Art terms explained
In this glossary we’ve explained some common art terms, and plan to add more terms and more detail. Use the Website feedback page to suggest additional terms to be explained.
a style of art which does not portray a physical likeness or represent the real (or imagined) world, or which depicts real forms in a simplified (abstracted) way by emphasising line, colour or geometry. Also known as non-representational or non-figurative art. The term abstraction can refer to the process of simplifying/abstracting, or to a work of art in this style, or to this style of art generally. See also figurative.
art produced by artists who have studied or are studying in art academies. Also known as academism. Major academies included the Accademia di S Luca in Rome, founded in 1593 under the patronage of Pope Sixtus V, the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris (1648) and Royal Academy of Arts in London (1768). The term usually refers to the academies of Europe in the 19th century, particularly the Royal Academy in London and the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, or to the art produced under their conservative influence. Gradually, ‘academic’ became a byword for the art establishment and its doctrines, such as the idea of a hierarchy of genres.
a type of abstract art (specifically abstract expressionism) in which paint is dribbled, poured, splashed or smeared in broad gestures. The idea behind it is that a painting is as much a record of its creation (the artist’s actions) as a finished product. Artists include Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), Robert Motherwell (1915–1991).
derived from the Greek word meaning ‘feeling’. Refers to something that is judged by its beauty or taste rather than its practical value. See also Aestheticism.
a British art movement of the late 19th century that believed art existed for the sake of beauty, not for any other purpose (eg political, religious); summarised in the idea ‘art for art’s sake’. Artists include James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898). Related to Symbolism. See also aesthetic.
a story or image that has a symbolic meaning. It may be a figure of a person who stands for a concept such as love, death, peace, wealth or justice.
angle of view
in photography, the area of a scene that a lens covers or sees. It is determined by the focal length of the lens. A wide-angle lens (short focal length) includes more of the scene – a wider angle of view.
the opening in a camera lens through which light passes. The opening is formed by the metal leaf diaphragm inside the lens and is either fixed or adjustable. Aperture size is usually calibrated in f-numbers: the larger the number, the smaller the lens opening and the greater the depth of field (zone of sharpness). As aperture size increases, the depth of field is reduced.
in art practice, it involves incorporating existing images or objects into a context different to the original in order to alter their meaning.
an etching technique in printmaking used to create tone similar to an ink or watercolour wash. This is achieved by covering a metal plate with a granular, acid-resistant resin which sticks to the plate when it is heated. Acid then etches around the grains of resin, creating a distinctive aquatint texture.
literally ‘raw art’ or ‘crude art’ in French. A term coined by French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985) for art made by people not in the established art world, including psychiatric patients, prisoners and other outsiders, hence its alternative name of ‘outsider art’, which is often used more broadly to include primitive art – including children’s and folk art – and graffiti. See also naivety.
a style of design common in the 1920s and ’30s, which is related to art nouveau but more geometric.
literally ‘poor art’ in Italian. A movement of the mid to late 1960s where art was made from deliberately modest, often thrown-away materials or found objects. Artists include Giulio Paolini (b1940), Jannis Kounellis (b1936).
a type of abstract art prominent in Europe, particularly France, in the 1940s and ’50s. The term, which can be translated as both ‘informal art’ and ‘art without form’, was coined by French critic Michel Tapié in his book Un art autre, from which the style gets its other name, art autre (‘other art’). The European equivalent of abstract expressionism. Includes tachisme.
an artwork in book form, often handmade in limited edition or as a one-off. See also livre d’artiste.
literally ‘new art’ in French. An ornate decorative style in visual arts and architecture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, derived from forms in nature. Associated with Romanticism, Symbolism and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Known as Jugendstil (literally ‘youth style’) in German. Artists include Gustav Klimt (1862–1918), Alphonse Mucha (1860–1939). See also Secession.
Arts and Crafts Movement
a British movement of the late 19th century that reacted to industrialisation by reviving craftsmanship and design.
French for workshop or studio. Traditionally in Europe, students were taught art in a professional artist’s atelier, in a process that meant that one generation of artists was closely linked to the next. As apprentices, student artists would contribute at varying levels by preparing materials or carrying out basic parts of the master’s work (eg paintings backgrounds or drapery). Their own early independent work would usually show the strong influence of the master and studio, although they may then go on to develop their own ‘mature’ style, to a greater or lesser extent.
see Heidelberg School.
emerged in the Manifesto of surrealism of 1924 as a process of making work mechanically, randomly or by unconscious free association (rather than under the conscious control of the artist), eg the spontaneous drawings of Henri Michaux (1899–1984) or André Masson (1896–1987). See also surrealism.
French for vanguard, the term refers to artists and their often experimental work which was or is ahead of its times, when measured against society generally and its public institutions.