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Fine Art – Glossary of Art Terms

alla prima – (pronounced ah-la pree-ma) – Italian term, meaning to paint on canvas or other ground directly, in full, opaque color, without any preliminary drawing or underpainting done first. (Underpainting is often done to establish the larger masses of the composition, or to establish tonal values (lights and darks)).

camera obscura – A system of lenses and mirrors developed from the 16th to the 17th centuries, which functioned as a primitive camera for artists. With the camera obscura, painters could project the scene in front of them onto their painting surface, as a preliminary drawing. Vermeer, among others, is thought to have used the camera obscura.

chiaroscuro – (pronounced kyar-oh-scoor-oh) – Italian term for light and dark, referring to the modeling of form by the use of light and shade.

complementary colors – Colors which are located opposite one another on the color wheel (e.g., red and green, yellow and purple, blue and orange); colors which when mixed together will (in color theory) produce a neutral color (a color which is neither warm nor cool). In the case of the three primary colors (red, yellow and blue), the complementary of one primary will be the mixture of the other two primaries (complementary of red will be a mixture of yellow and blue, or green). When placed next to one another, complementary colors will make one another appear much more intense, sometimes in an “eye-popping” sense, which was utilized by Op artists of the 1960’s to create optical effects. Also in color theory, an object’s primary color has its complementary color in its shadows (e.g., the shadows on and around a painted yellow apple will contain some purple).

composition – The process of arranging the forms of two- and three-dimensional visual art into a unified whole, by means of elements and principles of design, such as line, shape, color, balance, contrast, space, etc., for purposes of formal clarity and artistic expression.

contour – The outer edge of forms which implies three dimensions, in contrast to an outline, which is a boundary of two-dimensional, flat form. Also, a type of line drawing which captures this three-dimensional outer edge, with its fullness and recession of form.

contrapposto – (pronounced con-tra-pos-to) – Italian term, meaning to represent freedom of movement within a figure, as in ancient Greek sculpture, the parts being in asymmetrical relationship to one another, usually where the hips and legs twist in one direction, and the chest and shoulders in another.

foreshortening – Perspective applied to a single object in an image, for a three-dimensional effect, which often results in distortion with possible emotional overtones. It is used particularly with the human figure, in Renaissance and Mannerist art.

gesso – An undercoating medium used on the canvas or other painting surface before painting, to prime the canvas; usually a white, chalky, thick liquid. In the mid-20th century, gesso became available already commercially prepared; before this time, artists often mixed their own gesso mixture.

glaze/glazing – A glaze is a thin layer of translucent oil paint applied to all or part of a painting, to modify the tone or color underneath. Glazing is the process of using this technique.

golden section – A mathematical ratio first used by the Greeks in their architecture, and developed further in the Renaissance, which was said to be in tune with divine proportion and the harmony of the universe. It has been used by artists to divide the picture surface (as a compositional device); among others, Seurat and Mondrian are thought to have used this ratio to create compositions.

grisaille – (pronounced gri-zale) – Painting entirely in monochrome (tones of one color), in a series of grays. Strictly speaking, monochrome is in any one color, such as red, blue or black; grisaille means in neutral grays only (French term). Grisaille may be used for its own sake as decoration, or may be the first stage in building up an oil painting (to establish the tonal range of the image). Grisaille was also formerly used as a model for an engraver to work from.

hue – Referring to the actual color of a form or object, e.g., a red car.

impasto – An Italian term for oil paint applied very thickly onto the canvas or other support, resulting in evident brushstrokes (visible).

local color – The actual color of a form or object, uninfluenced by the effects of light or reflected color. For instance, a vase may be turquoise (the local color), but appear pale blue because of sunlight hitting it in certain places; dark blue because of areas in shadow; and many subtle color shades in certain areas because of reflected light from surrounding surfaces.

medium – Material or technique an artist works in; also, the (usually liquid or semi-liquid) vehicle in which pigments are carried or mixed (e.g., oil, egg yolk, water, refined linseed oil).

one-point linear perspective – Developed in 15th century Italy, a mathematical system for indicating spatial distance in two-dimensional images, where lines converge in a single vanishing point located on the horizon line, as seen by a stationary viewer. (See also two-point linear perspective.)

pentimenti – Italian term, from the word meaning ‘repent’; refers to the lines or marks which remain after an artist corrects his/her drawing (or painting). Traditionally, this meant that these lines or marks remained unintentionally, in the quest for the perfectly drawn figure, for instance. However, at the end of the 19th century (with Cezanne), these marks became part of the visual expression; his figure drawings, for example, often show several contours in the search for the “correct” one contour. With Cezanne’s drawings, these multiple contours in fact aid in the expression of three dimensions, more than one contour alone would do, giving a sense of roundness and volume. In addition, these pentimenti contribute in an expressive sense. In drawings and paintings since, some artists have taken advantage of this expressive function of pentimenti, particularly in painting, and have left the marks/lines deliberately, or even created them on purpose. They can add richness to a work.

scumbling – A painting technique (the opposite of glazing), consisting of putting a layer of opaque oil paint over another layer of a different color or tone, so that the lower layer is not completely obliterated, giving an uneven, broken effect.

shade – A dark value of a color, i.e., a dark blue; as opposed to a tint, which is a lighter shade of a color, i.e., light blue. Also, to shade a drawing means to add the lights and darks, usually to add a three-dimensional effect.

sfumato – (pronounced sfu-ma-to) – Italian term meaning smoke, describing a very delicate gradation of light and shade in the modeling of figures; often ascribed to da Vinci’s work (also called blending). Da Vinci wrote that ‘light and shade should blend without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke’, in his Notes on Painting.

sgraffito – (pronounced sgraf-ee-to) – Italian term meaning scratched; in painting, one color is laid over another, and scratched in (with the other end of the brush, for example) so that the color underneath shows through.

tint – A light value of a color, i.e., a light red; as opposed to a shade, which is a dark value, i.e., dark red.

tone – The lightness or darkness of an area in terms of black to white; also called value, i.e., a light or dark red, or light or dark gray.

underpainting – A layer of color or tone applied to the painting surface before the painting itself is begun, to establish the general compositional masses, the lights and darks (values) in the composition, or as a color to affect/mix with subsequent layers of color. Underpainting is generally a thin, semi-opaque layer of paint.

value – The lightness or darkness of a line, shape or area in terms of black to white; also called tone; e.g., a light red will have a light value; a dark red will have a dark value.

wash – A thin layer of translucent (or transparent) paint or ink, particularly in watercolor; also used occasionally in oil painting.