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.