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Art Vocabulary

Abstract art

Art that does not accurately represent what is. Shapes and forms tend to be exaggerated or simplified. Often certain qualities of the subject are isolated and focused upon. Wassily Kandinsky is regarded as the founder of modern abstract art.

Abstract Expressionism

A painting movement in which artists tended to apply paint using sweeping physical gestures, sometimes throwing and dripping paint onto canvas with speed in order to express and harness deep emotion. There was usually no intent to represent tangible things, and spontaneity in the process was highly valued. The movement started in the 1940s and peaked the 1950s, largely due to the activity of American artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Willem De Kooning and Robert Motherwell.


Pertains to the appreciation or recognition of beautiful things. May refer to the distinguishing characteristics that define a work, or criteria by which art is judged.


The use of one set of characters, figures or objects to represent another set of people, ideas or stories.


Method of painting with thin, transparent watercolour. Taken from the French word for watercolour.


Taken from the French word for vanguard. Refers to artists whose innovative or experimental ideas and practices place them at the forefront of a new movement, sometimes in conflict with the traditions and conventions of their own time.


A sculpture that emerges as a raised surface or projected image off a flat background, e.g. as on a coin (also known as low relief sculpture). Meant to be seen primarily from one direction.


Irregular and abstract in form, based on shapes found in nature. Sometimes representative of a living object.


The technique of contrasting light and dark in drawing and painting to create the illusion of three-dimensional form.


One who specialises in colour. An artist for whom colour is the key element.


Consisting of parts from different sources. (1) The inspiration for the subject, a work of art may be drawn from a range of sources, not one specific person or thing. (2) The construction of a piece may involve different materials.


An artwork; or the arrangement of elements (e.g. shapes, lines, colours) in an artwork. 1


An art movement pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in the first decade of the 20th century. Picasso and Braque sought to represent on a flat surface all aspects of what they saw in three dimensions. In Analytical Cubism the artist analyses the subject matter, breaks it down into geometric forms, and often combines into one view what can be seen from a range of angles. In Synthetic Cubism bits of real objects are worked into the picture.


The brief pressing of sponge, cloth or brush to a surface, to apply or remove moisture, without rubbing.


A pair of panels or leaves fastened together, often hinged.


Drawing upon a variety of sources/opinions/tastes rather than one exclusively.


The process of cutting a design into a hard surface with a tool that has a sharp point.


Traditionally a method of producing a design in which a needle is used to draw an image through a waxed layer on to a metal plate. The work is submerged in acid, which etches the images exposed by the needle onto the plate. When the plate is inked and applied to paper, an impression is left. (2) Works produced as a result of the above process.


Specifically, a style of painting that grew from within Germany and dominated Europe 1905-1918. Generally, expressionists try to express an emotion rather than reproduce the details of a scene, so shapes and colours are often distorted.


Practitioner of expressionism.


To force a substance or thing into shape by pushing it through a mould.


The French word fauve means 'wild beast'. This was term applied to a small group of artists (Henri Matisse, Maurice de Vlaminck, Andre Derain) who exhibited in Paris in 1905 and whose work used colour in a bold and explosive fashion.


(1) The practice of placing a piece of paper or cloth over an object and rubbing a pencil or crayon across the raised surface, lifting the texture or image. (2) An image achieved using this technique to produce pictures of stronger, bolder colour.


A fine plaster made of gypsum, more commonly known as plaster of Paris. (1) Can be mixed with glue and applied to a surface as a prepared 'ground' for painting; (2) cast in a mold; or (3) used to create the mold for a sculpture.


A paint more opaque than ordinary watercolour. Its heavier texture tends to produce pictures of stronger, bolder colour.


Thin fluid mortar (a mixture of sand, water and cement) that is used to fill in the spaces between bricks, tiles, pavers, etc.


A picture of an animal, object or figure used to represent a sound, syllable or word, e.g. those found on the walls of ancient Egyptian buildings and in their written records.


An image, object or symbol that is widely understood to represent a person, place, era or culture.


A method of drawing or illustrating using images or symbols that is understood to represent a person, place, era or culture.


A style of painting that started in France during the 1860s. Impressionists sought to capture in paint the effects of sunlight on their subject at different times of the day – to literally capture the moment or 'impression'.


Practitioner of impressionism.


Not natural. This term is often used to describe geometric or man-made shapes in contrast to shapes taken from nature.


A type of artwork that is made to go into a particular space, or environment, allowing for interaction between the work, its audience and that environment. Light effects, time and sound might feature as elements of an installation piece.


The patterns on the rafters inside a wharenui (Maori meeting house).


A very old style of pottery found in the Pacific that dates back several thousand years, usually highly decorated and often depicting faces.


A durable, non-yellowing medium used for thinning paint and speeding drying time. Made by Winsor and Newton.


A method of printing in which a greasy medium, e.g. crayon, is used to draw an illustration on a stone, metal or plastic plate. This surface is then washed. When ink is applied, it sticks to the greasy medium. Paper is placed upon the plate and both are passed through a press to produce a new print.


To imitate the texture of marble through the blotching and streaking of paint, sometimes achieved through the application of oil paint on top of water or water-based paints.


A colour or surface that is dull and non-reflective.


Plural of medium – the physical materials or technique used by an artist to produce a work of art, e.g. sculpture, crayon, collage.


A traditional Maori club used as a weapon. Usually made from stone e.g. greenstone (pounamu) or wood, and sometimes elaborately carved.


A descriptor of one thing is applied to something else in a figurative sense. A direct comparison between two things is implied.


One of a series of prints in which differences from the original common image are developed, print-by-print. Each new print has something added, e.g. colour, texture or new design elements.


A distinctive design feature or re-occurring pattern, central in importance, that may be repeated in a variety of ways.


A traditional story, often peopled by supernatural characters, that explains the origins of values or ideals upheld by society, or aspects of the natural world.


A composition that tells a story.


Adhering to ideals and forms that are true to nature.

Negative space

Empty space in an artwork, a void. The space in a painting around the objects depicted.


A term referring to a trend in art, which arose in the 1970's and extended into the 80's. Artists emulating the original expressionists revived their principles and practices in the context of modernism.


Clay and iron oxide mix to create a mineral commonly used as a pigment, especially to produce earth tones. It varies in colour from light yellow to brown.

Olde English

Officially the English language spoken in Britain prior to 1150. The term is commonly used to refer to the language of medieval times.


Allows no light to pass through.

Optical art

A form of abstract art, which rose to prominence in the1960s. The art creates an optical illusion, e.g. the impression of movement, by stimulating the retina of the eye through the manipulation of certain elements (line, shape, colour etc), at the same time challenging assumptions about what is seen.

Paper Tole

The process of making three-dimensional pictures by cutting, shaping and reassembling paper pieces. The finished work, resembling a three-dimensional image, is often placed into a deeply recessed frame. Otherwise known as 3D decoupage.


French for 'chewed-paper'. A material made from shreds of paper mixed with wallpaper paste, or flour and water, which can be modelled into the required shape when wet and becomes hard and suitable for painting or vanishing when dry.2


A statement that appears to contradict itself and/or commonly held notions of what is reasonable, but may still be true.


A creative work in which the attributes of someone or something, are humorously depicted or made fun of.


A full-body tattoo of Samoan tradition and style.

Pollock Krasner Foundation Grant

Financial assistance (for a one-year period) to painters, artists and sculptors who meet the Foundation's criteria. Lee Krasner was a leading abstract expressionist painter and the widow of Jackson Pollock.
For more information visit the following website: www.pkf.org

Positive space

Space in an artwork that is filled with something, e.g. lines, designs, colour or shape.


Refers to artists during the 1880's and 1890's, immediately after the initial Impressionist movement swept Europe. These artists may have been through an Impressionistic phase but were no longer pioneering new ideas, and while not opposed to Impressionism, were moving in new directions.


A revival of interest in art, culture (particularly ancient Greek and Roman) and learning that occurred in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries.


Containing or using humour, exaggeration and/or irony to ridicule the views and/or behaviour of others.


Brand name of a range of top quality oil painting materials, watercolours and pastels.


Rope or cord made from coconut fibre.


To paint a series is to produce several pieces of work about one subject or idea. This enables the artist to explore different aspects of his/her theme.


The technique of scratching through one surface or layer to reveal what lies beneath.


A varnish made from an animal product. A gummy substance secreted by a scale insect hardens into what is called lac. Crushed and processed into shellac, the substance is mixed with alcohol, to become a thin varnish.


Samoan word for tapa.


An artist's tool like a pencil with a drawing point made of silver, that produces hard, clearly defined lines, and requires a carefully prepared ground. For more information visit www.silverpointweb.com


Flat broad-bladed tool used to pick up or mix powders and pigments.

Still life

A picture, usually drawn, painted or photographed, of inanimate objects.


A method of applying paint or ink, employing a series of dots rather than lines.


A painter, whose work is not necessarily rational in its composition, but has dreamlike qualities, fantastical elements and startling qualities. Surrealists are interested in expressing what comes from the subconscious (or even unconscious) mind. Surrealism had its origins in an early Twentieth Century movement called Dadaism.


A cloth made from the inner bark of a tree (e.g. paper mulberry) that has been beaten. Used by a variety of Polynesian and African cultures.


An emulsion used as a medium for pigments, traditionally made with egg-yolks (although milk, glue or gum can be used) and thinned with water.3


Allows some light to pass through.


A work featuring three panels side by side, often hinged.


The style or appearance of the text you use to print, e.g. font style or size.

Waka huia

In pre-European times these were ornately carved boxes that held the feathers of the Huia bird, worn only by Maori chiefs of distinction.


A design is cut from the surface of a block of wood so that ink adheres only to the raised surfaces. The illustration is then transferred to paper.

1. The Arts on the NZ Curriculum, Ministry of Education, Wellington, 2000, p.83
2. Adapted from the entry found on http://www.artlex.com/
3. Adapted from the entry in The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms, Edward Lucie-Smith, 1984, London, p.184