Art Words and what they mean

Art words and what they mean

Every profession has their own language, possibly designed to make people within that profession feel special, elite even and to make outsiders feel inferior, excluded or simply uninformed. It is a practice which has been going on for hundreds and thousands of years, and the art world is no different. There are many techniques, “movements” etc., whose names get thrown about in conversation (especially when artists are talking!) and I hope this list will help you feel better informed and no longer intimidated.

Abstract – For art to be abstract it has broken away from the representational image. Though it might well have started as a landscape, a bowl of fruit or a figure, the reality has been stripped away and the bare bones of the original have been reduced or abstracted to such a state that what is left is a study of the relationship between design, value, tone, colour, line and form.

Assemblage – This artform is not unlike collage, only in 3D. Assemblage can be representational or abstracted but is often made of found objects or simply different materials.

Avant-Garde – A French term meaning “advance guard”, “vanguard” or literally “fore-guard” (the element of the army which went ahead of everyone else), it has come to mean people or works that are ahead of their time, radical, unorthodox, new and experimental.  

Chiaroscuro – An Italian word meaning light and dark. The best examples of this type of work are, in my opinion, shown in the works of Rembrandt. It is the use of light and dark sitting next to each other to create a strong contrast which in turn creates a strong sense of volume. 

Conceptual Art – This art form, which started in the 1960s, is the use of concepts and ideas to become more important than the finished piece. Conceptualists refuse to adhere to the standard rules of artmaking and push their ideas forward, sometimes resulting in performance art.

Figurative – This type of work is representational, often of the figure, but the term applies to any subject being reproduced in a realistic way.

Foreshortening – In order to make a piece of artwork appear to recede, an artist will over-emphasise the elements in the foreground and those in the background to create an illusion of depth.

Genre – This simply means the type of work for example, portraiture, landscape, abstract or still life. 

Iconography – Think icons. Icons express meaning and iconography is the use of images to suggest or express meaning in a piece of artwork.  

Impasto – An Italian word meaning dough, mixture or paste has become known in art as meaning a process of applying paint in a thick layer so that it stands out from the surface. Painters employing this technique will often use a palette knife, rather than a brush.

Medium – This is the base material used when making art products. When you create a particular medium, watercolour, acrylic, oil paint etc. each product uses a different base medium to formulate the end product but the term is most often used when describing which type of paint being used.

Modern – As a movement, the term refers to art created between the onset of Impressionism and Pop Art, which ushered in contemporary art. On a more general scale, however, “modern” can mean current or cutting-edge.

Narrative Art – This refers to the visual story a piece of art is telling. Not all artworks tell a story and for some it is all about the story (which easily flows over into conceptual art) but is generally the way the artists convey their story to you.

Pentimento – Another Italian word meaning repentance. In the art context this means that there is evidence another painting exists below the surface image or that the original painting has been changed or reworked later. This was a common practice which still occurs today as artists’ materials are so expensive.

Perspective – There are three types of perspective we refer to in art: Linear, Colour and Atmospheric. Linear perspective is the use of lines intersecting on the artwork so that you create a vanishing point (see below). Colour and Atmospheric perspective often work hand in hand as colours used are a lighter and or weaker tone to make them appear to be in the distance.

Scale – This is simply the relationship between two objects in relation to each other. For example, if a painting of a strawberry is painted on the side of a building it would need to be scaled up so that, even though it is far bigger than in reality, it still looks just like a strawberry.

Sfumato – An Italian word meaning shade, vanish or fade away. This technique is credited to Leonardo da Vinci, who used this smoky, toned-down, look in his works. The use of fine shading in paintings or drawings creates an unnoticeable transition between colour and tone producing a hazy or blurred form with softened edges. Not unlike the use of soft focus in photography.

Style – This refers to the type of work an artist produces. Often this is characterised by the approach an artist takes to their work or it could be a particular art movement works were produced in, a period or even a culture. So, someone who paints very formal flowers with a dark background could be said to be producing art in the style of the Dutch painters.

Tone – In this context tone refers to the use of colour being light or dark when producing work of a realistic nature to make it a more accurate rendition or to create more interest when producing an abstract piece. For example, a pastel painter will sometimes use coloured paper which they allow to show through as the mid tone of the work with dark and light colours for the tonal elements.

Trompe L’ Oeil – A French term meaning to trick or deceive the eye. This technique is used to create an optical illusion making the viewer see something as 3D when in fact it is 2D. This technique has been used to make spaces feel larger than they are or to make you believe that there are windows, walkways or arches which don’t actually exist. This technique, although referred to by the French term, goes back to ancient Greece, where, according to legend, two leading artists, Zeuxis and Parrhasius, took part in a contest. Apparently, Zeuxis painted grapes which looked so real that birds tried to eat them.

Vanishing point – This is used to produce artworks which have a 3D look to them.

One-point perspective uses one point on the horizon line to describe the relationship between the sizes of items in the foreground and those in the distance. The same is true of two- and three-point perspective. By using this technique your work will appear to be 3D, despite being produced on a flat surface. Three-point perspective is mostly used to describe buildings as seen from above, or below, but could equally be used in other interesting and fun ways. 

There are many terms used in different areas of art and this summary is very general but is also the kind of talk you are most likely to hear from some overbearing “know-all” you find yourself standing near at the next exhibition you go to. You know the type. Now, hopefully, you won’t feel intimidated by them and what they are saying because you have some understanding of the terms they are using.

Example of Sfumato

3 Replies to “Art Words and what they mean”

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