Have you ever listened to artists or art enthusiasts talk about art? If so, you may have noticed that they have their own language. One might say something like…

“The large scale of this abstract piece makes it dramatic, along with its bold brushstrokes, angular lines, geometric shapes, and contrast in values. And yet, weaved throughout is the inclusion of lesser organic forms, saturated hues, and smooth textures — rendered with transparent glazes — which denotes a sense of intimacy, and unity. It reminds me of youth — full of innocence, energy, and hope.”

Another might add something like…

“And notice how our eye is directed to rest for a moment — at the focal point — before rejoining the excitement of the pattern that surrounds it, and how balance is achieved by the grouping of elements placed away from the sparse area. What I like most, however, is how the use of color discord adds just enough tension to keep our interest. The whole speaks to me about the uncertainty and excitement of new beginnings.”

And then they turn to you — because you got too close while eavesdropping. They ask your opinion. If all you can think to say is that it’s nice, you may want to learn some art terms.

Art terms are a body of terminology used to explain the materials and applications used in creating works of art, as well as important styles and periods in art history. Many art terms are unfamiliar to those who have never studied art.

That said, don’t be too impressed by people who use art terms — they are easy to learn. You can look to the glossary in the back of an art history book, or a book about the materials and techniques used to produce artwork. If you’re still unsure about the meaning of a term, you can go to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms, or Goggle it. In fact, Google Arts & Culture is a website that makes it easy to explore artists, movements, mediums, and more. But to get you started right now, I’ve listed below some of my favorite art terms, in alphabetical order.


Abstract Art: Art that uses shapes, colors, forms and lines to achieve an effect instead of attempting to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality.

Acrylic Paint: A water-based paint that is fast-drying. It can be used thickly or thinly depending how much water or medium is added to it.

Aesthetic Movement: A movement that started in the late nineteenth century that focused on pure beauty with an emphasis on the visual alluring qualities of art, as opposed to practical narrative considerations.

Airbrush: A tool that uses compressed air to spray paint, so to create artwork or touch-up photographs.

Architecture: The art or profession that involves designing and constructing houses, buildings, and other large structures.

Art History: The study of history related to the development of painting, sculpture, architecture, and the other visual arts.

Art Movement: A tendency or style in art, followed by a group of artists with a specific common philosophy or goal, during a period of months, years, or decades.

Avant-garde: A French term that means, “advance guard,” but is used to describe works of art, artists, and art movements that are exploratory and innovative.


Background: The area, within artwork, that appears to be the farthest away from the viewer, or the area placed behind a figure or scene.

Balance: A basic principle of art in which elements are arranged in such a way as to suggest a sense of visual weight and equilibrium within a composition.

Brushwork: The manner in which paint is applied with a brush in a work of art.

Canvas: Cloth on which artists paint, typically with oil paint but also acrylic and other media.

Color: The property of an object with different sensations seen by the eye, as a result of how the object reflects or emits light.

Color Discord: Color combinations that clash or are visually disturbing to the eye. Though unpleasant, they are sometimes used to attract attention or create excitement within a design or work of art.

Color Schemes: Also referred to as Color Harmony, and refers to color combinations that work well together and are pleasing or harmonious to the eye. 

Color Temperature: Colors that seem hot or cold. For example, red reminds us of hot fire, while light blue reminds us of cool ice.

Color Theory: The knowledge of various color schemes that enable an artist to enhance their work with distinctive color harmonies. To learn more, go to my Color Theory blog post.

Composition: An arrangement of various elements in a work of art.

Continuation: Something that carries on after a pause or break.

Contours: The sketched outline of a shape.

Concept Art: A form of illustration where several solutions are explored to convey an idea. It is not the development of visual art, but the ideas that are done before producing a film, video game, comic book, or other media product.

Conceptual Art: A modern form of contemporary art, that emerged as an art movement in the 1960s and remained active into the 1970s, where the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the finished work.

Contrapposto: In sculpture, an Italian word that means “counterpose,” which is the asymmetrical posture of a figure’s weight is distributed mostly onto one foot for a realistic stance.

Crosshatching: A series of parallel lines used especially in drawing as a method of darkening areas.

Chroma: The intensity or purity of color, or its degree of vividness.

Contrast: An unlikeness or difference when compared to its surroundings parts.

Critique: An analysis or assessment of something. In art, this is the evaluation of artwork in a detailed way.

Cubism: A style of modern art that evolved at the beginning of the 20th century in response to a fast changing world, which challenged conventional forms of perspective, in order to develop a new way of seeing.


Dada: A form of artistic disorder in response to a dislike of the social, political, and cultural values of the time. Not a style of art, but more of a protest movement against the establishment.

Density: The term density is used to describe the quantity of light that emerges from a dark or light color. When color is applied to surfaces, it can be in a manner that is light and transparent, or dark and dense.

Design: A plan with a specific intention, and decisions upon the look of something, often by making a detailed drawing of it.

Elements: The use of line, shape, value, color, movement size and pattern, used to construct the framework of a design.


Fauvism: A non-naturalistic style of painting that uses bright colors, which began in Paris around 1905 when some artists began experimenting with new possibilities for color.

Figurative: A form of modern art that refers to the real world and usually includes the human figure.

Fixative: A chemical that is usually sprayed over a finished painting to keep the colors from changing and to protect it, and to prevent dry media from smudging.

Focal Point: This is a point of interest which attracts attention and encourages the viewer to look further. Often, art without a focal point can be boring.

Form: The visible shape or configuration of something.

Foreground: The part of a composition that is closest to the viewer.

Foreshortening: A technique used by artists to distort the perspective in order to create the illusion of depth, often with subjects that appear to recede into the picture plane.


Gouache: A water-based matte paint, sometimes called opaque watercolor.

Graphic: A design or visual representation of an object or idea.


Horizon Line: A line in drawings and paintings that show where land or water meet the sky.

Hue: A more specific or technical way of referring to the name of a color. For example, green is a hue.


Image: Usually this word means “picture” or what is depicted. It can also apply to a design where combined colors, shapes, or brushstrokes form a picture.

Impressionism: A practice of painting that developed in France in the nineteenth century of painting outdoors and spontaneously, rather than in a studio from sketches. Most impressionists painted landscapes and scenes of everyday life.

Integrate: To form, coordinate, or blend into a larger whole.


Juxtaposition: The placement of things close together or side by side for comparison or contrast.


Kinetic Sculpture: A sculpture that incorporates or depends on motion.


Landscape: A work of art that depicts a scene in nature, mostly with views of the countryside. Similarly, seascapes refers to views of open water, and cityscape refers to buildings and city life.

Line: A long mark or stroke.

Local Color: The natural color of an object that is not modified in any way.


Materials: Materials refer to the substances used in making art, such as clay, stone, wood, and colored pigments.

Medium: Medium is the term used to distinguish one form of artwork from another, such as painting, printmaking, sculpture, and so on. It is also material used to create artwork, such as watercolor paint, pastels, charcoal, and more.

Middle Ground: The area within a picture that is between the foreground and background.

Mixed Media: The use of two or more types of media, such as paint, ink, charcoal, pastel, and more, which are combined in a single composition.

Model: A person who poses for an artist in order for the artist to observe and capture their likeness.

Monochromatic: The use of only one color, or artwork containing only one color, usually with various values.

Mood: A state of mind, emotion, or evoked feelings.

Movement: Ways in which an artist portrays motion within their artwork.


Negative Space: The background or space that surrounds the subject or positive space.

Narrative: A story that is spoken, written, or visual, which describes an event or a series of related events.


Oblique: Something that is neither perpendicular or parallel, but is instead slanting or skewed.

Oil Paint: A thick paint used by artists with a pigment that is oil based, which slowly dries when exposed to air.


Paint: Pigment, binder, and solvent combined to produce a medium that can be used to create works of art, or the act of using paint to produce a picture.

Painterly: An approach or technique that an artist uses to produce obvious brush strokes, as well as the look of the finished work.

Palette: A surface that an artist uses for mixing paints on, or a set of colors used by an artist.

Palette Knife: A knife that an artist uses for mixing paints, or applying paint on a canvas or other surface to produce a painting.

Panel: A flat board, sometimes made of wood, which can be used as a painting support.

Pastels: Art sticks containing a powdered pigment and binder, used for making drawings.

Pattern: A repeating element of line, shape, or form.

Perspective: a technique used to create the illusion of depth and space on a flat surface.

Plane: A flat or level surface.

Principles: Rules, such as harmony, contrast, rhythm, repetition, gradation, balance, and dominance, that are applied to the elements in order to organize a design.

Pigments: A fine powder, or sometimes another substance, which is used to produce the color of any medium. When pigments are mixed with oil, water, or another fluid, they becomes paints.

Pop Art: A visual art movement during the 1950’s and 1960’s that was influenced by commercialism, pop music, and youth culture. It included different styles of painting and sculpture, but had in common an interest in mass-media and mass-production.

Portrait: The representation of a person or animal, which usually captures their likeness.

Pose: The position of a figure.

Positive Space: The main focus of a picture, compared to the background or negative space.

Post Impressionism: Not a formal movement or style, but a few independent artists who in the end of the 19th century took their art beyond Impressionism by developing a range of personal styles.

Primary Colors: Red, yellow, and blue, which are the three base colors that can be combined in different ways to make all other colors.

Primer: A substance used to coat a surface in preparation to be painted on.

Properties: A quality belonging to an individual or thing.

Proximity: The nearness of objects or elements.

Pure color: An unmixed color, or a color free of any other color.

Papier-mâché: a substance consisting of pieces of paper covered in glue or a mixture of flour and water, which becomes hard when dry, that is used to cover objects and make paper sculptures.



Realism: A mid nineteenth century artistic movement that closely imitated scenes from everyday life, but also describes works of art that have been painted in a realistic way.

Renaissance: A French word meaning rebirth, used to describe a period in Europe between the 14th and 16th centuries, when there was a revival of Classical art and culture.

Repetition: An instance of repeating something, such as line, shape, form, value, color, and more.


Scale: The ratio between the size of an actual object and its representation.

Scene: A setting or surroundings where something is positioned to convey part of a narrative or story.

Sedate: Calm and relaxed. Excitement is the opposite of sedate.

Sepia: A redish-brown ink that is used for drawing.

Surrealism: An art movement in the 20th century that explored the unconscious mind by rejecting the rational world to seek after a new kind of heightened reality, which was found in images drawn from the artist’s dreams and imagination.

Shade: When black is added to a color, the result is a darkened version of the color.

Shape: A flat, enclosed area rendered through lines, textures, colors, or an area enclosed by other shapes.

Stencil: a piece of card or plastic with a shape or letters cut out of it that can be placed on a surface and painted over to produce a design or words.

Still life: An arrangement of inanimate objects used as an artist’s reference.

Style: A classification based on visual appearance. In art, style is the aesthetic approach of an artist, art movement, period, or culture.

Symbol: Images that represent or stand for other things. Often, when used in artwork, there’s a moral or belief attached to it.


Tint: When white is added to a color. The result is a lighter version of the color.

Tones: The lightness or darkness of a color, which can be a tint or shade of a color.

Transition: A change from one state or subject to another. For example, a gradual change in color value from dark to light.

Trompe l’oeil: In French this means, “deceive the eye.” It is a technique that uses realistic imagery to produce an optical illusion of existing in three dimensions.

Texture: In a work of art, the visual effect used to describe a texture, such as rough, smooth, shiny, furry, and so on. There is also actual texture, which is not only how the surface looks, but how it feels to the touch. And abstract texture refers to translating the concept of an element using a textural pattern.

Turpentine: A thinner and medium for oil paints, which is also used to remove oil paint from brushes.



Visual Weight: When an area or element within a composition draws our attention, it is said to have more visual weight. It is usually achieved through the use of contrast or color.


Watercolor: A type of paint that is mixed with water, and also the artwork resulting from the use of this medium.

Wash: A technique that uses diluted ink or watercolor paint to cover an area, resulting in a semi-transparent layer of the ink or color used.

Woodcut: a square piece of wood with a pattern into it, used for making prints.



Yellowing: An undesirable effect, usually associated with oil paintings, perhaps due to varnishes or finishes turning yellow over time.


Okay, so you probably knew some of the above terms before reading their definitions, but the ones you didn’t know, you now know! And there’s many more terms that you can learn with a little research. Once you have enough terms memorized, you can use the ones that you find most useful when taking about art.

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