Glossary of Art Terms

this is a glossary of terms for all things art including watercolour   8540995062?profile=RESIZE_400x

in no particular order and under construction, so please do check back regularly for updates:




COMPOSITION: aka design, sometimes considered a dirty word in fine art, but EVERYTHING is designed (toothbrush, your car and cellphone, your diamond ring!) so snobs should shift aside. 

PRINCIPLES OF DESIGN: ideas used in the creation of a design. Balance, harmony, contrast, dominance, unity, repetition, gradation (my classes are pretty much based on this but I don't always say "the Balance principle of design ..." you have to kisten, pick it up and run with it!

ELEMENTS OF DESIGN: line, shape, value, colour, texture, size, direction (see principles)




Primary Colours - red, yellow and blue

Secondary Colours – two primaries mixed together making orange, green and violet

Tertiary Colours – all three primaries mixed together but on adjacent parts of the colour wheel – grays, browns and blacks ie mixing a primary and an adjacent secondary.

COMPLEMENTARY COLOURS colours opposite each other on the the colour wheel. In watercolour, used to neutralise and/or darken saturate colours

Hue - the name of a colour eg red, blue, yellow.

Tone – lightness and darkness of a colour– achieved with diluting pigment with water.

Intensity (also called chroma or saturation) – the brightness or dullness of a colour.

SATURATE COLOUR: colour of high chroma or intensity - bright yellow, bright red etc. On a colour wheel, high chromatic colours are placed on the outer rim of the wheel. 

NEUTRAL COLOURS: any colour that not high in chroma/intensity. in watercolour, a pigment that has been mixed with its complement, eg green added to red. On the colour wheel, colours placed between central black and outer saturate hues have been neutralized with a complement, the closer to the center of the wheel the "blacker" they become.



Accent: A detail, brushstroke, or area of colour placed in a painting for emphasis.

Acid Free: Acid free refers to papers without acid (pH) in the pulp when manufactured. High acidity papers degrade quickly.

Alla Prima: Italian phrase meaning "first time". Painting directly in one session with no under-drawing or painting. Usually refers to oil or acrylic painting.

Analogous colours: A grouping of related colours next to each other on the colour wheel. Example: Yellow, Yellow Green, and Green

Archival Paper: Archival watercolour paper is any pure 100% rag , cotton, or linen watercolour paper of neutral or slightly low ph, alkaline (base) vs. acidic, and pure ingredients. Some synthetic papers are archival in nature but have unique working properties. 

Aerial perspective: Suggesting perspective in a painting with changes in tone and colour between 
foreground and background. The background is usually blurred and hues are less intense and often glazed with a cool purple wash

Back runs: When a fresh brush stroke hits a still damp wash it will force the original wash out in a irregular, often fractal manner (also known as back wash, bloom or cauliflower).

Background: The area of a painting farthest from the viewer. In a landscape this would include the sky and horizon. In a still life or portrait it could be a wall or room interior

Binder: That which holds the paint together, such as linseed oil for oil painting, polymers for acrylics, gum arabic for watercolours and gouache.

Blocking in: The simplifying and arranging of compositional elements using rough shapes, forms, or geometric equivalents.

Blotting: using an absorbent material such as tissues or paper towels, or a squeezed out brush, to pick up and lighten a wet or damp wash. Can be used to lighten large areas or pick out fine details.

Body Colour: The mixing of opaque white gouache with transparent watercolour; or gouache colours in general.

Broken colours: The unequal mixing of two complementary colours.

Caricature: Art that exaggerates the qualities, defects, or peculiarities of a person or idea, usually in a humourous manner. Traditionally used in editorial cartooning.

Carpenter's Pencil: A graphite pencil that features a flat ovoid wooden grip surrounding a wide graphite core capable of creating chiseled thick and thin pencil lines. Used for sketching and drawing. Must be hand sharpened and shaped.

CAST SHADOW: a shadow cast from one object onto another eg an apple casts a shadow onto the table

Charcoal: Used for drawing and for preliminary sketching on primed canvas for oil painting. 

Chiaroscuro: 1) The rendering of light and shade in painting; the subtle gradations and marked variations of light and shade for dramatic effect. 2) The style of painting light within deep shadows. Caravaggio and Rembrandt are considered masters of chiaroscuro.

Chroma: The purity or degree of saturation of a colour; relative absence of white or gray in a colour.

Cold Pressed: Watercolour paper that is Cold Pressed (CP) or 'Not' Pressed (NP) has mildly rough texture. It takes colour smoothly but the tooth allows for slight irregularities and graining in washes.

Collage: A composition made of cut and pasted pieces of different materials.

Complementary colours: Colours at opposite points on the colour wheel, for example, red and green, yellow and purple. (See Primary and Secondary Colours)

Composition: The arrangement of elements of form and colour within an artwork.

Deckle: The tapered rough edges of watercolour and drawing papers, also refered to as "barbs".

Drawing: The act of marking lines on a surface, and the product of such action. Includes pencil, charcoal, pen and ink, conte crayon, markers, silverpoint, and other graphic media on paper.

Dry Brush: Any textured application of paint where your brush is fairly dry (thin or thick paint) and you rely the hairs of your brush, the angle of attack of your stroke, and the paper's surface texture to create broken areas of paint. Study the range of technique in Andrew Wyeth's drybrush watercolours. Used for rendering a variety of textured surfaces: stone, weathered wood, foliage, lakes and rivers, bark, clouds.   

Easel: A stand or resting place for working on or displaying a painting. A simple easel can be a tripod with a cross bar for the painting to sit on.

Ferrule: The metal cylinder that surrounds and encloses the hairs on a brush. Customarily made of nickel or nickel-plated base metal.

Figure: A human or animal form.

Flat Wash: any area of a painting where a wash of single colour and value is painted in a series of multiple, overlapping stokes following the flow of the paint. A slightly tilted surface aids the flow of your washes. Paper can be dry or damp.

Foreground: The area of a painting closest to the viewer. In a landscape this would include the area from the viewer to the middle distance. • See Background, Middle ground.

Foreshortening: The technique of representing a three dimensional image in two dimensions using the laws of perspective.

FORM SHADOW: the shadow created by the form of the shape on the side away from the light source.

Fugitive Colours: The pigments in the "fugitive" class of paints have the unfortunate characteristic of looking beautiful and unique when first painted but show bad side-effects over time. 

Genre: A category of artistic work marked by a particular specified form, technique, or content.

Genre painting: The depiction of common, everyday life in art, as opposed to religious or portrait painting for example.

Gesso: Ground plaster, chalk or marble mixed with glue or acrylic medium, generally white. 

Giclees: Editioned prints made with high resolution ink jet printers using pigmented inks and archival, artist-grade papers. Lightfast ratings close to original paintings. 

Glazed Wash: Any transparent wash of colour laid over a dry, previously painted area. Used to adjust colour, value, or intensity of underlying painting. 

Gouache: 1) Watercolour painting technique using white and opaque colours. 2) A water-based paint, much like transparent watercolour but made in opaque form. Traditionally used in illustration.

Graded Wash: A wash that smoothly changes in value from dark to light. Most noted in landscape painting for open sky work, but an essential skill for watercolour painting in general. 

Graphite: A type of carbon used for pencils, transfer sheets and as a dry lubricant. Synthetic graphite is made from carborundum.

Gum Arabic: Gum Arabic is produced from the sap of the African acacia tree and is available in crystalline form or an already prepared solution. It binds watercolour pigments when used with water and glycerine or honey.

Highlight: A point of intense brightness, such as the reflection in an eye.

Hot Pressed: Hot pressed (HP) watercolour paper is pressed for an extremely smooth work surface.

Hue: The colour of a pigment or object. Not relating to tone or value.

India Ink:  A black pigment made of lampblack and glue or size and shaped into cakes or sticks, also an ink made from this pigment.

Inert Pigment: A powdered paint additive that does not change the shade or hue, but extends or otherwise imparts a special working quality to the paint. Fillers are used in lower and student grade paints as extenders, making the paint cheaper to produce, but of lower quality. 

Key: The lightness (high key) or darkness (low key) of a painting.

Landscape: A painting in which the subject matter is natural scenery.

Lightfast: A pigments resistance to fading on long exposure to sunlight. Watercolours are rated lightfast on a scale of I-IV. I and II ratings are the most permanent.

Lineal Perspective: using a vanishing point to represent 3D volumes and space on a 2D surface.

Local Colour: The actual colour of an object being painted, unmodified by light or shadow. (An orange is orange)

Masking fluid: A latex gum product that is used to cover a surface you wish to protect from receiving paint. Also referred to as liquid frisket.

Medium: 1) The type of art material used: pencil, ink, watercolour, oil, acrylic, egg tempera, etc. 2) The liquid mixed with paint to thin, aid or slow drying, or alter the working qualities of the paint.

Middle ground: The area of a painting between the foreground and the background. In a landscape this usually where your focal point would be. • See Background, Foreground.

Modeling: Representing colour and lighting effects to make an image appear three-dimensional.

Monochromatic: A single colour in all it's values.

Motif: A term meaning "subject". Flowers or roses can be a motif.

Negative Space: The areas of an artwork that are NOT the primary subject or object. Negative Space defines the subject by implication.

Non-staining colours: Pigments that can be lifted cleanly (wet or re-wet) with little or no discolouration of the underlying paper fibers.

Opaque: A paint that is not transparent by nature or intentionally. A dense paint that obscures or totally hides the underpainting in any given artwork.

Ox Gall: Derived from the bile of domestic cows or other bovines, ox gall is added to paint as a surfactant or wetting agent to allow paint to flow more freely.

Palette: 1) paint storage and mixing container, or 2) The selection of colours an artist chooses to work with.

Perspective: Representing three-dimensional volumes and space in two dimensions in a manner that imitates depth, height and width as seen with stereoscopic eyes. Associated terms, lineal perspective and aerial perspective.

Primary colours: Red, yellow, and blue, the mixture of which will yield all other colours in the spectrum but which themselves cannot be produced through a mixture of other colours.

Resist: Any material, usually wax or grease crayons, that repel paint or dyes. Lithography is a grease (ink) and water (wet stone or plate) resist printing technique.

Rice Paper: A generic term for Japanese and other asian forms of paper made for artist's use.

Rough: Rough watercolour paper has a coarse rough texture. This surface allows for maximum graining of washes and accidental highlights and texture. 

Scumbling: Dragging a dense or opaque colour across another colour creating a rough texture.

Secondary colours: Colours obtained by mixing two primary colours: green, violet, and orange.

SILHOUETTE PAINTING: painting a shape that looks like the whole form of a person/boat/car in shadow in flat wash

Sketch: A rough or loose visualization of a subject or composition..

Staining Colours: Colours that cannot be fully removed from your paper. 

Still life: Any work whose subject matter is inanimate objects.

Study: A comprehensive drawing of a subject or details of a subject that can be used for reference while painting.

Support: The surface on which a painting is made: canvas, paper, wood, parchment, metal, etc.

Texture: The actual or virtual representation of different surfaces, paint applied in a manner that breaks up the continuous colour or tone.

Thumbnail Sketch: Small (credit card size or so) tonal and compositional sketches to try out design or subject ideas.

TINTING STRENGTH: a pigments darkness or lightness, eg it's ability to mix dark values

Tone: The light and dark values of a colour.

Underpainting: The first, thin transparent laying in of colour in a painting. A process of blocking-in (or washing-in) a preliminary light to mid value around whites and lights. 

Values: The relative lightness or darkness of colours or of grays.

Variegated Wash: A wet wash created by blending a variety of discrete colours so that each colour retains it's character while also blending uniquely with the other colours in the wash.

Vehicle: The liquid used as a binder in the manufacture of paint.

Vignette: A painting which is shaded off around the edges leaving a pleasing shape within a border of white or colour.

Wash: A transparent layer of diluted colour that is brushed on.

Watercolour: Painting in pigments suspended in water and a binder such as gum arabic. Traditionally used in a light to dark manner, using the white of the paper to determine values.

Watercolour paper: paper made from 100% cotton rag, exhibition grade

Wet-on-wet: The technique of painting wet colour into a wet surface .








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  • Very useful information. I have copied it for future reference. 

    Thankyou Amanda. 

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