Glossary of Art Terms - A

Abstract Art / Abstraction

Terms with wide-ranging meaning, but always descriptive of artwork in which the realistic depiction of objects ranges from secondary to non-existent. Although it could be argued that the dramatic landscapes of many of the Hudson River painters were exaggerated (abstracted) to emphasize emotion rather than visual reality, Impressionism was the first major step into Abstraction and a critical break with Realism that shocked many viewers and stirred widespread critical commentary in Europe and America. contemporary and realistic art belong together. "Learning to appreciate distortion is like learning to appreciate olives and clams." (Old Sculplin Gallery) Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism continued the march of Abstraction into the 20th Century.

Synonymns of Abstraction include Non Objective and Non Representational. Pure Abstraction or Non Objective is any art in which the depiction of real objects has been entirely discarded and whose aesthetic content is expressed in a formal pattern or structure of shapes, lines, and colors. In other words, most Non-Objective artwork is based upon the assumption that a work of art, a painting for example, is worth looking at primarily because it presents a composition or organization of color, line, light, and shade. The first purely abstract painting in the modern tradition is usually held to be a watercolor produced by Wassilj Kandinsky in about 1910. A major division has existed between between Non-Objective artists and sculptors who attempt to reduce natural objects to their essential forms, such as Brancusi and the Cubists, and those who maintain that shape, line, and color have an aesthetic and emotional value independent of any reference to the natural world.

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Abstract Expressionism

A term referring to an art movement in the 1940s an 1950s where the essence of the work was the artist's personal involvement that was based on emotion and not the desire for realistic depiction. Many consider Abstract Expressionism the first truly American art movement, although it had roots both in America and Europe. Some European artists who had fled the Hitler regime to America such as Max Ernst, Fernand Leger, Hans Hofmann and Piet Mondrian were involved along with Americans Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock. There were two aspects. Action Painting and Abstract Image Painting. Art writer Robert Coates first used the term Abstract Expressionism to describe contemporary paintings in the March 30, 1946 issue of "The New Yorker" magazine. Great proponents of the movement were critics Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg.


Academic Art

Taught according to established rules in official art schools or academies, which began to proliferate from the early 18th century in Europe. London's Royal Academy and the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris offered structured curriculums focused on history painting, portraits, landscapes, still lifes, and genre in that order of importance. Instruction progressed from drawing from classical statues or plaster casts to modeling from nudes to applying paint to original work. Because the 19th-century academies in Europe and America tended to be conservative and dominated by males, the term Academic Art has come to mean that which is traditional and which is the opposite of innovative or creative. In the 20th century with the advent of abstraction, the term Academic Art has negative connotations suggesting that a work is long on knowledge and technical expertise and lacking in emotional inspiration.



This is an elected member of an academy,also an artist who follows the principles and traditions of Academic Art.

Academie Julian

Founded by the larger than life wrestler,artist,circus manager and entrepreneur Rodolph Julian in 1868, in the Latin Quarter Paris. This became one of the best-known private schools in Paris in the second half of the 19th Century. He persuaded artists to serve as visiting professors. The school expanded to five locations throughout France, and eventually superceded in prestige the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the official state school.


A Greek word meaning ‘garden’ and specifically the garden where philosopher Plato did his teaching. From that time, the term has come to reference a variety of state-sponsored teaching institutions. During the Renaissance, art academies began to form in Europe beginning with Italy in the late 16th century, France in the 17th, England in the 18th (1768),and the United States in the 19th century. With these entities, the word Academy took on the meaning of a formal body of artists associated with unified purposes. These shared goals included the promoting of their national art, certain tenants of creating and exhibiting that art, and the conferring of special distinction with election to Academy membership---hence the word, academician. Academies are often rebelled against by innovative artists because of tendencies of academy members to embrace status quo or traditional work. Before the early 20th century, artists rebelling against the academies in America and Europe had few places to exhibit their work because museums and galleries were seldom open to rebellious movements. However, the advent of modernist galleries and museums provided venues for experimental art.


Where an artist highlights certain elements in a painting allowing the work to attract more attention. Accent can also refer to the details that define an object or piece of art.


When an object of art becomes part of a permanent collection of a museum or other collection.



A water-resistant paint made by mixing pigment in a solution of polymer resin. These paints or colors are also called Plastic Colors to distinguish them from Polymer Paints, which are dispersed in water. Acrylic Paints do not yellow nor fade, and they dry quickly, have much durability and adhesive qualities and are easy to remove with turpentine. These characteristics make them popular with some artists and conservators but unpopular with others because they dry so quickly that subtle mixing of colors cannot occur and they are hard on brushes.

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Action Painting

A painting style and method calling for vigorous physical activity, specifically asssociated with the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. Jackson Pollock often used this technique, which was an application of paint with fast, forceful, and impulsive (unplanned) motions. Process dictated the subject matter. The term was coined by Harold Rosenberg, art critic, in the early 1950s.


Pertaining to that which arouses sensitivity to beauty and emotion, as opposed to the practical, intellectual, or scientific. An aesthetic response is an appreciation of such beauty, and an aesthete is a person who subscribes to this philosophy and regards themselves as having special sensitivity to beauty. The Aesthetic Movement began in the late 19th century in England with leaders being Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. The slogan was "Art for Art's Sake" meaning being that conveying a sense of beauty superseded all social and moral considerations. The word aesthetic is derived from the Greek "aisthetika", meaning perceptibles.


An implement slightly larger than a fountain pen. It is a "sophisticated spray gun" that creates a smooth, even toned finish. The device has a barrel that compresses the air and then widens at the end. At the point where the air expands, it combines with paint fed from an attached container. Airbrushing is considered an illustrators' technique because the smooth result is dictated by the machine and not the artist's hand. The airbrush was patented by Charles Burdick, an Englishman, in 1893.


A soft, pure white, translucent gypsum or calcium sulfate hydrate that can easily be cut or carved. (Alabaster referenced by ancient civilizations was a hard stone of onyx marble.) Because of its delicacy, objects made from Alabaster can only be kept indoors. The substance is found primarily in caves, and a major quarry for Alabaster is at Volterra, Italy near the marble quarries of Carrara. Many Florentine sculptors have used Alabaster, and carved Alabaster is one of the most traditional products exported from Italy.

Alkyd Resins

Sold under a variety of names that may or may not contain the word alkyd, these mediums are synthetic resins that are excellent for oil painting because they dry quickly. They work as a binder that encapsulates the pigment and speeds the drying time. Varieties made with safflower, soy beans and tobacco-seed oils hold color better than those made with linseed oil. Some alkyds look thick and tan colored in the container, but they become smooth and transparent when added to paint. The term alkyd was introduced in 1970 by Winsor & Newton who applauded its virtues of being similar to acrylic paint but drying faster.

Alla Prima

A term derived from Italian, meaning “at the first”. It references a technique in which the finished painting is completed in one application of the paint, usually oil, and usually in one session or a short period of time. The result tends to be work that is smooth appearing. Alla Prima is the opposite method of creating a painting by layering coats of paint, with each coat given drying time before the next application.


In the context of painting and sculpture, an image or images intended by the artist to have underlying meaning or a story line behind the obvious visual arrangement. Allegorical works are exclusive in that they require education or “information outside the work” (Atkins) in accord with what the artist is trying to convey. Traditionally Allegorical painting and sculpture creates a tie between the arts and literature", such as the Bible, respected poets and novelists of English literature, and Greek and Roman mythology.


A product resulting from the combination of two or more metals that are melted and fused together. Alloys tend to be stronger and more corrosion resistant than pure metals.


Artwork including a painting and carved or painted panels and statuary that is placed on or behind the altar of a place of worship. The subject is usually religious genre or figures. During the Renaissance, an altarpiece was typically a triptych, meaning three painted hinged panels.


A lightweight metallic element with a protective oxide surface making it resistant to corrosion. Availabe in a wide variety of colors, it can be cast and welded to create a combination of strength and lightness.


A word descriptive of a two-handled tapering jar made of fired clay and dating back to Greek civilization. The Amphora, usually decorated with elaborate painting, was used for storage of items such as olive oil, grain or wine.

Analogous Colours

Colours that are closely related, or near each other on the colour spectrum.


A French term for an artist whose specialty is depicting animals. Leading French Animaliers were 19th-century sculptors Charles Valton, Antoine Louis Bayre, and Emmanuel Fremiet.

Anglo-Saxon Art

Characterized by interlaced motif, it was an art style relevant to England in the fifth to eleventh centuries.


Term introduced by French-American, Marcel Duchamp (ca. 1914) for a form of art, Dada or in it’s tradition, where conventional forms and theories are rejected. This may refer to their materials, techniques, or method of display.


“Watercolour” in French, referring to the drawing or painting with transparent watercolour.


An etching or engraving process focused on creating tonal variations rather than linear affects, which gives the appearance of a watercolor. It is often used in conjuction with line etching. Aquatint is created by acid biting into a metal plate and involves putting granular resin over the plate, creating the design, and then immersing in acid. Tonality is achieved by repeating the varnishing and immersing.


Linear decoration that is interlacing and carved or painted on panels. Subjects are botanic, animal and human figures.

Ariel Perspective

A term used in landscape painting to reproduce real life vistas. Atmospheric effects so that the earth seems to recede from the viewer. Objects in the distance seem far away(less colour and clarity), while atmospheric conditions such as moisture are dominant.

Art Brut

Coined in 1945 by French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985), the word is French for “raw art”. It refers to the art of Outsiders---naïve artists, the mentally ill, and the art of children---persons isolated from main society. Art Brut was often celebrated in the work of Dubuffet who appreciated its being done for its own sake and not for concern of profit. A major collection of Art Brut work is at the Collection de l'Art Brut, founded by Dubuffet in Lausanne, Switzerland and opened in 1976. The collection is based on European art but is much expanded from that. American artists associated with this style include Ted Gordon, Henry Darger, and Inez Nathaniel Walker.

Art Deco

Art Deco was a popular design movement from 1920 until 1939, affecting the decorative arts such as architecture, interior design, and industrial design, as well as the visual arts such as fashion, painting, the graphic arts, and film. This movement was, in a sense, an amalgamation of many different styles and movements of the early 20th century, including Constructivism, Cubism, Modernism, Bauhaus, Art Nouveau, and Futurism. Its popularity peaked during the 1920s. Although many design movements have political or philosophical roots or intentions, Art Deco was purely decorative. At the time, this style was seen as elegant, functional, and ultra modern as well.Its Art Style was very much geometric lines, patterns and curves.

Art Nouveau

A decorative art style, especially associated with sinuous vines and tendril motifs-curving, often-swirling shapes based on flowing organic forms. It was prevalent between 1895 to 1905, and was an outgrowth of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which emphasized applying art to practical, daily life objects. The name Art Nouveau originated in France, derived from a modern-design shop of S. Bing, L'Art Nouveau (the New Art) that opened in Paris in 1895. However, the style originated more than a decade earlier, and by the end of the 19th century had various names in a variety of countries: 'Jugendstil' in Germany; 'Stile Liberty' in Italy; 'Modernista' in Spain and 'Sezessionstil' in Austria. Representative French artists including Pierre Bonnard, Edvard Munch, and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec leaned on earlier styles including Rococo, Gothic, and Oriental.


A technique of automatic expression, that is creating a work of art without conscious effort, thought or will. With emphasis on intuition and spontaneity rather than planned composition, Automatism underlies 20th-century abstract art, especially Abstract Expressionism. Automatism was a deliberate method sometimes employed by the Surrealists including Andre Breton and Max Ernst and Action Painters such as Jackson Pollock. Some equate Automatism with doodling, but doodling, when used as a formal term, is regarded as a process of conscious selection. The theory of Automatism is traced to 17th-century philosophers Rene Descartes and Thomas Hobbes and to Thomas Huxley in the 19th century. He stated that "our mental conditions are simply the symbols in consciousness of the changes which take place automatically in the organism." (Britannica) In the late 19th century, Automatism with its emphasis on intuition, accident and irrationality gained strength through the movements of Dada, Futurism and Collages.



In French means front guard, advance guard, or forefront People often use the term in French and English to refer to people or works that are experimental, novel very innovative. According to its champions, the avant-garde pushes the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm within definitions of art/culture/reality.

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