects, like stone tools or bits of broken pottery. In the context of art history, even the most fragmentary or banal artifacts often contain facinating information about the time and place they were created. A simple clay pot may be able tell you about the diet, commerce, manufacturing technologies, and aesthetic values of a culture that left no written language. Pretty cool.

An incredibly hard igneous rock used for sculpture in ancient Egypt, southern India, and anywhere with the correct geology and incredibly patient sculptors. 

Belle Époque

The good times. La Belle Époque, French for 'Beautiful Epoch' describes a time of incredible optimism, peace, prosperity, and an explosion of artistic, literary, and musical creativity in France, between the 1871-ish and the start of World War One. Many of the household names in art come from this place and this time. It must have been an incredible time to live, as long as you weren't in one of the colonies that fueled all the European economic prosperity...

One of the most popular genres in the Japanese art of ukiyo-e woodblock printing was Bijin-ga, meaning roughly "beautiful person picture." Definitions differ as to whether these serene images of graceful, elegantly-dressed women are meant to depict inner or outer beauty, but we do know that their forms were intentionally stylized toward cultural ideals. Among the masters of the form was Uemura Shōen, one of the rare female artists of Meiji period Japan. 

A form of limestone that contains deposts of bitumen, or the solid-form asphalt remnants of decomposed animal and plant remains. Not a popular sculptural medium, but it does show up.

Broadsides are large sheets of paper printed on one side only, often intended to be plastered onto walls or folded twice to make small pamphlets or chapbooks. Historically, broadsides were used as posters, announcing events or proclamations, commentary in the form of ballads, or simply advertisements.

A bust is a sculpture of a human (or occasionally a horse) from the neck or shoulders up, usually designed to capture the distinctive likeness of the subject—a portrait in stone, bronzeplaster, wax, or wood. The term bust dates from the 16th century, from the French term buste, meaning 'sculpture of upper torso and head' though it may have been derived from the old Latin boro, 'to burn,' in reference to human-shaped Etruscan burial urns.

Calligraphy is the art of writing expressively by hand. Usually performed with a brush or pen, the legibility of the written word is often less important than creating beautiful forms and capturing graceful movements of the hand. Calligraphic traditions exist all over the world and their specific techniques, values, and aesthetic goals are a gold mine for understanding the cultures that developed them.

The calotype is one of a handful of early photographic methods that were invented around the same time. Calotypes were sometimes called 'talbotypes' after their inventor, William Henry Fox Talbot, who developed the process in 1841 by coating paper with silver iodide—though I prefer the more poetic term, from the Greek καλός (kalos), "beautiful", and τύπος (tupos), "impression." 

Capricci are the original concept art. Popularized during the Renaissance and Baroque movements, capriccio paintings depict architectual fantasy. Rather than a boring old realistic landscape, the artist might reimagine a building as a dramatic, crumbling ruin, or they might add an impossibly grand castle or fountain built by an imagined empire. Capriccio is also a musically term, for lively virtuosic tunes.

A portrait, usually of a well-known person, where the features have been exaggerated for comic effect. Ugly, silly, and extremely popular, especially when used to lampoon those in power.

A artistic technique where dramatic treatment of light and shadow is a primary element of composion. Chiaroscuro often presents as a single light source focused on human subjects, creating a strong sense of three-dimensional depth. Chiaroscuro amplifies the emotions of an artwork, each artist bringing their own flavor to the technique. Caravaggio used chiaroscuro violently, Georges de La Tour made it meditative, and Rembrandt used chiaroscuro as a lens for compassionately framing his subjects.

A style of painting with flat sections of bold colors often delineated by dark borders. Coined by the art critic Édouard Dujardin, the word references the cloisons or "compartments" in stained glass separated by dark lead. Though popular with post-impressionists like Émile Bernard, Paul Gauguin, and Paul Sérusier, more recent artists like Bob Thompson have continued to evolve the style.

A row of columns designed to support a roof, an entablature (lintel), or arcade of contiguous arches. Very popular in Ancient Greece and Rome, where perennially fantastic weather makes windows and doors a lot less essential. Since many ancient colonnades have long ago lost their roofs, they are often found by themselves, demarking a space open to the sky. 

A human posture often depicted in sculpture, where a standing figure places most of its weight on one foot, putting its shoulders and arms off-axis from the hips and legs. Contrapposto is Italian for 'counterpose' and is used in visual arts to give a figure a relaxed, naturalistic appearance.

Cuneiform is one of the earliest systems of writing, a series of wedge-shaped marks pressed into clay. Cuneiform was developed around 3300 BCE, by the Sumerians, and was adapted for use by many cultures of the era, including the Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians—and surviving in common use until the Roman Emipre spread the use of the latin alphabet in the second century CE.

From the greek works kuáneos, meaning 'dark blue' and túpos, meaning 'mark or impression' a cyanotype is a photoreactive print created by treating paper with ferric ammonium citrate or ferric ammonium oxalate, and potassium ferricyanide. The ingredients and cheap and the reproductions are clear, though distinctly cyan, and after its invention in 1842 by Sir John Herschel, it was used by amateur botanists, scientists, the occasional artist, and most famously by architects, who used the process to create blueprints.

Louis Daguerre finally pulled it off, through ingenuity and patent theft he created the first publically available photographic process. A daguerréotype is created by polishing silver-plated copper to a mirror finish; treating it with light-sensitive chemical fumes and exposed in a camera. The plate was then developed with mercury vapor and sealed to fix, and created a unique image that could be viewed in both positive and negative, depending on the angle. Daguerréotypes were only widely used from the 1840s to the late 1850s, when they were replaced by more stable, efficient, inexpensive methods of photography like ambrotypes and tintypes.

Decalcomania is the process of creating a design on paper with ink or paint, then while it's still wet transferring it to glass or porcelain. It's a cool process that was made even cooler after it was co-opted the surrealists, who created Rorschach-style paint blots in an attempt to push art production beyond concious control.

Beauty and function are combined in the decorative arts, a hybrid of art and design that seeks to elevate the mundane. Decorative art spans a huge number of categories and disciplines, but is often found in glassware, ceramics, metalwork like silversmithing, textile and furnature design, and wallpaper. Stylistically, decorative art can express many aesthetics but is often typified by ornamentation, pattern, and densely worked surfaces that impress the viewer with exactly how much someone paid for it. 

A painting or relief sculpture that consists of two parts that are intended to be viewed and appreciated together. The term diptych is derived from an ancient Roman term for a hinged writing tablet common at the time. Small, hinged diptychs became popular during the European middle ages as a way to carry devotional artwork for a little prayer on the road. Today, diptychs are a rarely used but still interesting compositional format. Think three is better than two? Check out the triptych!

Distemper is a form of painting medium where the pigment is bound with vegetable or animal glues. 'Hard distemper' uses either casein (found in cows milk) or linseed oil as a binder, and is sturdy and wear-resistant. 'Soft distemper' is bound with chalk or lime combined with animal-based gelatenous sizing, and is easily marked, scraped, or washed off. Distemper was the medium of choice for Tibetan deity paintings, or thankas, and was popular in western medieval and Renaissance painting before the invention of oil paints.

Divisionism often gets miscast as an art movement, but it's not a movement, it's a style. First developed by Georges Seurat around 1884 under the name chromoluminarism, the style involved a pseudoscientific theory that letting the viewer's eye combine many small dots of colors into a final image (as opposed to blending the paints) artwork could achieve a higher level of luminosity. The technique of painting with small dots became called Pointillism, which long outlived its divisionist origin.

Drypoint is perhaps the simplest form of Intaglio—the printmaking practice of making marks on a metal plate, wiping ink across the plate so that it sticks to the marks, and then printing the ink onto paper or cloth. Drypoint is achieved using a sharp, pointed stylus—the artist scratching their drawing directly into the plate, leaving a raised, rough edge of metal called the burr. Ink is trapped more loosely by the drypoint burr than in the clean grooves left by etching with acid, so drypoint prints often have a blurry, fuzzy quality to their lines.

Also called land art, environmental art, or earthworks. Earth art was popular with prehistoric peoples, though menhirs and mounds were more likely for protection, burial, or ceremony than existential conceptual art intenventions. In the 1960s and 70s, artists got back into the expressive potential of pushing dirt around and took to the desert to create larger than life monuments. Earth art is often talked about as a rejection of traditional gallery spaces—though photos, drawings, and maps of the megasculptures provided popular (and lucrative) stand-ins. 

A type of vitreous enamel created when objects made from finely powdered quartz grains bonded with alkali or lime are fired, vitrifying the quartz crystals into a semi-transparent isotropic glass. Called Egyptian Faience after the common use of the technique in Ancient Egyptian amulets and ushabti funerary figures—it's not the same as the much more recent glazing technique known as Faience, which uses tin oxide.

Electrum is a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver, with trace amounts of copper and other metals. The Ancient Egyptians often topped their pyramids and obelisks with Electrum, and it was a popular material for drinking vessels. The ancient Greeks called it 'white gold.'

There's no standard for what makes a paint an 'enamel paint' — it's more of a loose category of high-gloss, high-durability oil-based paints, often used in commercial applications. While not often used for artworks, Picasso sometimes dabbled with these commercial paints, and Jackson Pollock used them in his famous drip paintings. Paint is paint, after all.

Encaustic is the use of pigmented wax or dammar resin as a thick, mallible painting medium, heated, blended, and allowed to cool and dry. Encaustic is derived from the Greek word enkaustikos, meaning “to heat or burn in” and the technique was developed by ancient Greek ship builders who added coloring to wax water-sealant to decorate their warships.

Engraving in the modern sense refers to a type of intaglio printmaking, where an image is carved into a plate, ink is rubbed into the image, and transferred to paper. This form of engraving was developed simultaneously in Germany and northern Italy during the 15th century, with the earliest examples attributed to two German craftsman known only as Master E.S., and the Master of the Playing Cards. But engraving as a practice is much older, dating back to the common practice in ancient cultures of creating cylinder seals, small cylindrical stones with an image engraved on their surface such that rolling it across wet clay would leave a relief of the carved image behind. 

Etching is an extremely popular type of intaglio printmaking, where a metal plate is covered with an acid-resistant ground, an image is drawn into the ground with a stylus, the plate is placed in an acid bath, which eats away the lines of exposed metal. Once the plate has been 'etched' the ground is removed, ink is rubbed into the image, and transferred to paper via a press. Etching, like drawing, often makes use of hatching and cross hatching, and may be combined with drypoint and aquatint to create deeper areas of shadow.

The original art game! To play Exquisite Corpse, you draw on part of a piece of paper, then fold the paper so the drawing is hidden. Pass the folded paper to someone else, who adds their own drawing then folds it again, repeat. The game was originally played with words, one session among drunk surrealists generated the phrase 'the exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine' — which André Breton appreviated as the game's new name when he later adapted to it drawing.

A type of vitreous enamel finish used on clay vessels where an underlayer of tin oxide was used to create a bright white finish on top of which additional enamel designs and images would stand out more brightly. Faience exploded in popularity in France at the end of the 16th century, but was first discovered around 800 CE by Islamic craftsmen in contemporary Iraq. Not the same as Egyptian Faience, where quartz crystals in the object itself are vitrified.

Fin de siècle

A French term meaning "end of century," fin de siècle describes the weird social and artistic climate in Europe in the 1880s and 1890s, as a century of industrialization and globalization wound down. Ennui, cynicism, and the split impulse toward the irrational and subjective, diverging from the creeping unease with a society perceived by conservative minds to be increasingly degenerate. A complex milieu that birthed a lot of really interesting art.

Art created from stuff the artist has found, usually objects that aren't usually considered 'art materials.' Found objects are most explicit in readymades, where the object is usually slapped on a pedestal unmodified, though in most found object art the found materials are painted, shaped, combined, or otherwise transformed by the artist.

A method of painting on walls, the term 'fresco' is derived from the Italian word for fresh, since the technique involves painting onto a thin layer of wet plaster called intonaco, which then drys, permanently binding the pigment into the wall. 

One of the oldest and richest of art traditions, funerary art is any object created to venerate, commemorate, or sometimes contain, the dead. This includes tombs, from prehistory's megalithic dolmen and burial mounds to pyramids, memorial portraits like the moai of Easter Island or the many cultures who dabbled in sarcophagi resembling the dead. Conteporary cenotaph monuments emulate the style of tombs, and a fun additional designation is that of "grave goods" or objects placed within tombs, which can be pretty much anything the afterlife might require.

One of the many incremental improvements in the development of early photography. Invented in 1871 by the English physician Richard Leach Maddox, who discovered sensitizing chemicals cadmium bromide and silver nitrate should be coated on a glass plate in gelatin and dried. Gelatin Silver Printing was a huge step forward, since dry plates could be manufactured and sold wholesale, rather than made by the photographer as needed in their darkroom.

Geometric art can refer to two categories of radically different artwork. In ancient Greece, a geometric visual tradition of zigzags, triangles, and meanders decorating amphorae emerged between 900-700 BCE, a time of cultural renaissance inspired by epic poetry and art. In the modern era, geometric elements became popular motifs in Constructivism and Suprematism, and later minimalist artwork, as artists pursued pure forms and non-representative expression—triangles and lines and flat colors becoming characters, competing, fighting, dancing, and playing.

Gold leafing is the practice of hammering out extremely thin sheets of gold, down to .1 or .2 microns, and using it to coat objects, or apply to an image, and artists and craftsmen have been doing it for millennia. Ancient Egyptians lined their pharaoh's tombs with gold leaf. Greek sculptors clothed statues in gold garments and armed them with gold-leafed swords, medieval monks emblazoned hand-copied bibles with gold-leaf illustrations, and more recent artists like Gustav Klimt added gold to their paintings for that glossy hint of the divine.

Gouache is a water-based paint similar to watercolor. Where watercolors are transparent, allowing for subtle layering, gouache mixes colored pigments with an opaque white pigment, often chalk, creating a velvety matte finish that absorbs light rather than reflecting it. Gouache-style paints have been in use since at least the 9th century, often appearing in Persian miniatures. By the 14th century, trade routes had spread gouache to Europe, where it's crisp graphic appearance, ability to re-wet, and relatively cheap production made it a staple of commercial illustration and early art education.

One of the applied arts, graphic design uses text, layout, typography and imagry for professional communication. Through history artists have occasionally worked as designers (usually to make ends meet) and artwork is occasionally integrated into design as illustration.

A mineral turned into the original graphic drawing tool, graphite gets interesting around 4500 BCE, when the Boian culture in neolithic Europe began marking their pottery with geometric patterns in graphite. For the next six and a half millennia, humans have made marks with graphite, smearing it as powder, rubbing it as sticks, or casing it in wood to create perhaps the simplest and most versatile artistic instrument—the pencil.

Grimoires are textbooks for magical works. They appeared around the 4th century BCE, and really took off in medieval Europe. Grimoires have the reputation for being cryptic, but were often straightforward documents, including step by step instructions for creating magical objects, performing magical spells, and summoning angels and demons to do your bidding.

A painting executed entirely in shades of grey, typically as a sketch or underpainting for a final, fully-colored work. Working in monochrome shades allowed artists to visualize the dimentional, almost sculptural forms within their compositions, before adding the complexity of full color.

Weird shapes, distorted bodies, discomforting faces—this is what grotesque refers to today. But in the 16th century, the word grottesca, or cave-like, was borrowed from Italian to describe the decroative floral elements of the recently-rediscovered Domus Aurea, a lavish underground palace build by the Roman emperor Nero. In the 17th century, grotesque became associated with the exagerated caricatures that cavorted in the elaborate floral decorations in the margins of medieval manuscripts, and evolved from there to focus on the ghastly. 

High-density fiberboard, also called hardboard, is a material made from small wood fibers compressed into a solid mass. Long used in furnature and construction, hardboard has become a popular surface for paintings, since it is study, cheap, and comes with a perfectly smooth surface. Hardboard is often referred to by the name of one of its more popular brands: Masonite.

Hatching is an artistic technique where parallel lines of varying densities are applied to an image to create dark and light values. Cross hatching is the same, but with sets of lines applied at an angle to each other. Hatching and cross hatching are popular techniques in drawing and by extension, are near universal in etching and engraving, where it is often paired with stippling to create an even deeper sense of volume, as in Albrecht Dürer's Melencolia I.

When you see the word henge, you likely imagine a ring of standing stones, but the henge is actually the earthwork that sits under them. A henge is a ring-shaped bank, with a ditch inside the bank. This distinguishes a henge from a rampart, where the ditches is outside the bank, a common defensive measure built around forts. A henge may have one, two or four entrances to the center, which are assumed to have been ritual landscapes, often containing those picuresque standing stones we know and love.

Hieratic scale

A system used to visually communicate power in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian art, and used through the middle ages. Important people, whether a pharaoh or the Virgin Mary, were depicted as much larger than other figures in a scene. Related pages: Mesopotamia Ancient Egypt 


Where a color sits on the spectrum of visible light.

When a text is considered holy, it only makes sense to present it beautifully. An illuminated manuscript is a book or document where the written word is supplemented and often surrounded by elaborate borders, filials, arabesques, and tiny illustrations. Developed in the eastern roman empire between 400-600 CE, they exploded in popularity during the european middle ages, since creating illuminated testaments and prayer books was a popular pasttime for monastic communities with a lot of time on their hands. It's worth noting that many historic Islamic manuscripts feature similar embellishment, but are typically referred to as painted, rather than illuminated.

Ink as an art medium has been around since humans painted cave walls. Early ink mixed soot with water or oil, but in 2500 BCE the Egyptians ground down charcoal into a fine carbon powder called 'lamp black' and used gum or glue as a bonding agent. 200 years later ancient Chinese cultures independently invented inks based on plant dyes. Ink took new life again in the 6th century CE with the invention of the quill pen, becoming the primary method of recording written language in the Western world. Gutenberg invented an oil-based ink to work with his printing press, and ink continued to evolve all the way to 1988, when Hewlett-Packard's consumer-grade Inkjet printers put the power of the press into the home office.


The relative brightness or dullness of a color.

A style of photograph where the shutter is left open for much longer than typical, allowing a variety of interesting effects. Waves on water can be smoothed into a polished sheen, stars can trace across the sky, and a candle or flashlight can be used to trace lines of pure light across the image. 

A scale model or rough draft of an unfinished sculpture. An equivalent term is bozzetto, from the Italian word that means 'sketch'. A maquette is used to visualize and test forms and ideas without incurring the expense and effort of producing a full-scale piece.


A rectangular stone tomb used in ancient Egypt before the development of pyramids. Mastabas have sloping sides and a flat roof, are typically 5–6 m tall, and contain an underground burial chamber with rooms above it at ground level to store offerings. Related pages: Ancient Egypt 

Artwork, especially painting, executed in a single color, or range of values associated with a single color. While many drawings or pen and ink artworks are technically monochrome, the term is usually applied to artwork where the restriction to a single color is intentional, and means something to the work. Popular with minimalists, obviously. 

Mosaics are images created by setting many small pieces of glass, stone, or other materials (called tessera) into a surface — and they're one of the oldest forms of artwork in the world. Mesopotamian mosaics have been found dating to 3000 BCE, and mosaics were a cornerstone of interior design and architecture in Ancient GreeceRome and all over the Islamic world

In ancient Greek mythology, the muses were a suite of three (or later, nine) goddesses who inspired the creation of art, music, literature, and science. In the contemporary sense, a muse refers to a person who inspires creative work, often including a deeply frought sexual fascination on the part of the artist.

Near the end of the 19th century, Japan was in the throws of massive cultural change: trade with the Western world,  the spread of the telegraph, and major military growth sparked the Meiji period. Japanese art was also in flux, with a new style known as Yōga introducing Western techniques. But tradition runs deep in Japan, and a counter-style developed, called Nihonga, defined by a return to centuries-old artistic mediums, techniques and compositions. Nihonga is not really a movement, it's closer to a philosophy, and as such it persists to this day.

The Odalisque exists at the intersection of cultural othering and female exploitation. Ooof. The term is from the Turkish word اوطه‌لق, or odalık, meaning 'attendant of the female court,' specifically the harem of an Ottoman sultan. Nothing excited western artists during the 19th century's obsession with orientalism like the idea of a room full of women dedicated exclusively to the service of a powerful man, so the word odalisque became the catch-all for portraits of langorous, sexually available nude concubines, reclining on couches in sumptuous palaces.

A famously cheap and versitile medium, literally papier-mâché comes from the French phrase for "chewed paper" and is a composite of paper pieces or pulp, bound with an adhesive such as glue, starch, or wallpaper paste.

Pattern is the repetion of visual elements in a predictable manner. Common in decorative art, patterns were often found stamped into ancient pottery, reached an apogee of refinement in the Islamic arts, and are still a popular choice for your favorite button-down shirt.

Perspective is a variety of artistic techniques used to reproduce the way three-dimensional spaces or objects appear to our eyes, in two dimensional artwork. Includes linear perspective, where parallel lines appear to converge as they move into the distance, and atmospheric perspective, where objects that are farther away are rendered as hazy or with less detail. Intentionally deviating or warping perpective is also a great way to destabilise an audience or conjure a surreal vibe.

"Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" famously quoth Sigmund Freud, yet in art and even in culture more generally, any long, cylindrical protuberance is likely to be a veiled, or even entirely subconcious reference to the male genitalia. You saw Jeff Bezos's rocket, right?

A painting technique where small dots of color are stippled close to each other, so that when viewed from a distance the gestalt image is visible. Pointillism was developed as a technique to explore the pseudoscientific ideas behind divisionism, an attempt to increase the luminosity of painting pioneered by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac

Complex multipanel artworks with four, five or even dozens of connected panels are called Polyptychs, from the Greek words "poly-" meaning many and "ptychē" meaning fold. The intense big sister of the diptych and triptych.

Used to describe both the naïve styles of outsider artists and attempts by trained artists to emulate the "pure" aesthetics of more "primitive" cultures, the term primitivism is Eurocentric, paternalizing, and a bit too vague to be useful. That said, you'll run into it pretty often, especially describing Henri Rousseau's guilelessness or Picasso's appropriation of African mask motifs.

Printmaking is a wide array of techniques, technologies, and disciplines used to transfer an image from a matrix to a surface, usually paper or a textile. Relief printing, like wood block printing, removes areas that the artist doesn't want to transfer and ink is rolled or painted onto the remaining surface, and intaglio printing does the opposite, engraving or etching lines into copper or zinc plates which hold the ink for transfer. More recently, lithography uses water to repel oily ink from negative spaces, and screen printing is used to make all your graphic tees.

An extremely rad photographic process where objects are placed directly on a photosensitive surface and exposed, leaving a ghostly silhouette on the final image. It's a technique as old as photography itself, previously called photograms, before Man Ray made a bunch of them and named the technique after himself. 

One of the many futurist sub-movements, Rayonism was developed by Natalia Goncharova in 1909 and canonized in the Rayonist Manifesto by Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov in 1912. Their bright, angular compositions aimed to depict the "spatial forms which are obtained arising from the intersection of the reflected rays of various objects."

A term describing found objects the artist has decided is art. That decision alone, according to the Dictionnaire abrégé du Surréalisme, or Abridged Dictionary of Surrealism, is more than enough to make it so. The invention of readymades is usually attributed to Marcel Duchamp, but the performance artist and wonderful weirdo Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was the real inventor, when she submitted a urinal signed 'R. Mutt' to an art show organized by Duchamp.

A form of sculpture where the image is carved out from the flat surface, i.e. you can't walk around it. Often found on buildings, or the outside of elaborate sarcophagi. 

A sarcophagus is a stone coffin, typically adorned with a sculpture or inscription. Elaborately carved sarcophagi were common in the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Rome, and Greece, and are still created to this day.

Serpentine is a dark green mineral consisting of hydrated magnesium silicate, sometimes mottled or spotted like a snake's skin. Serpentine has been used in architecture and sculpture as a decorative element.

The term Sfumato comes from the Italian word fumo, meaning 'smoke,' and it describes a painting technique where colors are smoothly blurred into each other, creating a very soft, almost out-of-focus effect. Popularized by Leonardo da Vinci, whose experiments with camera obscura prompted him to experiment with depicting parts of his compositions as "without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane."

A still life is a long-standing and surprisingly popular genre of artwork that depicts inanimate objects. Natural objects are popular, like flowers and fruit (and human skulls), and man-made objects appear often as well. The Italian painter Giorgio Morandi made an entire career out of painting bottles.

Stippling is the technique of creating an image, pattern, or gradient through the application of many small dots. Stippling is remarkably effective at communicating volume, since changing the density of the marks can create gradients can be created that imply form without also prescribing texture. This is distinct from Pointillism, where mark density is usually consistent, and forms are distinguished using color.

When you take the dramatic contrast of light and shadow known as chiaroscuro to a wild, violent extreme—that's tenebrism. From the Italian tenebroso, meaning 'dark, mysterious' Tenebrism became a fixation for artists during the Baroque period. The distinctive 'spolight' look appears in work by El GrecoTintoretto and Dürer, but it was Caravaggio that made it canon.


A single tile, usually a small flat square, used to create a mosaic. Related pages: Mosaic 

Tonalism is a style of painting that evolved in the 1880s depicting landscapes awash in mist or steeped in atmospheric fog. It's a moody, brooding vibe similar to the French Barbizon style, developed by James McNeill Whistler and George Inness and gaining a surprising amount of popularity in North America through the 1910s, before being exclipsed by the newly imported Impressionism.

A tondo is a circular work of art, either a shaped canvas or a relief sculpture (circular reliefs are sometimes called roundels). Tondo typicallys refer to canvasses around 60cm in diameter or above, meaning that smaller circular portrait minatures are considered a separate classification.

Today a triptych can be any three artworks intended to be viewed together, but the format was developed and popularized in early christian art as one of a variety of polyptychs, or multi-panel works that were often folded to protect the artwork when not being viewed. Triptychs are interesting for the connection built between the three panels, which may be sequential, narrative, or thematically associated. The three-panel comic format is technically a kind of triptych...

Trompe-l'oeil is a painting technique where a painted object is depicted to realistically that it seems to exist in real space. From the French phrase meaning "deceive the eye" trompe-l'oeil was coined by the artist Louis-Léopold Boilly in 1800, but the technique itself is far older. Trompe-l'oeil was a popular interior design trick in the Roman Empire and likely before, was used as a framing device for frescos in the Italian Renaissance, and was arguably perfected in the 17th century by the Dutch artist .

A type of painting that illustrates an exaggerated facial expression or a commonly-known character—angels, beggars, old people, farmers or jesters. Common in Dutch Golden Age painting and Flemish Baroque painting. The most famous tronie is undoubtedly Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring.


The relative darkness or lightness of a color. Can also be used to describe the contrast between different light and dark spaces.

Vanitas is a loose category of artwork that illustrates the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death—often featuring heavy-handed allegory in the form of skulls, insects, rotting plants, candles burning low and hourglasses draining out a last few grains of sand. Vanitas paintings are so called for the verse in Ecclesiastes 1:2; 12:8 from the King James Bible: Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."

The term vellum from the French veau refers to a parchment made from calf skin.

A material made by fusing powdered glass to a metal, glass or ceramic base by firing at high temperatures. Vitreous Enamel is also referred to as porcelain enamel or overglaze, and is popular in decorative artwork in cultures around the world, since it creates a durable and incredibly vibrant surface.

Any artwork that includes written language as a main part of its subject matter. Ed Ruscha is my own favorite word artist, picking inexplicable phrases and just letting them sing, but the surrealists loved some word art, and even the  before them. 


The dominant set of ideals and beliefs that motivate the actions of the members of a society in a particular period in time. Zeitgeist is a German word, translating roughly to 'time mind' and is used in aesthetics to describe the inextricable connection between art and culture.

The grandfather of the movie projector, the Zoopraxiscope was an early device for viewing moving pictures adapted by photographic genius (and murderer) Eadweard Muybridge from the simpler phenakistiscope, the stroboscopic discs that provide an illusion of simple animation. A Zoopraxiscope holds 16" glass disks, which have small, sequential images (frames) printed then hand-colored around the edges. Light is projected through these images while the disk is spun via a hand crank, and a shutter rapidly opens and closes to give the impression of a fluid moving image.

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