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.
precursor of the photographic camera. A dark room into which light entered through a single, extremely small hole (aperture), causing an image to appear on the opposite wall, which showed the scene outside but upside down. Eventually, smaller and portable box versions were built.
a full-size drawing used as a study for a painting, fresco, stained glass or tapestry. Such cartoons often have pinpricks along the outlines, so that a bag of soot could be patted or ‘pounced’ over the lines, leaving black dots on the surface beneath.
a process where plaster, clay, wax or metal in liquid form is poured into a mould. When the liquid has solidified, the mould is removed, leaving a replica (cast) of the original.
a comprehensive list of an artist’s works, usually described and illustrated, which may include where the works have been exhibited, where they have been reproduced and who has owned them (their provenance).
Common Era. Used instead of AD.
from the French term for China (‘chinois’). A style of decorative or fine art inspired by art and design from China and other Asian countries. Common in Europe in the 18th century.
an art style that emphasises form, proportion and balance. Specifically used to name the art practice of ancient Greece and Rome, especially of Greece in the 4th and 5th centuries BCE.
an influential group of artists, existing from 1949–1951, whose name is based on the capital cities of Denmark (Copenhagen), Belgium (Brussels) and the Netherlands (Amsterdam). Influenced by primitive art and the work of Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Paul Klee (1879–1940), Joan Miró (1893–1983) and Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985). Artists include Karel Appel (1921–2006).
a work made from the assemblage of different materials, such as photographic images, newspaper cuttings and fabric, into one whole form. Collage became an accepted artistic technique in the early 20th century with the production of various printed publications.
a print produced from a surface built up in relief by collaging various materials onto it with glue.
a type of abstract painting, originating in the USA in the 1940s and ’50s, which features large sections of flat, solid colour, often on huge canvases. Artists include Mark Rothko (1903–1970), Barnett Newman (1905–1970), Clyfford Still (1904–1980), Helen Frankenthaler (b1928). Closely related to abstract expressionism.
a print that is printed with inks of different colours. A hand-coloured print is printed in ink of one colour and other colours are added by hand, usually in watercolour or gouache; in an edition of hand-coloured prints, each impression is coloured individually.
the study of how people perceive and react to colour and of the concepts behind how colour is used in art practice.
American artist Robert Rauschenberg incorporated aspects of both painting and sculpture in his works. In 1954, he coined the term ‘combine’ to describe these hybrid constructions, with his wall works called ‘combine paintings’ and his floor works ‘combines’. This work was a reaction against abstract expressionism, which was common in the USA in the 1940s and 50s.
the arrangement of elements within an artwork (such as main subject, supporting subjects, foreground, background) and the relative emphasis of these elements.
emerged as an art movement in the 1960s, which followed the principle of art as the expression of ideas. Art theory and concepts became more important than the art-objects themselves. For conceptual artists, art wasn’t an end in itself but a way of making a statement about art and exploring the nature of knowledge and culture – or how it is we know what we know. The influence of Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) (particularly the unassisted readymade) was crucial to conceptual art.
a term coined in 1930 by Theo van Doesburg (1883–1931) for a type of abstract art with no basis in reality and no use of symbols.
an art movement that started in Russia around 1917 and developed in Germany. It produced a form of abstract sculpture which responded to the new industrialised society and used materials that were new at the time, such as plastics, glass and steel.
a movement begun by Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) and Georges Braque (1882–1963) around 1907. Influenced by African sculpture and the work of Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), it presented a new abstracted way of depicting reality from multiple, simultaneous viewpoints. Often divided into two phases: analytical and synthetic.
literally means ‘keeper’ and, as such, a curator has a duty of care, in this case for artworks. There are curators of collections, which is the key role in a museum, and there are exhibition curators. Curators of collections develop a policy of broad areas to be collected and a strategy for prioritising options within that policy. They are the primary interpreter for the work on behalf of the artist. They write texts, research bibliographies, exhibition records and so on, to make the records as complete and as accurate as possible. Finally, they arrange displays that make the collections available to the public in different contexts and innovative configurations, to bring out different aspects of the works.