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Welcome to the Alexander Gallery
Dictionary of Art Terms
 

We hope you find this dictionary a useful and interesting resource for definitions and information about artists, art, paintings; and all things in the creative arts.  This is a work in progress, so please help us to continually add value by suggesting  a word, term or concept you would like for us to include along with your proposed definition.  If your word is chosen, you stand to win a $25 gift certificate good toward any of our paintings!

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Select the first letter of the word from the list above to jump to appropriate section of the glossary. If the term you are looking for starts with a digit or symbol, choose the '#' link.


                    A - F


- A -

 

Abstract Expressionism
A term originally used to describe Wassily Kandinsky's abstract paintings of the 1920's, but really first used in the modern sense in 1946 to describe contemporary painting. It was popular from that time until the end of the 1950's. Many painters are still painting in this style. It is the first art movement to have both a European and American background. It was influenced by the artists fleeing Hitler, such as Max Ernst, Fernand Leger, and Piet Mondrian. The term is just what it implies. The paintings are abstractions or no noticeable relation to anything in nature at all. The object is to express the inner feelings of the artist toward the subject or the surface that the painting is on. It is as much an emotional release for the artist as it is anything else. Look at works by Robert Motherwell, Willem De Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock.
 
Alkyd
The word is from "alcid," meaning a mixture of alcohol and acid. Alkyd paints are produced from polyhydric alcohol and polybasic acid. The oils are combined with a drying oil, such as linseed, to produce the paint. These paints are not water-based, but are thinned with turpentine. They are not as fast drying as acrylics, but are faster drying than oils. They are meant to be a compromise between the two. They are sold in tubes by various manufacturers.
 
Amber
The fossil remains of resins derived from conifers. These are sometimes heated and called copal varnish.
 
Aquapasto
This is a combination of gum arabic and silica formed into a jelly-like substance to give an impasto look to watercolors. Not to be confused with Oleopasto.
 
Aquatint
An etching technique that produces an unlimited number of gradations of tone from black to a very pale gray. It usually will have a granular appearance. The name is not from the actual technique, but in its visual similarity to that of a watercolor. The technique is usually used in conjunction with other processes such as engraving or drypoint. The majority of Goya's prints are done in a combination of aquatint and etched lines.
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- B -

Balsams
These are the oleoresins that are a viscous liquid secreted by coniferous (evergreen) trees. Although they mix with oils and varnishes, they do not mix with water. The most popular use of a balsam in painting is probably in Venice (or Venetian) turpentine.
Bay Area Figurative
A style of art or painting that started in the 1940's in the San Francisco bay area and lasted until the mid 1960's. It was really a reaction to the Abstract Expressionism that was starting in New York. San Francisco was the second most influential art center behind New York after the war. A few of the painters who were familiar with the work going on in New York were teaching in the bay area and introduced the Abstract Expressionist style. The artists of the bay area altered this approach by going back to nature and included a more figurative imagery. The images were still very abstract and painted with a lot of expressionist style, but with a rejection of total abstraction. Some of the painters known for this style are Richard Dieberkorn and David Park.
 
Bloom
The clouding of a varnish surface. This is caused by the water vapor penetrating the film or being in the film.
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- C -

Calligraphy
Handwriting as art. It probably reached its zenith as an art form in the 12th to 15th century, but has undergone a revival in recent years.
 
Camaïeu
A painting or decoration done in varying shades of the same color. A monochrome painting.
 
Casein
Strictly speaking, this is the dried lumpy curd of skimmed milk. When mixed with water and dry pigments it makes an excellent paint. It was very popular for commercial illustration until acrylics became highly developed.
Collage
The term Collage is from the French verb Coller meaning "to glue." In English it means to attach objects to a surface. It can be used as either a noun or a verb. The first collage in art was by Picasso, Still Life with Chair Caning, produced in 1912. After World War I, the Dada artists used found objects to make political statements. Since this time, collage has been used by many artists to make statements about our society. Since it uses real objects it has a particularly strong impact in the form of social statement. Other artists involved in collage have been Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Hamilton, and David Hockney.
 
Copal
Fossilized resins from living plant material. A rather general term that is easily misused. See Amber.  
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Dada
The root of this word in art is unknown, however, many stories exist. Dada is not an art style, but an attitude. It came out of the period just after World War I, starting in Zurich and New York, and later in Berlin and Paris. It was a reaction to the destruction of which man was now capable through technology. It took on the form of sculpture and painting by such artists as Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Jean Arp. It was also expressed in actions such as the programs at the famous Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. The art works were to show that maybe all this new technology was not necessarily for the good. Some of the paintings showed man as a machine. These works were not met with enthusiasm at the time, but now are considered some of the most important works of twentieth century art.
 
Décollage
The opposite of collage and beginning soon after. The removing of images superimposed on each other, such as the deterioration that takes place when outdoor posters are layered one on top of another and allowed to create a new image through decay of various parts at various rates. Used most effectively by the surrealist Leo Malet, beginning in 1934.
 
Dry Point
The printing process of drawing on a metal plate, usually copper or zinc, with a steel needle. This process is very spontaneous and can almost be called the same as drawing with a pencil. The print from this is characterized by the softness of line. This is caused by the small burr that is left on the sides of the furrow made with the needle. This burr breaks down very fast and changes the look of the print. The number of prints possible with drypoint is very small, about 30 or so. The proof number is therefore, more significant in drypoint than any other form of printing. Some of the best works ever done in drypoint were executed by Rembrandt.
 
Drying Oils
Oils derived from plants and dried by oxidation, the absorption of oxygen. When dry, they make a tough film and go through a molecular change. They are said to polymerize. That means its molecular structure changes so that it is a different substance and will not change back or be dissolved by the original dilutent. This is important because it allows us to use them in making paint that can be worked over when it is dry with more of the same wet paint and not worry about the under layers softening. Used in the making of oil paints.
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- E -

Egg Tempera
The use of egg (either the whole egg, just the white, or just the yolk, but using just the yolk is most common), mixed with water and pigment to make a paint. This process dates back to the Egyptians where there are examples of sarcophagi being decorated with them that are still in tact today. It is painted on solid supports and is capable of great detail as well as many other effects. It is very fast drying so does not lend itself to blending very well. It was the primary form of painting until the introduction of oils. At first, and still some today, oils were painted over the tempera painting to enhance the darker colors. Some of the most famous painters to use the medium in this century have been Andrew Weyeth, Robert Vickery, and Paul Cadmus.
 
Encaustic
Encaustic is a form of painting done with beeswax. It dates back to the Egyptians and Greeks, (the word comes from the Greek word encaustikos, meaning "to burn in"). It is not used much today because of the difficulty of the process. The most famous of modern painters to work in this medium is probably Jasper Johns. The paintings created by this process are very permanent and will withstand almost everything except extreme heat and cold. The medium is especially suited to impasto and knife work. The paint is made by mixing beeswax with pigment and a resin such as damar varnish. These are mixed while being heated on some sort of hot plate to about 150°-200° F. The paint is then allowed to cool into paint sticks. A palette is prepared by rubbing the dry sticks of paint on a heated palette. The hot, liquid paint is then painted on a rigid surface. When the paint has dried (this happens very fast), and the painting is done, the whole painting is then laid on a flat surface and a heat lamp is passed over the surface until the whole thing has fused together and to the support. This is a very tedious process, requires a lot of equipment, and if not done properly, could be dangerous.
 
Engraving
The printing process of drawing on a metal plate, usually copper or zinc, with a steel needle. This process is very spontaneous and can almost be called the same as drawing with a pencil. The print from this is characterized by the softness of line. This is caused by the small burr that is left on the sides of the furrow made with the needle. This burr breaks down very fast and changes the look of the print. The number of prints possible with drypoint is very small, about 30 or so. The proof number is therefore more significant in drypoint than any other form of printing. Some of the best works ever done in drypoint were executed by Rembrandt.
 
Etching
An etching is a print produced by the printing method known by the same name. It is done by coating a copper or zinc plate with a wax or similar protective shield and then the drawing is produced on the surface with a needle. Only the coating is cut, not the plate. When the drawing is complete, the plate is submerged in an acid bath and the areas that were exposed by the needle are cut by the acid. Then the plate is cleaned and inked and then wiped so ink is only in the recesses. The plate is then put in a press where it is pressed hard against a damp print paper. The resulting print is a reverse of the original drawing on the plate. This process dates back to about 1500. The first dated print is from 1513. During the time of Rembrandt (1606-1669), and with his help, etchings became the most popular printing form. Other later artists known for their etchings are Goya, Whistler, Picasso, and Chagall.
 
Expressionism
This is a style of art that is based on expressing the artists emotions. It is in direct opposition to the cerebral art of Geometric Abstraction. It is also not to be confused with Impressionism, which is also far different in its attempt to depict certain forms of lighting effects. Expressionism is not from a particular period, but started at the end of the nineteenth century with such artists as Vincent Van Gogh, and later with the Fauves, such as Henri Matisse. Most often the term is used as part of a movement's name such as the German Expressionist or the Abstract Expressionists. It is really any painting that is primarily based on the release of the artist's emotions.
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- F -

Figurative
This term has two meanings. At first it was used to mean any painting that concerned itself with the representation of nature, human figures, landscapes, and still lifes. Lately, it has become used to mean any painting of the human figure. The latter meaning is becoming more common.
 
Fixative
Any for various sprays that are applied to a picture or drawing to hold the particles of pigment to the surface. The spray may be either workable, allowing for some erasure, or nonworkable and are much harder to work over. They can be purchased in spray cans or used with an atomizer. Most commonly used with pastel and charcoal drawings.
 
Flake White
Lead white. A warm, fast drying white used extensively in oil painting.
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