A Glossary of Art Terms (of sorts) / by Angela Bandurka

Acrylic Paint: is a fast-drying paint made of pigment suspended in acrylic polymer emulsion
(basically a plastic). Acrylic paints are water-soluble, but become water-resistant when dry.

Alla Prima: Fancy schmancy way of saying that the piece was completed in one sitting, y’all! No underpainting needed.

Analogous Colours: Three to four adjacent colours on a colour wheel.

Archival: This is just what is sounds like - you can archive it for future generations. I mean, hello? We’re not famous until we’re dead, right? Might as well hedge your bets.

Block In: Painting simple, large shapes with a few values and flat colour. Used as an underpainting when painting.

Brushes: Natural hair is more suitable for oil painting and watercolour painting. Synthetic bristles are better for acrylic painting because the paint is not sucked up into the shaft of the hairs the way natural hair tends to, and the brushes will last longer because of it.

  • Ferrule: refers to the metal end of the brush that covers the base of the hairs that make up the brush bristles.
  • Filbert: Thick, flat ferrule and oval-shaped medium to long hairs.  With its soft rounded edges, the filbert is suitable for blending and figurative work.
  • Round: Round ferrule, round or pointed tip. Useful for detail, wash, fills, and thin to thick lines. A pointed round is used for fine detail. A detailer is a pointed round with very short hair.
  • Oval Wash Brush: The oval wash has rounded hairs, flat ferrules, and produces a soft edge, with no point. A wash brush is useful for laying in large areas of water or colour, for wetting the surface, and for absorbing excess media. I prefer this brush for blending my oils (rather than a fan brush).
  • Flat: Flat ferrule, square-ended, with medium to long hairs. Provides lots of colour capacity and easy maneuverability. Use for bold, sweeping strokes, or on edge for fine lines. Use heavier filling for heavier paint.
  • Bright: Flat ferrule, short-length hairs, usually set in a long handle. Width and length of brush head is about equal. Useful for short, controlled strokes, and with thick or heavy colour.
  • Fan: Flat ferrule, spread hairs. Natural hair is more suitable for soft blending, and synthetic works well for textural effects. Useful for smoothing and blending, special effects and textures. Personally, I use it every now and then to get a soft edge.

Binder: It’s what makes those bits of coloured pigment (made from dirt, bug blood, plants, and what-not) stick together and be applied to your support!


  • Primary Colours: The group of colours from which all other colours are mixed from. They cannot be made through mixes. Most folks believe Red, Yellow, and Blue are the primary colours, but in truth the primary colours are Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow. In printing inks, black is added (CMYK).
  • Secondary Colours: Colours that are made with primary colours, Green, Violet, and Orange.
  • Tertiary Colours: The hues that are made by mixing primary and secondary colours. Yellow-green, Yellow-orange, Red-orange, Red-violet, Blue-violet, and Blue-green (turquoise).

Colour Chord: A plan or system for creating colour harmony in a painting. Can be formed with mixes of two, three, or four hues (also known as dyad, triad, or tetrad).

  • Dyad: a colour chord of two colours, either complementary or split complementary colours.
  • Triad: a colour chord of three colours, equidistant on the colour wheel (forms a triangle). The primary colours are triadic.
  • Tetrad: A colour chord of four colours made with one of the following:
    • two pairs of complementary colours whose connecting lines are perpendicular on the colour wheel, forming a cross.
    • two pairs of complementary colours that are separated by a single pair of complements, forming a rectangle.
    • two adjacent (side-by-side) hues and two opposing hues th at form a trapezoid.


Complementary Colours: Two colours that are opposite of each other on the colour wheel. Red and Green, Blue and Orange, Yellow and Violet, Yellow-green and Red-violet, just to mention a few…

  • Near Complementary Colours: Two colours: one colour plus another that is adjacent to the first colour’s complement, Red and Turquoise, for example.
  • Split Complementary: Three colours: one colour plus the two colours that are adjacent to the first colour’s complement, Red and Turquoise and Blue-violet, for example.

Fat: A term used to apply to paint with a high oil content.

Fat over Lean (or Thick over Thin): A way of painting with opaque media, where the first layer of paint is painted with the least amount of paint on the brush, it may be thinned down with fast dry medium. As you continue working on top of the bottom layers, the paint gets thicker and may have a slow dry medium added.

Foreshortening:  to reduce the size of the back parts of an object as it moves to the background and enlarge it in the foreground so that they appear distorted while creating them but give the perception of a three-dimensional space.

Fugitive Colour: It’s broken the law and has disappeared over the border. In all seriousness, it’s pigments or dye colours that fade when exposed to light (you know who you are, Alizarin Crimson.)

Glaze: A very thin, transparent coloured paint applied over a previously painted surface to alter the appearance and colour of the surface.

Ground: The coating material that you’re putting on your support to make it ready for painting (like gesso or glue with a brush or roller or spray)

  • Gesso: This is a chalky ground that you apply to your support for painting on. It’s usually white, but you can get coloured or clear gesso as well. Typically when you purchase gesso in the stores, it is acrylic gesso and is best for acrylic paintings though you can use it for oil paintings, but conservationists recommend you purchase oil based gesso (made with a mixture of chalk, white pigment and glue).
  • Primer: Coating material applied to a support to make it ready for painting, usually this term is used for gesso.

Horizon Line: Your eye line or eye level.  Typically defines where the sky and land or water meet.

Hue: another word for colour

Impasto: A style of painting characterized by thick, juicy colour application. Yum!!

Key: The dominance of dark or light values in a piece. High key paintings contain mostly light values (like a fog scene) and low key paintings contain mostly dark values (like a night scene).

Lean: A term used to apply to paint that’s been “watered” down with water or solvents.

Linear Perspective: a mathematical system for representing three-dimensional objects and space on a two-dimensional surface.

  • One-point Perspective:  Using one vanishing point on a horizon line off which to draw lines that radiate from that point to give the viewer the perception of three dimensions. 1-pt perspective is not used often, mostly for roads or tunnels seen from dead center.
  • Two-point Perspective: Using two vanishing points off a horizon line with lines that radiate from them to create the perception of three dimensions. Most of the time these vanishing points exist off the edge of the paper.
  • Three-point Perspective: Using two vanishing points off a horizon line, with a third above or below the horizon to create the perception of three dimensions on a flat surface. Used mostly in creating perspective from a worm’s eye or bird’s eye view.

Monochromatic: One colour with its shades and tints.

Oil Paint: a slow-drying paint that consists of pigments suspended in a drying oil (usually linseed oil or walnut oil). The viscosity level of the paint can be adjusted using solvents such as turpentine or odorless mineral spirits or oil-based mediums. The drying times vary depending on the thickness of the oil paint. Oils do not evaporate the way that water does, it dries through oxidation (basically oxygen and oil work together to change their chemical makeup and become dry).

  • Water Soluble Oil Paint, or Water Miscible Oil Paint: This oil paint’s binder (a modified linseed oil) has been engineered to be thinned and cleaned up with water instead of turpentines or spirits. It is painted with the same techniques as traditional oil-based paint.

Oiling Out: a term when painting in oils that refers to how some colors start to look chalky or change value as they dry. Some artists will rub a little oil medium on them while working (when dry) to keep values consistent while working. Varnish will make all your values right in the end as well.

Palette: The surface used to mix your colours on. Also refers to the range of colours used by an artist.

Pigment: Particles of colour. Common pigment types include mineral salts such as white oxides: lead, now most often replaced by less toxic zinc and titanium, and the red to yellow cadmium pigments. Another class consists of earth types, like sienna or umber. Synthetic pigments are also now available. Natural pigments have the advantage of being well understood through centuries of use but synthetics have greatly increased the spectrum available, and many are tested well for their lightfastness.

Plein Air: A hoity-toity way of saying, “to paint outdoors.”

Saturation: is also referred to as “intensity” and “chroma.” This refers to how bright, vibrant, and pure the colour is. A hue of paint straight from the tube is the most saturated that hue can be. Adding black or white or other colours will desaturate or dull the colour. Some colours are naturally more saturated than others. It’s not associated with a color’s value, how light or dark the colour naturally is has nothing to do with its saturation.

Shade: a darker shade of any hue has black added.

Support: What you’re painting on. Flexible supports include stretched canvas and paper, Rigid supports include wood panels with no sense of humor.

Tint: A lighter tint of any hue has white added.

Underpainting, or Layering In: A monochrome painting layer used as a base for composition.

Value: The lightness or darkness of tones or colours. White is the lightest value; black is the darkest. On a value scale, white is value10, black is value1and neutral middle gray is value 5.

Varnish: a clear film that covers a painting (whether painted on with a brush or sprayed on) to protect it when it is dry.



Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org; Dramatic Color in the Landscape: Painting Land and Light in Oil and Pastel Hardcover – May 16, 2014, by Brian Keeler.