ArtSpeak - a glossary of art words and phrases

Below is a list (with definitions) of some of the most common and difficult words and phrases that you will find used in the Arts Centre. These words etc. will turn up in our newsletter, in the labelling and essays on the walls and in books and periodicals in the Arts Centre Library. Because of the origins from which they have sprung (often foreign languages) many art terms seem baffling and obscure. We hope that this glossary will help you to penetrate the secret code of ARTSPEAK.

Acrylic or SPP (synthetic polymer paint)

A paint which is soluble in water can be used on almost any surface and is extremely versatile. Allows for effects ranging from thin washes to heavy impasto (thickly laid paint creating texture) and can be finished in matt to high gloss. Fast drying, acrylic has been very popular with artists since its introduction in the 1940’s. It is considered to be permanent and colour fast.


An object made by the process of heat acting upon the silicates in the material used. Although both clay and glass are ceramics the term most commonly refers to objects made with clay. The temperature at which the clay is hardened determines the name given to the finished material such as raku (low fired at around 850c.), earthenware, terra cotta, stoneware or porcelain (high fired at up to 1400c.). The term ceramics is often used in an interchangeable way with ‘pottery’ but ceramics may be sculptures, tiles, bricks or any object made from clay (or glass). Often it is the artist’s choice as to whether they call themselves a sculptor or a potter. Ceramic is one of the oldest art forms, fired clay vessels have been found in the Middle East dating back to 8000 BC. Today artists often decorate the ceramic with glaze, a hard coating invented in Europe in 1283 which can both water proof as well as beautify a ceramic object. The surfaces of ceramics may also be textured or inscribed to produce a design (the earliest examples dating from 4000 BC in China).


A picture or a technique using pieces of paper, cloth and/or other materials glued to a flat background to create an entirely new image. Originally popularised by its use in the Cubist paintings of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso from about 1912 onwards.

Digital Print

Most often this term refers to an image produced with both digital equipment (eg digital camera and computer) and then printed via a computer controlled printer (eg bubble jet, ink jet etc.) but may only refer to the printing process. Whilst usually applied to photographic images it may also be used to denote the final product of a computer generated image (the first exhibition of computer generated imagery was held in New York in 1965).


A picture produced by lines and marks made directly by the artist’s hand. May be on any surface and produced by any medium however, a drawing is usually thought not to be ‘painted’. The most common materials used for drawing are pencil, graphite, charcoal, ink and crayon (chalk or pastel). Paper is the most common surface used. In the past drawings were often considered note taking or preparation for paintings (or building design or a precursor to writing etc.) but today artists often exhibit ‘finished’ drawings as art works in their own right. They are usually considered fragile and are often exhibited under glass.

Etching or Intaglio

A print produced by the etching process. The process, originating in the 16th century, remains popular because it allows for the spontaneity of direct drawing to be evident in the finished print. The image is usually drawn onto a prepared metal plate which is etched in acid and then inked for printing. Various techniques exist for creating subtle effects in the finished work (eg aquatint, sugarlift, photo release). Usually produced in an edition (more than one but all identical), each print is numbered, titled, dated and signed by the artist. Usually printed on paper etchings are considered fragile and exhibited under glass.

Fibre Art

Works produced using natural or synthetic threads such as textiles. Fibre creations such as woollen fabrics have been found in Turkey dating back to 6000 BC. Fibre works may be spun, woven, felted, knotted etc. and include basketry, embroidery, batik, tapestry, quilts, clothing, carpets and rugs, netting or mesh and are often presented as sculptures or installations.

Gelatin Silver Print

Also referred to as Silver Gelatin (and abbreviated as gel. sil. or sil. gel.) this is the most common form of black and white (b/w) photographic print. The name is derived from the chemicals used to light sensitise the paper for printing. Such prints are usually produced by hand in a darkroom from a negative made with a camera. They may be treated with various other chemicals to produce different effects, the most common being sepia toning which produces a warm brown colour in the final print. The papers used are also available in a range of finishes eg matt, gloss, semi gloss, silk, sheen etc. Sil. gel. prints are considered permanent but fragile and usually presented under glass.

Gouache or Poster Paint

An opaque (not see-through) type of watercolour, produced by adding white pigment to all the other colours. Gouache can be thinned with water (like watercolour) or used more thickly to produce impasto and other painterly effects. Still very popular with miniaturists gouache was traditionally the paint used for illuminated manuscripts (one off hand made books) from Europe to Persia to ancient India. More recently gouache has been used extensively by designers and other ‘commercial’ artists. Usually applied to paper it is fast drying, dense and reflective.


A print produced using the lithographic process invented in 1796 by Alois Senefelder (and not to be confused with offset lithography, a commercial printing process). The image is created by working in tusche (a greasy, black, water soluble ink) or litho crayon on a smooth grained porous limestone slab. The image is then fixed in the stone with gum arabic and nitric acid. After cleaning the stone is wetted and then inked and printed onto paper. Later developments include the use of specially prepared metal plates instead of stone although many artists still prefer to work with the traditional limestone. Printed in colour or monotone, the attraction of lithography is that the finished print retains the qualities of the methods used to produce the original image in particular lithographs can look very ‘painterly’. Lithographs are considered permanent and usually exhibited behind glass and in numbered editions.

Lino Cut Print

A print produced by printing from a design cut or gouged out of a piece of linoleum. Invented in the second half of the 19th Century lino cut prints remain very popular with artists as easier and cheaper than woodblock printing (similar but using wood rather than linoleum) for similar results. Traditional linoleum (made from linseed oil, cork and burlap) is still used, the surface being drawn on and then cut with a variety of tools to produce different effects when the ink is pressed into the paper or fabric being printed on. They may be coloured or monotone. With the use of the correct inks lino cut prints are considered permanent. Like other prints lino cuts on paper are usually presented under glass and in numbered editions.

Mixed Media

A term applied to any artwork using two or more mediums in the finished product such as collage and oil paint in a painting. Much over used it is a term which has fallen from favour in the art world in recent years.


Dating from the 12th Century (1100’s) oil paint is the primary medium for most western (European) paintings created since that time. Mostly used on absorbent surfaces like canvas and paper, oil paint consists of pigments (colour) in an oil (usually linseed) base. It can be used with a number of additives to give different effects but the major advantage of oil over other paints is its slow drying which allows it to remain workable for long periods. It is considered permanent and colour fast.


An artwork created using paint. A number of techniques and mediums exist which when used the final product is referred to as a ‘painting’. These include acrylic or S.P.P., enamel, encaustic wax, fresco, gouache, oil paint, pastel, size colour, tempera and watercolour. There are many more. Paintings may also include elements of collage or construction (objects, paper, cloth or other materials incorporated, attached or protruding from the painted surface) or relief. The difference between a painting utilising relief techniques and a relief sculpture may be minimal. Most often paint is applied to a flat surface, most commonly stretched canvas, hardboard (such as masonite panel) or wood (such as ply). Paint may be applied to the surface in an almost unlimited number of ways to give different effects, most often by brush, hand or spray gun but the tools of application are only limited by an artist’s desire. Painting is one of the oldest known creative expressions of mankind.


Invented in the 1820’s photography is the most important change in visual language since the beginning of civilisation. It has replaced all other ways of making and seeing pictures for the majority of people. We all take snapshots, we all watch television. From an artistic viewpoint it can be argued the most important art form of the 20th Century is the motion picture (now available digitally in your home via DVD or digital broadcasting). Photography is essentially the recording of images in light on a photo (light) sensitive surface (usually film but increasingly using digital technologies). The photographic print is the record of this process and most often presented on paper. May be in black and white (b/w) or colour produced either in the darkroom or digitally via computer by the artist or a ‘lab’ (commercial print). There are many different types of photograph and an almost infinite number of effects. In recent years artists have been experimenting with some of the older photographic techniques (perhaps as a reaction to digital photography) such as ambrotype, kallitype, collotype, photogravure and cyanotype. Essentially most of these methods involve photosensitising different papers to give particular effects or look to the final print. Photos may be presented as a one off unique print or more often as an unlimited edition. The unlimited print edition is one of the factors in keeping the price of photographic works lower than some other art forms and to counter this some artists prefer to present their photographic works as limited editions like etchings or silkscreens.


An artwork in three dimensions, most often meant to be viewed ‘in the round’ however sculpture may also include relief works made to be viewed like a picture from in front. Sculpture may carved (from stone or wood) or built up (in wax or clay and cast in plaster, bronze or lead) or assembled (in metals or plastics). Sculptures can be made from any materials even light and may be mobile or include moving parts (kinetic). Sculptures are usually permanent works although during the 1960’s a trend in self destructing pieces emerged.

Type C Print

The standard colour photographic print as supplied by most commercial labs and printers. Like most other photographic prints they are paper based and usually presented under glass. The permanency of commercial colour prints has long been a subject of debate but current type c prints are promoted as permanent.


Modern watercolour dates from the 1700’s. This paint consists of pigments (colour) held in a sticky binder, usually gum arabic resin. This is mixed with water to produce transparent (see-through) colour usually applied to paper in thin washes to produce delicate effects. Allows for greater freedom than oil paint and results in a picture imbued with the freshness of direct drawing.

Work on Paper

A phrase used to describe any artwork produced on a paper or related (e.g. cardboard) surface. “Papers” can be made from many materials ranging from wood pulp to cotton rag. Paper works may also be mounted or glued onto a variety of supports including canvas or hardboard. Works on paper may involve any number of techniques from direct drawing with pencil, ink, charcoal etc. to collage to a printing process such as etching or photography.

There are many, many other terms (especially around the ‘new media’ of video & digital projection) and we encourage you to further investigate ARTSPEAK.

References for these definitions:

Primarily the sources for the definitions are “The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists” by Peter and Linda Murray (Penguin, fourth ed. 1976) and “The Mitchell Beazley Library of Art – Vol. 4, The Dictionary of Painting and Sculpture - Art and Artists” by David Piper, edited by Jane Crawley (Mitchell Beazley, 1981) both of which are available in the Reading Room here at the Arts Centre. Other useful books consulted include: “Key Terms in Art, Craft and Design” by Dr. John Skull (Elbrook Press, 1988), “The Keepers of Light – A Working Guide to Early Photographic Processes” by William Crawford (Morgan and Morgan, 1979), “Art Detective” by Michele Stockley (Heinemann Educational, 1991), “Handbook of Art” by Graham Hopwood (Graham Hopwood, second ed. 1974) and “The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English” edited by R.E. Allen (Oxford University Press, eighth ed. 1990).