How to Talk About Painting

30 Jan 2018

Most people are familiar with terms such as oil painting, acrylic or watercolour. Many people are also highly knowledgeable about artistic movements within painting, such as Impressionism, Cubism or Modernism. Yet there are many painting terms that are perhaps more niche, and thus evade our knowledge. Be it painting techniques, processes or styles, this article is designed to broaden your painting vocabulary, and help introduce you to some of the more complex terminology.



An underpainting is a base layer of paint, which maps out the planned image, and serves as a grounding for subsequent layers of paint. Underpaintings are often monochromatic, but some artists Giotto prefer multicolor ground layers. Either can be used to help prefigure color values for later painting, which is usually built up in further layers. An Ébauche, from the French for blank, or outline, is a term used to denote the preliminary underpainting for an oil painting.



Gesso is a white substance consisting of a binder, mixed with chalk, pigment, gypsum, or a combination of all three. It is used to prepare various substrates for painting, such as wood panels, canvas and even sculptures. Although gesso is simply a primer, mixing and applying it can be conceptualized as an art form in itself, since it is usually applied in 10 or more extremely thin layers.



Tempera (sometimes called egg tempera) is a method of painting that uses an emulsion of water, egg yolks or whole eggs (occasionally with a little glue, honey or milk) to bind the color pigments. Its name derives from the Latin temperare, meaning “to mix in proportion”. Tempera is typically applied onto a substrate that’s already been prepared with layers of gesso to form a smooth surface. Tempera is then applied over the underpainting, to gradually build up a series of thin, transparent layers. This technique is very old, dating back to antiquity. Over time tempera was broadly replaced by oil painting, as unlike oils, tempera cannot be applied too thickly, thus it lacks deep coloration. Nonetheless, the colors in tempera do not deteriorate over time, unlike oil paints which tend to darken or lose color with age. Tempera dries rapidly, and produces a smooth matte finish.



From the Italian verb meaning “to paste”, Impasto is a technique in which paint is laid on in such thick layers that the brushstrokes remain clearly visible. Once dried, impasto provides intense texture, such that the paint appears to be coming out of the canvas. Although it’s a relatively old technique, different artists have used Impasto in different ways. For example, Impasto can cause light to reflect off the paint in a unique way, giving the artist additional control over the play of light in their work. This feature was favoured by Old Masters such as Rembrandt, Titian, and Vermeer, to represent fine details in clothes or jewels, adding texture in contrast to a more delicate or softly rendered background. Impasto can add so much texture that a painting gains an almost three-dimensional sculptural rendering; this was utilized in the work of French Impressionists such as Monet and Manet. It can also add a certain expressiveness to the painting, with the viewer being able to detect the movement of the artist’s brush. This feature was developed even further in the later technique of gesturalism.



Gesturalism is a method of painting characterized by energetic, expressive brushstrokes, deliberately emphasizing the sweep of the painter's arm or the movement of the hand. The brushwork in a gesturalist painting is highly raw and personal, expressing the artist's emotions and personality in much the same way as a person's gestures reflect their feelings in real life. Gesturalism also draws attention to the process of creation, emphasizing the physical act of painting itself. The technique was central to the movement of Abstract Expressionism, embraced by artists such as Willem De Kooning (1904-97), Lee Krasner (1908-84) and her husband Jackson Pollock, whose unique method of action painting - in which paint is applied over a canvas using a "drip, dribble and splash" technique - is an extreme form of Gesturalism.



Pointillism is a technique of painting in which tiny, distinct dots of primary-colors are used to generate secondary colors, which come together to create an image. The technique relies on the ability of the human eye and mind of the viewer to blend the color spots into a fuller range of tones, thereby resolving the image. Pointillism is a technique that spawned a movement. As an offshoot of Impressionism, it is very similar to Divisionism, except where Divisionism is concerned with color theory, Pointillism is more focused on the specific style of brushwork used to apply the paint. The most famous Pointillists are Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, whose work altered the direction of modern art.

Maximilien Luce (1858–1941) Morning Interior, 1890, Oil on canvas, 64.8 x 81 cm (25 1/2 x 31 7/8 in.). A pointillist masterpiece.



A grisaille is a form of monochrome painting rendered entirely in shades of grey (or another neutral color). It is particularly used in large decorative schemes in imitation of sculpture, and is considered a form of art in and of itself. However, since it is quicker and cheaper than painting in color, it’s often used simply as a means underpainting. Rubens was also known to use grisaille to prepare for an engraving. Some grisailles include a broader color spectrum, such as the fresco illustrated by Andrea del Sarto. Paintings executed in brown may be referred to as brunaille, and paintings executed in green are sometimes called verdaille.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569), Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, 1565, 24 cm × 34 cm (9.4 in × 13.4 in). This is an example of Grisaille used to imitate sculpture.


Trompe L’oeil

From the French for “deceive the eye”, Trompe L’oeil is a technique that uses hyper-realistic imagery to create an optical illusion, making it seem as though the depicted objects really exist in three dimensions. The technique originated in early Roman and Greek painting, and found a resurgence during the Renaissance period. According to legend, the Greek painter Zeuxis and his rival Parrhasius staged a contest to determine who was the superior artist. When Zeuxis unveiled a painting of grapes, they appeared so real that birds flew down to peck at them. Parrhasius was impressed, and so asked Zeuxis to unveil his own painting, which was concealed behind a curtain - but as Zeuxis went to draw the string, the curtain itself turned out to be a painted illusion, making Parrhasius the winner. Zeuxis lamented, "I have deceived the birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis." In Renaissance Italy, Vittorio Carpaccio and Jacopo de' Barbari added subtle trompe-l'œil features to their paintings in order to playfully explore the boundary between representation and reality. For example, they might make it seem as though a fly were sitting on the painting's frame, or a person was climbing out of the painting altogether. More recently, trompe l’oeil found a home amongst the Surrealists of the 20th Century, such as Salvador Dali.

Pere Borrell del Caso (1835-1910) Escaping Criticism, 1874. The boy climbs out of the frame, blurring lines between representation and reality.



Fresco is a technique of mural painting, in which the image is painted upon wet lime plaster. Water is used as an agent to make the pigment merge with the plaster; thus as the plaster sets, the painting becomes an integral part of the wall. The word fresco comes from the Italian word for "fresh", and may thus be contrasted with secco mural painting techniques, which are applied to dried plaster. The fresco technique is very old, emerging in antiquity and exploding again within Italian Renaissance painting. Perhaps the most famous Renaissance frescoes are Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling and Raphael's Villa Farnesina.

Michelangelo (1475-1654) The Creation of Adam, 1512, Fresco, 280 cm × 570 cm (9 ft 2 in × 18 ft 8 in).



A perfect synthesis of fresco and trompe l’oeil techniques, quadratura is a form of illusionistic ceiling painting, in which perspective tools (such as foreshortening) are used to create the illusion of three-dimensional space on an otherwise flat ceiling surface. Typical of the 17th century tradition of Baroque and Rococo art, quadratura can be used to visually imply an extension of architectural space, a divine realm, or even an open sky. Andrea Pozzo's quadratura fresco in Sant'Ignazio, Rome, creates the effect of looking upward at a domed ceiling, adding grandeur to the interior of the Church.

Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709), Trompe-l'oeil Dome at Sant'Ignazio, 1685. Quadratura Fresco, 17 m diameter.


Ink and Wash

Ink and wash painting is an East Asian technique of brush painting, emanating from ancient Chinese practice, which uses black ink in various concentrations to produce monochrome imagery. The method uses the same ink as East Asian calligraphy, and is a highly delicate form. Asian writing on aesthetics states that the goal of ink and wash painting is not simply to reproduce the appearance of the subject, but to capture its spirit. It may thus be regarded as a form of expressionistic art that evokes the unseen. This expressive quality, in which every brush stroke is charged with meaning, influenced American Modernists such as Arthur Wesley Dow, and his student Georgia O’Keeffe. Perhaps the most famous ink and wash painter is Hasegawa Tōhaku, whose Pine Trees has become a National Treasure of Japan.

Hasegawa Tōhaku (1532-1610), Left panel of the Pine Trees screen (松林図 屏風), ca. 1595, Six-fold screen, Ink on paper. 156.8 x 356 cm (61.7 in × 140.2 in.)


How to Talk About Painting