New to art collecting? Use our glossary of art terms - from abstract to ziggurat - to help you understand the words used across the art world. From methods of painting to artistic movements, sculpture and types of fine art prints, we explain the jargon behind beautiful works of art.


  • Originally referred to rock paintings and petroglyphs by Australia's first inhabitants but can now mean art from any indigenous race.

  • Much used term for modern art where traditional lines and form are replaced by unpredictable use of color and form. Can be offered across almost any medium.

  • A painting created by water soluble paint.

  • After

    Used when one artist has worked in the style of another artist (often a prominent figure) or used the exact content of another artist's work to create a similar work. For example, Mona Lisa by John Smith after Leonardo da Vinci. It's common for the work's artist to be anonymous.

  • Airbrush

    A spray painting method where the paint is applied by compressed air.

  • Alla Prima

    A painting technique where the pigment is applied in a single application with no underpainting.

  • Allegory

    A piece of art that reveals a hidden meaning, sometimes moral or political.

  • All-over Space

    A painting with no focal point where all parts of the canvas have equal importance. Jackson Pollock originated this style.

  • Animalier

    Animal art, which began in sculpture but was extended to portraits of dogs and other creatures.

  • Antiquity

    Art produced by the Greeks and Romans until the 5th century AD when the Roman Empire collapsed.

  • Applied Art

    Functional objects created to be beautiful. Furniture, ceramics such as vases and bowls, glass works etc.

  • An etching. An intaglio printmaking technique (where marks are made on a plate) using a copper or zinc plate. A resin is etched into the plate and heated.

  • Arabesque

    Motifs featuring interwoven plants, typical of Islamic design.

  • Short for Arts Décoratifs, taken from the name of an exposition held in Paris in 1925. Art Deco represented luxury, glamour, modernity and progress. Lots of angles and ziggurats.

  • A movement popular between 1890 and 1910 inspired by natural forms like plants and flowers, and frequently seen in the decorative arts.

  • A 19th century art movement inspired by the likes of John Ruskin and William Morris who valued craftsmanship over mechanization. Examples can be seen in applied arts like wallpaper and book design.

  • Automatism

    A technique for subconscious drawing where the unconscious guides the hand. Often surrealist.

  • Avant-garde

    From the French for "advance guard", this is experimental art that goes beyond the "norm" of contemporary art. A famous example is Marcel Duchamp's 1917 Fountain, a porcelain urinal.

  • Autochrome

    A color photograph technique invented by Louis Lumiere in 1903 using a glass plate covered in grains of dyed starch.


  • Bacchanal

    Painters who specialized in peasant scenes in 17th century art. Name comes from Pieter van Laer (1592-1642), a Dutch artist nicknamed "Il Bamboccio" or the Big Baby.

  • Banketjea

    Still life paintings featuring food. The term originates from the Dutch for "little banquet."

  • Baroque

    A style of exaggerated motion designed to produce drama. Can be applied across several mediums, not least paintings. Began around 1600 in Italy. Baroque painters include Diego Velázquez, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Rubens, Anthony van Dyck and Johannes Vermeer.

  • A German school (1919-1933) of design famous for its modernist architecture. Founded by Walter Gropius.

  • Belle Époque

    French for "beautiful era", which was 1890 until 1914. Think of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's poster for the Moulin Rouge.

  • Biscuit

    Unglazed white porcelain.

  • A private prayer book outlining the hours of prayer for the owner. Often illuminated.

  • Bookplate

    A pasted-in sign of a book's ownership, often created by an artist for a particular collector. Bookplates from the 19th century can be elaborate.

  • Burin

    A metal tool for engraving.

  • Bust

    A portrait sculpture showing the sitter's head and shoulders only.

  • Byzantine

    Art from the eastern Roman Empire around Constantinople, beginning in the 4th century AD.


  • Calligraphy

    The art of handwriting.

  • Camera obscura

    Photography technique where a darkened box with a convex lens or aperture projects the image of an external object onto a screen inside.

  • Canon

    A number of artworks that represent an entire field of art.

  • Canvas

    The fabric used for painting, usually linen or cotton, stretched across a frame.

  • Usually a painting or drawing where the subject's characteristics are exaggerated for a comic effect. Often used in jest or satire. Ralph Steadman and Gerald Scarfe are modern examples.

  • Carpet page

    In manuscript illumination, a page completely filled with decorative design.

  • A comprehensive list of an artist's work.

  • Ceramics

    Fired clay such as pottery and porcelain.

  • Charcoal

    A material used for drawings.

  • Cire perdue

    A 'lost wax' casting process used in bronze sculpture where the wax melts away.

  • Codex

    A manuscript in book form created using parchment.

  • Collage

    Art created by assembling a variety of forms such as paper and photography.

  • Color field painting

    A style of abstract painting characterized by large fields of solid color. Mark Rothko, Frank Stella and Helen Frankenthaler were all color field artists.

  • Commission

    To request a work of art to be produced.

  • Composition

    The overall effect of a piece of art.

  • Conceptual Art

    A complete departure from traditional art where the artist's idea overrides aesthetic values.

  • Constructivism

    An avant-garde movement that began in Russia and believed art could be constructed.

  • Contemporary Art

    A loose term for art created since 1970.

  • An early 20th century art movement featuring sharp, angular imagery even where such angles are impossible like the human body. The pioneers were Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso.

  • Curator

    The person who organizes an exhibition and, most importantly, selects the art.


  • Dada

    A European avant-garde movement in the early 20th century where artists rebelled against the status quo (World War I at the time) with illogical art that sometimes served as a protest tool as well.

  • A photographic method where an image on a silver-plated sheet of copper is treated with iodine.

  • Decorative art

    Art forms like ceramics, tapestries and stained glass that are primarily ornamental or decorative.

  • Diptych

    Pair of decorated panels, often hinged together, and used for devotional purposes in the Middle Ages.

  • Drawing

    The creation of art with pencil, charcoal, pen, or ink, on paper or card.

  • Jackson Pollock's abstract method of dripping, throwing or pouring paint onto a canvas.

  • Drypoint

    A copper engraving technique.


  • Emboss

    When a surface is molded, stamped or carved to produce a design in relief.

  • Enamelling

    A metalwork process where a substance is fused to metal at high temperature.

  • Enfant terribles

    A term often used in art to describe a young but brilliant artist who shocks with unconventional behavior. Tracey Emin, Damian Hirst and Jean-Michel Basquiat have all been enfant terribles.

  • Engraving

    The incision of lines into wood, metal or another hard surface.

  • Etching

    A print process where the design is drawn on a metal plate through a layer of acid-resistant wax.

  • Expressionism

    A 20th century modernist movement where the imagery was distorted to evoke a certain mood. The likes of The Scream by Edvard Munch inspired these artists, which included Wassily Kandinsky and Willem de Kooning.


  • Figure drawing

    Drawing or painting dominated by a human figure, often full length.

  • Figurine

    A small model or sculpture of a human figure.

  • Fine art

    A collective term for art created to be beautiful rather than functional.

  • Font

    A specific typeface.

  • Foreshortening

    The use of perspective to make something seem three dimensional.

  • Form

    The elements which make up a piece of art. The color, the shape, the size, the medium etc.

  • Fresco

    From the Italian for "fresh", this is painting on fresh plaster.

  • Frieze

    A continuous band of decoration, often seen in classical architecture.

  • An Italian art movement from the early 20th century that celebrated technology, and fast-moving objects such as bicycles, cars and planes.


  • Genre painting

    Artwork showing a scene from everyday life.

  • Georgia

    Art produced in the reigns of King Georges I to IV between 1714 and 1830. Often referenced in connection with architecture and furniture.

  • Gesso

    A mixture of chalk, or plaster, or glue, used for painting.

  • Glaze

    A transparent layer of paint applied over another. Also, a vitreous layer applied to pottery.

  • A method of painting using opaque pigments ground in water.

  • A contemporary street-based art form, using spray cans, that originated in the United States. Jean-Michel Basquiat famously took graffiti from the subway and into New York's galleries.

  • Graphic design

    The creation of art to carry a message, usually involving text. Posters are the classic example.


  • Hatching

    A drawing technique using closely spaced parallel lines to indicate tone. It becomes cross-hatching when lines are applied in the opposite direction.

  • Hieroglyphs

    A pictorial form of writing, extensively used by the Egyptians.

  • High art

    Art intended to be most aesthetic and moral.

  • Content that detail the origins, evolution and development of the fine arts.

  • History painting

    Paintings depicting a moment in history, often a moment of significance - a meeting, a death. Examples include Judas Returning the Thirty Silver Pieces by Rembrandt and Théodore Géricault's The Raft of the Medusa.

  • Hue

    A particular shade of color.


  • Icon

    From the Greek word for "image", images of Christ, the Virgin or a venerated saint.

  • Illumination

    The decoration of handwritten manuscripts on vellum or parchment, a practice dating to the Egyptians. The 8th century Book of Kells is a famous example.

  • Illusionism

    The use of optical and perspectival techniques to create an illusion of something being three dimensional.

  • Illustration

    Commonly found in books, a method of using imagery to accompany and enhance text.

  • Impasto

    To apply a thick layer of paint.

  • A 19th century French art movement featuring small, thin brush strokes and acute depiction of light to show seemingly ordinary subject matter. Impressionist painters include Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

  • India ink

    A simple black ink made from a type of soot, called lampblack.

  • Ink wash

    East Asian in origin, this is painting with black ink instead of paint.

  • Installation art

    Mixed media artwork filling a large space or an entire room.

  • Intaglio

    Decoration created by cutting into a hard surface, such as engraving or etching.


  • Japonism

    European demand for Japanese art and furniture in the mid-19th century, and its influence on European art.


  • Kitsch

    Mass-produced "cheesy" objects intended to be a craftwork or souvenir. A byword for bad taste.


  • Landscape painting

    Where the scenery is the main content. Numerous greats painted landscapes from Claude Monet to JMW Turner, Thomas Gainsborough and Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne.

  • Life drawing

    A drawing created using a human model.

  • Limited edition

    This is a run of multiple prints where the artist controls the quantity printed. It's common to see signed limited edition prints.

  • Line engraving

    The process of hand-engraving in intaglio and copper plate, using a burin, or the print taken from such work.

  • Lino cut

    A print produced by carving a design into linoleum.

  • A printing method where a design is drawn on stone with a greasy crayon and then inked. Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso took lithography to new heights in the 20th century.

  • Luminism

    A style of 19th century American landscape painting where light mixes with scenery. John Frederick Kensett famously worked in this style.


  • Mandala

    A Hindu and Buddhist art form, usually circular, that symbolizes the universe.

  • Manuscript

    A book written by hand and usually we're talking about medieval manuscripts where monks did the writing.

  • Medium

    The means or material used by an artist such as paint, pencil or paper.

  • A printing method using copper engraving.

  • Miniature

    Just like it sounds, a very small painting.

  • Minimalist art

    A form of modern art where color and form is reduced to their simplest representation. Minimalist artists include Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, Anthony Caro, Tony Smith, Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin and Yves Klein.

  • Mixed Media

    A combination of different materials in one work such as photography, metalwork and painting.

  • Mobile

    A moving sculpture hung from wires.

  • Modeling

    The creation of a three-dimensional representation of an object from a soft material like clay.

  • A cultural movement where past styles are rejected. Modernism in art covers many "isms" from Cubism to Surrealism and Dadaism.

  • Modern art

    Starting with Impressionism, this is art from about 1874 onwards until the advent of Pop Art in the 1960s.

  • A printing process where an impression is made on a smooth surface like metal or glass, which yields a single print. Famous monotyping artists include Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro and Marc Chagall.

  • Mosaic

    A design for walls, floors and ceilings created from small pieces of stone, glass or marble. Beloved by the Romans.

  • Motif

    An oft-repeated feature.

  • Mural

    A large picture painted directly on to a wall or ceiling, often in fresco.

  • Muse

    An artist's guiding spirit. Often a person. Picasso had at least six women that inspired his art.


  • Nude

    You don't need us to explain this one.


  • Objet trouvé

    French for "found object". Surrealists argued that any object could be considered art if its aesthetic merit could be valued.

  • Oeuvre

    The total output of an artist.

  • A lithographic printing technique where ink is transferred from a plate to a rubber roller, and to paper.

  • Oil painting

    Where pigment is mixed with an oil. This method allows for tremendous detail and rich color. It can be executed on numerous surfaces from canvas to parchment. We're talking about Leonardo Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Johannes Vermeer etc.

  • Old master

    One of the great European artists from 1500 to the early 1700s.

  • Op art

    Short for optical art where optical illusions are created in an abstract form, often in black and white.

  • Original art

    A unique, one-of-a-kind artwork. That artwork can be reproduced later but the original version remains the most prized version.


  • Painting

    The process of applying paint, or the resulting object created by the application of paint.

  • Palette

    The object used by an artist to mix paint or the range of colors used by an artist.

  • Panel painting

    The use of wooden panels in painting before the advent of canvas.

  • Panorama

    An artwork, often a large one, offering a view or landscape scene.

  • Papier colle

    French for "pasted paper". A collage of paper or card popularized by French artist Georges Braque.

  • Pastel

    A type of crayon, or an artwork created in this medium. Pastels produce light tones and pale colors.

  • Pastoral

    Artwork depicting an idealized rural scene. Think of bucolic paintings featuring shepherds at one with nature and their simple lives.

  • Perspective

    A reference to the depth of an image where there is a three-dimensional illusion. Important in any landscape imagery.

  • Fine art produced with a camera that arose from the new technologies of the 19th century. Famous photographers include Ansel Adams (landscapes), Diane Arbus (people), Dorothea Lange (Depression era), and Irving Penn (fashion).

  • A hybrid process whereby a copper plate is coated with a light-sensitive gelatin tissue which had been exposed to a film positive, and then etched to create a print reproducing the detail of a photo.

  • Photomontage

    An artwork where numerous photographs are juxtaposed.

  • Photorealism

    A realistic style of painting created in such detail that it is almost photographic.

  • Pieta

    A piece of art featuring the Virgin Mary and Christ's dead body.

  • Pigment

    The color ingredient of paint.

  • Plastic arts

    Sculpture, pottery, and architecture where art is created in three-dimensional forms

  • Plein air painting

    Claude Monet's specialty. This is the of painting nature while being totally surrounded by and immersed in it. This method became easier with the invention of portal easels. Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir also advocated for this style. Canada's Group of Seven were plein air painters.

  • Pochade

    A type of sketch used in painting that still captures color and atmosphere.

  • A method to make limited edition stencil prints. Often called hand-coloring. Picasso, Matisse (in the book, Jazz) and Miro all used this process.

  • Polyptych

    A painted artwork, usually devotional, of more than three panels.

  • An art movement that rose to prominence in the 1960s featuring imagery from mass culture, such as Campbell's soup cans. Think Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, David Hockney and Ed Ruscha.

  • Portrait

    An image of a person.

  • A multi-purpose medium where printed paper, usually intended to communicate a message, is attached to a wall. Posters can promote forms of entertainment, commercial companies like airlines, political views, and many other functions including military recruitment. Posters originated in the French Revolution and then developed quickly in parallel to the Industrial Revolution.

  • Pottery

    A form of ceramic art where clay is shaped, dried, glazed and fired in a kiln.

  • A group of Victorian painters and poets, influenced by critic John Ruskin, who rejected mechanization and embraced nature and the elegance of classical art. The famous example is Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

  • Primary colors

    Red, blue and yellow. These colors can be mixed to produce other colors, but cannot be produced from mixtures.

  • Print

    Anything produced by graphic processes to make an impression onto fabric or paper. Also a verb, of course. Common substances used to create the impression are metal plates for engravings and etchings, stone for lithography, wood for woodcuts and wood engravings, and linoleum for linocuts.

  • Provenance

    Information recording the origins and ownership of a piece of art. A key factor in verifying the authenticity of an important work.


  • Quattrocento

    Italian 15th century art.


  • Readymades

    Mass manufactured objects shown as art. A term coined by Marcel Duchamp. You have all heard the stories of cleaners disposing of "readymade art" because they didn't know it was part of an exhibition.

  • Realism

    A 19th century style of painting featuring everyday subject matter.

  • Relief scultpure

    A sculpture technique where the elements remain attached to a solid background of the same material. You will also hear high relief, mid-relief and low-relief or bas-relief depending on the degree of projection. Think of sculptures on memorials, church and temple walls, or even a person's silhouette on a coin.

  • Renaissance (rebirth) art spans about 200 years from 1400 to 1600. Influenced by classical antiquity, Renaissance art focused on realism and the noble nature of humanity as the Medieval Ages was left far behind. Holland, Italy, France and Germany were the key countries and the list of great artists goes on and on. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and his work on the Sistine Chapel, Raphael and Botticelli, Jan van Eyck, Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein, El Greco etc.

  • Reproduction

    Any copy of an original artwork. Reproductions have far lower value than the original artwork.

  • Rococo

    A style that originated in France in the early 1700s that uses elaborate ornaments.

  • Romanticism

    A movement that lasted from 1800 to 1850 where the past was glorified. John William Waterhouse's Lady of Shalott is a prime example.


  • Screenprinting

    A technique where a mesh is used to transfer ink onto a substrate except in areas made impermeable to the ink by a stencil. A blade is then moved across the mesh to fill the open holes with ink.

  • Scroll

    Created from paper or silk, a scroll unrolls to reveal a continuous picture or text.

  • Sculpture

    Something carved or modeled in a tough material like stone, wood or metal, and the process of creating it.

  • An image of the artist created by the artist. A wonderful method of discovering what the great artists actually looked like.

  • Silverpoint

    A type of drawing where a silver rod or wire is scratched across a surface.

  • Site-specific art

    A piece of art built for a specific place which cannot be moved to another place.

  • Sketch

    A hastily created drawing in pencil, charcoal, pen and ink.

  • Stencil

    An image created by applying ink or paint through a cut-out surface.

  • An early method of photography where two nearly-identical images are viewed through two lenses to create the illusion of a three-dimensional picture. Also known as stereoscopic photographs and stereographs.

  • Still life

    The painting of inanimate everyday objects. Often vases of flowers or plates of food.

  • Stippling

    A drawing technique where numerous dots construct the image.

  • Street photography

    Candid photography in public places.

  • Study

    Preparatory art produced in advance of the main artwork to help the artist.

  • Support

    The material on which a painting or drawing is applied. Canvas, paper, parchment, panel, wall, etc.

  • Surrealism

    A cultural movement featuring art that was often illogical - think of Salvador Dali's melting clocks in The Persistence of Memory and Rene Magriette's Son of Man where a green apple hangs in front of a man's face.


  • Tempera

    A painting method where pigment is mixed with water and eggs. Seen in Italian art in the 14th and 15th centuries.

  • Trecento

    Italian for the 14th century, refers to Italian fine art.

  • Triptych

    A work of art divided into three sections, or three panels hinged together.

  • Trompe l'oeil

    French for "deceives the eye" where a painting's subject matter is made to look three dimensional.


  • Ukiyo-e

    A Japanese woodblock printing method.


  • Vanitas

    A still life painting that reminds the viewer of their mortality.

  • Verso

    Verso is front and recto is the back of a single sheet of paper, or the right-hand and left-hand page of an open book.

  • Video art

    A contemporary art form, often combined with other media in an installation.

  • Visual art

    A broad category of disciplines, encompassing fine arts and many applied arts.

  • Vitrine

    A glass cabinet used to display art.

  • A British avant-garde group formed in 1914 to express the dynamism of the modern world. Wyndham Lewis was a key figure.


  • War artists

    Artists commissioned by the military to record a war. Howard Brodie and George Matthews Harding are two examples.

  • Watercolor

    A painting method using water-soluble paint. JMW Turner, William Blake, Albrecht Durer, Paul Klee, Georgia O'Keefe and Edward Hopper all used watercolor.

  • A print produced using a block of wood, used widely in Asia and China.


  • Ziggurat

    An ancient pyramid-shaped building. Ziggurat motifs are common in Art Deco design.

  • Zoomorphic

    Animal motifs.