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.
term used for a style of European art, principally Italian, from around 1520–1600, which is characterised by its artificiality. Works are often vividly coloured with distorted human figures and unrealistic perspectives.
a small preliminary model made by a sculptor before starting the larger work.
along with its plural (media), can have various meanings in art. It can refer to the type of art (eg painting, drawing, sculpture or the ‘new media’ of video or online technologies) as well as the material from which it is made (eg bronze, oil paint on canvas, watercolour on paper or ‘mixed media’ when several mediums are used). It can also mean the substance that is mixed with pigment to make paint (eg linseed oil for oil paint, water for watercolour, egg yolk for tempera).
a tone process in printmaking whereby a metal plate is regularly roughened or ground all over with a tool with a curved and serrated edge, called a ‘rocker’ or ‘roulette’. This produces an even texture which prints a deeply velvety black. The texture is then scraped back by the artist in proportion to the lightness of tone required, working from dark to light; the more scraping back of the texture in an area, the lighter it will print.
environment, particularly cultural.
usually three-dimensional works based on simple geometric shapes, which may look like they have been industrially manufactured. Produced from the mid 1960s and typified by the work of Donald Judd (1928–1994) and Robert Morris (b1931), minimal art is linked to conceptual art.
an additive process in sculpture, in which material is steadily built up to produce the finished form. Typical modelling materials include clay, wax, plaster and papier-mâché. An internal frame, or armature, is often used to add structural support.
a movement in art, architecture and literature that responded to the rapid changes in society, technology and culture at the beginning of the 20th century. Modernism was marked by a deliberate break from traditional representation, rejecting the past as a model and proposing new forms of art suited to the present, focused on innovative forms and materials.
one colour; also a painting or drawing in one colour.
a written study (usually a book or academic paper) on one subject – in the case of art, that subject is the work of one artist.
a one-of-a-kind print made from an image drawn or painted in ink on a metal plate or sheet of glass. The image is transferred onto a sheet of paper while the ink is still wet, by running it through a printing press, or printed by hand with a variety of tools. One variation is to draw or rub from the back of a sheet of paper placed onto an inked-up surface, a process similar to the use of carbon paper.
an artwork created by assembling images or parts of images.
a distinctive feature or central element in a work of art.
art historians use specific terms to describe successive periods of Western art, such as Byzantine, Renaissance, Mannerism, baroque, rococo, neoclassicism, Romanticism, realism, modernism, postmodernism and so on. These periods are often debated, as it is impossible to define precise timeframes and boundaries and to account for the wide array of art produced within them. Similarly, the names of particular art ‘movements’ can be misleading. Some were consciously formed by the artists themselves, such as the group now commonly known as the Pre-Raphaelites. The Fauves, on the other hand, were unwittingly named by contemporary critics shocked by the ‘wild’ appearance of paintings by Henri Matisse (1869–1954) and his circle. Nevertheless, such terms are indispensible in navigating the complex history of Western art across time and its ever-changing styles. See also Pre-Raphaelite and Fauvism.