Art Terms That’ll Make You Sound Really Smart

In fiction, the art world tends to be portrayed as a world filled with obnoxious and snobby people. I cannot attest to this but I think a large part of that image is because the people of that world appear to be talking a different language most of the time.

Any foray you might attempt into the art world can be very intimidating and annoying when people start to throw around words that you don’t understand. In a small attempt to help you overcome this feeling, we’ve compiled a basic list of fancy-sounding art terminology that will help demystify art and art criticism. At the very least, it will make you sound really clever.

1.Old Master

Raphael (1483 – 1520) (Image source)

This usually refers to any great European artist before the 1800’s. For example, Michelangelo would be considered an Old Master, as would da Vinci.

2. Closed Composition

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, replica of the 4th version (Image Source)

A piece of art is said to have a closed composition when all its elements fit inside the edges without touching said edges.

3. Underpainting

This is the first layer of painting, the foundation after which the rest of the painting follows. It is also called “dead colouring”. This initial layer of paint is used by artists to give the painting tonal value and can help build contrast as the painting progresses. While most artists make the underpainting monochromatic, this need not always be the case. Artists like Jan Van Eyck made their underpainting multi-coloured.

The underpainting and drawing can be clearly seen in da Vinci’s unfinished Adoration of the Magi (Image Source)

Underpainting is meant to help bring your composition together but if done wrong, can mess with the colours and tone. There are different techniques of underpainting. For example, the verdaccio technique uses black, white and yellow pigments, while the grisaille technique uses grey.

4. Alla Prima

This is Italian for “at first sight”. This is a technique in which the final layer of a painting, without the underpainting, is finished in one sitting. It is also called “wet-on-wet” or “direct painting”.

Edouard Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass is an amazing example of alla prima. (Image Source)

The Impressionists famously used this technique. By avoiding underpainting, multiple layers and a final glaze, the Impressionists could complete paintings in a single sitting.

5. Pentimento

This term refers to a change or alteration made to a painting while it was in the process of getting painted.

In old paintings, the pentimento or pentimenti becomes visible when the lead-based pigments becomes transparent over time, revealing the underlying paint layers. In other instances, the pentimenti can be visible when the painting is x-rayed.

6. Allegory

English majors are probably familiar with this term. When elements in an art composition are used to symbolise something spiritual or moral, it is an allegory.

Angelo Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time (Image Source)

Allegories in a painting are subject to individual interpretation. In the above painting Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, the bald figure in the top right corner, with the hourglass behind him, is believed to be Time. Opposite him, in the top left corner, is a figure with eyeless sockets. This is interpreted to be Oblivion. Below him is a figure of a woman clutching her hair. She is seen as an allegory for jealousy. The serpent like figure, with the child’s face, is seen holding honeycomb in it’s hand while it’s tail ends in a scorpion’s barb. This figure is believed to represent Pleasure and Fraud.

7. Action Painting

Willem de Kooning’s Woman I (Image Source)

This is a painting style that calls for a lot of physical activity. The physical act of painting becomes an essential part of the painting itself. Jack Pollock’s work is a popular example of action painting.

8. Sfumato

Mona Lisa (Image Source)

Sfumato is Italian for “smoke”. This is the technique of making a soft transition from one colour to the next. Da Vinci was a master of this technique. He described sfumato as “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane”. In the Mona Lisa, da Vinci achieved sfumato by applying thin layers of paint multiple times, resulting in the translucent glowing effect of her skin, especially around her face.

9. Hatching, Cross-hatching and Stippling

Stippling is the technique of using small dots of a single colour to create a pattern or shading. Hatching involves using parallel lines to create shade and tone. When these lines are placed at an angle (usually at a right angle) to one another, it is called cross-hatching.

10. Chiaroscuro

The Matchmaker by Gerrit van Honthorst (Image Source)

This is the technique of using a strong contrast between shadows and light to give a painting depth and space. Da Vinci and Rembrandt were masters at chiaroscuro.

Learn how to pronounce “chiaroscuro” here.

11. Foreshortening

The technique of foreshortening can be seen in the outstretched arms in Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus (Image Source)

Foreshortening is a way of maximising depth and dimension in art. It is used to depict an object receding into the background and can be achieved by making the object shorter or more compressed than it would be in reality.

12. Triptychs

Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (Image Source)

Triptychs are works of art that are in three parts, usually on three panels. These panels are often hinged together and are typically meant to be used as an altarpiece. When hinged, these panels can be folded in.

13. Impasto

Van Gogh’s Still Life: Vase with Pink Roses uses impasto. The thick application of paint is more visible here.

This is the technique of applying paint in a thick layer, usually thick enough to make the strokes visible. Once the paint dries, it makes the painting look like it’s coming out of the canvas, and also gives it a visible texture.

14. Trompe-l’œil

Edward Collier’s A Trompe l’Oeil of Newspapers, Letters and Writing Implements on a Wooden Board (Image Source)

This is french for “deception of the eye”, and is the technique of painting an object or subject in a photo-realistic way so as to create an optical illusion. Viewing such a painting would almost make the viewer believe that they are looking at a three-dimensional object or subject.

You can look up modern examples of trompe-l’œil here. And you can learn how to pronounce “trompe-l’œil” here.

While these terms might not be applicable to your day-to-day life, we hope it makes you more informed about a world that can feel out of your depth. Is there an art term that you love that hasn’t been included in this list? Let us know in the comments below!



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