Art terms explained
In this glossary we’ve explained some common art terms, and plan to add more terms and more detail. Use the Website feedback page to suggest additional terms to be explained.
characterised by those qualities that are associated with the application of paint on a surface (eg visible brushstrokes), where shapes are distinguished by colour and tone rather than a linear approach, which emphasises contour and outline.
the range of colours used by an artist. Can also refer to a board used by painters to hold and mix paint.
support provided to artists by a wealthy person (eg royalty, nobility, business person) or institution (eg the church).
art in which works in a variety of media are planned in advance and then undertaken before a live audience. The difference to theatre is that, while theatrical performances present representations of events, performance art presents actual events as art.
the way the illusion of space is created in a flat picture, for example how far the foreground and background appear to be separated from each other. This space is determined by distance between the viewer and the subject. If objects appear their usual size in relationship to each other, the perspective is considered ‘normal’. If the foreground objects are much larger than those of the background, the perspective is considered ‘exaggerated’. When there is little difference in size between foreground and background, we say the perspective looks ‘compressed’.
an artwork made by sticking pieces of other photographs together to create a single picture (from the French coller, meaning ‘to paste’).
also called rayograph, schadograph, light graphics, photogenics. A photographic image made without a camera, either by placing objects on a sensitised surface paper or film that is exposed to a moving or stationary source of light, or simply by directing light onto the material.
a composite image made by joining together and printing portions (or all) of more than one image to create an image not found in reality.
an attempt in the late 19th century to advance photography into the realm of fine art by emphasising aesthetic rather than documentary qualities. The style, which was dominant in Australian photographic circles from around 1900 to the 1930s, was initially characterised by soft-focus effects and low-tone printing. See also Sydney Camera Circle.
in the imaginary space of a picture, the picture plane is the physical surface of the work. Through the use of perspective, objects in the picture may appear to recede from it or project forward from it.
finely powdered material made from natural or synthetic substances which produces the colour of any medium; pigment becomes paint, ink or dye when mixed with oil, water or other fluid.
‘open air’ in French. Also en plein air ('in the open air’). Refers to a painting done outdoors rather than in the studio – an important feature of Impressionism. It can also describe a picture that gives a strong sense of the outdoors.
a term coined by art critic and curator Lawrence Alloway in the late 1950s to indicate art that has a basis in the popular culture of its day. Pop art, which flourished from the mid 1950s to the ’70s, emerged in England but realised its full potential in New York, with Andy Warhol (1928–1987) perhaps the defining pop artist. Media and advertising were favourite subjects for its witty celebrations of consumer culture.
the practice of creating portraits (pictures of people). See also self-portrait.
refers to various trends in painting, particularly in France, that occurred as a result of (often a reaction against) Impressionism. The term was coined by Roger Fry for the 1910–11 exhibition Manet and the post-Impressionists, which featured works by Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) and Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890).
a term coined by an American critic to refer to work that was more embellished and pictorial compared with the cold, industrial look of minimalism. Artists include Eva Hesse (1936–1970), Richard Serra (b1939).
an imprecise term for a type of art that rebelled against modernism. One key characteristic is the crossover between high and low culture (eg fine arts and mass media). The term can also be used in a wider cultural context with a more complex sense.
relating to an English art movement formed in 1848 that produced art rich in symbols and poetic detail. The founding members of the group, known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, were John Everett Millais (1829–1996), William Holman Hunt (1827–1910) and Dante Gabrielle Rossetti (1828–1882). Their name comes from their desire to recapture some of the style and spirit of Italian art of the time before the Renaissance painter Raphael (1483–1520).
in printmaking, an impression taken before work on the block or plate is complete (‘working’ or ‘trial’ proofs) to determine if further work is needed on the printing surface. It can also refer to extra impressions made at the same time, but apart from, an edition, either for the use of the artist (artist’s proof) or printer (printer’s proof). A proof inscribed HC (hors de commerce or ‘outside commerce’) means it is not intended to be sold with the edition. BAT (bon a tirer or ‘good to print’) is a proof that the artist deems as the model for all subsequent proofs in an edition; it can also be inscribed RTP (‘right to print’).
place of origin or source; the history of ownership of an artwork.