A glossary of basic painting terms

Now you, too, can sound like an artist! Here’s my glossary of art terms—highly subjective and relevant mainly to painters.

Fallow field, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1449 framed.

Abstraction: non-representational art in which meaning is expressed through a formal pattern of shapes, lines and colors. Sometimes called “non-objective.” There are degrees of abstraction.

Alkyd: an oil-based medium which uses a polyester resin to speed drying.

Alla prima: a painting finished wet-on-wet, in just one or a few sessions.

Analogous color: those next to each other on the color wheel.

Atmospheric (or aerial) perspective: creating a sense of distance using color.

Autumn Farm, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1449 framed.

Binder: the material that holds pigment together in paint.

Chroma: The purity or intensity of a color. Also called “saturation.”

Color: an object’s pigmentation, comprised of three elements: value, hue and chroma.

Color temperature: a convention where we agree that greens, blues and violets are cool and that reds, yellows and oranges are warm. Entirely subjective but it works.

Color wheel: a circular grid that shows the relationships between hues in color theory.

Complements: hues directly opposite each other on the color wheel.

Three Chimneys, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1159.

Composition: the fundamental design of the painting, created by line, color and shape. See also design.

Contour: a line that encircles a space, separating it from what’s next to it.

Direct painting: laying down colors opaquely on the canvas, with the same hues and tones as are intended in the final work.

Focal point: the object(s) given the greatest dominance in a painting. There can be more than one.

Glaze: a transparent layer of paint applied over a dry layer.

Grisaille: a painting in monochrome, in my classes used as an underpainting.


  1. The substance applied to a drawing support in preparation for painting, e.g. gesso;
  2. An initial coating in printmaking (doesn’t concern us here);
  3. The background in a painting, as distinguished from the figure.


  1. The position on the color wheel, i.e. red, orange, blue, yellow—that which we generally refer to as ‘color’; sometimes these are referred to as ‘color families’;
  2.  A pure pigment; e.g., not a tint or shade;
  3. An analogous combination of pigments that mimics a single-pigment paint color that may be obsolete or expensive.

Impasto: thick paint.

Imprimatura:  an initial stain of color painted on a ground that creates a transparent, toned surface.

On Fernald’s Neck, Carol L. Douglas, 9X12, $696.

Indirect painting: applying layers of glaze onto a drawing or underpainting to subtly alter colors and tones. See Rembrandt as an example.

Linear perspective: giving a sense of three-dimensional depth on a two-dimensional surface through drawing.

Lost-and-found edge: a line that goes from hard to soft (or invisible) in different passages in a painting.


  1. The material with which an artist is working;
  2. The binder in a pigment or its equivalent, which is used in the top layers of painting to provide viscosity and prevent oxidation.

Motive force: the energy within a painting.

Motive line: the line that carries the motive force.

Negative space: the space around an object.

Neutral: having low saturation or chroma.

Pigment: the material in paint that gives it its color.

Plein air: painted outside while looking at the subject in question.

Primary colors: Colors that can’t be mixed; e.g., red, blue and yellow.

Proportion: the size relationship between things.

Realism: art which attempts to represent things as they’re seen. This is, of course, a moving target.

Secondary colors: colors that are made from mixtures of two primary colors; e.g., orange, green and violet. A secondary color is always opposite a primary color on the color wheel.

Sketch: a preliminary drawing for a work of art.

Still life: any combination of inanimate objects that form the subject of a painting, in contrast to a landscape painting or figure painting.

Solid media: media designed to create an opaque surface, e.g., oil paints, pastels, gouache, and acrylics.

Tertiary color: the six colors located between the primary and secondary colors on the color wheel.

Texture: real or illusory roughness or smoothness on the surface of your work.

Toning: painting a light, warm transparent stain onto a primed canvas, see also imprimatura.

Transparent media: media designed to work transparently, e.g., watercolor and acrylics.

Underpainting: the first layer of oil painting, usually a value statement in monochrome.

Value: How light or dark the color is.

Value sketch: a drawing designed to create a value map for the finished painting.

Wash: a broad thin layer of diluted paint; primarily a watercolor technique.

Monday Morning Art School: contre-jour

Contre-jour is a great effect for figure and landscape painting, but you can practice it in still life.

Tête-à-tête, by Carol L. Douglas, long since gone to its new home.

Contre-jour is French for ‘against daylight’ and it simply means a back-lit subject. The viewer is looking towards the light. When the sun is low, contre-jour results in silhouetting, as with a sunset. However, when the light source is high but still behind the subject, contre-jour can create wonderful rim lighting with prismatic color effects. Contra-jour minimizes details, increases contrast, and emphasizes simple shapes. It casts shadows forward, and these shadows are often as interesting as the subject itself.

The human eye has a much better response to wide ranges in lighting than does a camera lens. Our eyes adjust constantly to shifts in lighting, and our brains interpret this data on the fly. If, say, we’re in Rosslyn Chapel attempting to spy out the Green Man in the murky light above our heads, we have no trouble also seeing the well-lighted docent who’s giving the tour. It’s only in extreme lighting shifts that the eye and brain need time to catch up.

Sunset sail, by Carol L. Douglas, available through Folly Cove Fine Art. A sunset is an extreme example of contre-jour painting.

A camera (at least to date) hasn’t got this flexibility. Photos tend to be too dark in the dark passages or too light in the light passages. That’s not just an aesthetic problem; they simply don’t record data in those places, so there’s no fixing the problem in Photoshop.

That’s why it’s important to practice contre-jour in real life, not from photos. A photograph sets the relative light levels, and you’ll have a hard time overriding what you see, even if you’ve taken multiple exposures.

La repasseuse à contre-jour, 1874-1878, Edgar Degas, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, that same inflexibility sometimes makes cameras better for recording images in silhouette, like sunsets. The camera doesn’t try to insert information that isn’t there. The most common error in painting sunsets is putting color in the foreground. That’s the brain telling the artist, “trees are green,” when all the visual evidence is to the contrary.

Contre-jour is a wonderful technique in figure painting, as it creates an aura of privacy and anonymity. I’ve included one example by Edgar Degas, but he used it repeatedly, creating a sense of dignity for his laborers, ballerinas, and bathing women. Contre-jour is also very effective in landscape painting, but if you can’t get out to paint en plein air right now, practice it with still life.

To paint contre-jour effectively, one must carefully attend to color. Take the time to check values and record them in the form of a sketch, because contra-jour lighting effects change more quickly than spotlighted scenes. That’s particularly true in the structure, shape, and density of shadows.

Belfast harbor, 14×18, Carol L. Douglas, $1275 unframed.

Value is obviously important, but so too are the subtle shifts in hue and chroma that tell you an object is in shadow. Except for extreme silhouette, backlit subjects are never uniformly dark. They catch rim light and reflected light.

Almost all scenes will include some translucent or transparent objects like flowers, glassware, and fabric. These let light through, and when placed in front of a dark background, they stand out. Your contra-jour still life can look very different in daylight than it does at night, so it might take some adjusting.

Don’t underestimate the power of shadows; they’re often the best part of a contra-jour scene. They can transform the often-neglected bottom of your canvas from predictable to riotous. For example, try shining a light through a vase of flowers and note the lovely shadows dancing across your table.

A new system of training new painters

I’m confident this approach will prepare confident, competent painting students ready to tackle higher-level observational painting, composition, color theory and mark-making.

Breaking storm, 48X30, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, available through Folly Cove Gallery, Rockport, MA

After this session of painting classes, which ends on November 2, I will no longer take beginning painters. I’m simply stretched too thin. Instead, I’m going to send brand-new painters to two excellent teachers. That’s a simple, six-week process in which they will learn the rudiments of paint application, brush-work and color mixing. When they’ve completed this preparatory work, I’ll welcome them back into my classes.

That doesn’t mean every new student must start this way. If you already know the fundamentals of applying paint, I’m happy to work with you, whether you are self-taught or you started in another class. And en plein air, I’m happy to welcome painters of all levels.

Michelle Reading, oil on linen, Carol L. Douglas available through Rye Arts Center.

I’ll be sending oil and acrylic painters to my old friend, Bobbi Heath. I’ve taught students prepared by her and they’ve come to me knowing the order of operations in solid-media painting. Bobbi painted on the side during a long and successful business career. That shows in the workmanlike way she trains new painters. You won’t get a lot of rhetoric from her, just a good step-by-step introduction in how alla prima painting is supposed to be done.

I’ll be sending new watercolor painters to one of my own students, Cassie Sano. Cassie has experience teaching, but she developed a syllabus specifically to train new painters for me. She too is a very logical thinker, and a person of great compassion and kindness. She’s a crackerjack watercolorist, and, more importantly, she can explain how each step works. She’ll demystify watercolor for the beginner.

Main Street, Owls Head, 16X20, Carol L. Douglas, oil on gessoboard, $1,623 unframed.

Where does this leave me? Relieved. My students have been galloping forward for the past few years, working on higher-level observational painting, composition, color theory, and mark-making. It’s unfair to the new painter to be thrown into this melee without the basics under his or her belt.

Alla prima painting comes under many names, including wet-on-wet, direct painting or au premier coup. That French version means ‘at the first strike’, and it’s a perfect description of what has to happen to get the freshness that alla prima painting promises.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, 18X24, $2318 framed.

To hit it right on the first strike means a lot of things have to have become second nature—drawing, color mixing, and brushwork. The whole point is to keep do-overs to a minimum. That requires preparation and confidence. I’m confident that this new system of training will enhance both.