painting dictionary

common painting terms

the painting dictionary

Did you ever wonder what an artist was talking about?

This painting dictionary has painting terms commonly used by artists.  Included are the art definitions of what these terms mean.

The page turned out to be longer than I imagined. So I divided this painting dictionary into three sections. 


colors - painting dictionary

One of the main reasons I paint is color. I love color!

primary colors

All colors are made from the primary colors of red, yellow and blue. Primary colors can not be mixed from any other colors.

secondary colors

The three secondary colors are a mixture of two primary colors.

tertiary colors

The six tertiary colors are a mix of a secondary color with a primary color.

analogous colors

Analogous colors are three or more colors next to each other on the color wheel.

complimentary colors

Complimentary colors are located directly across the color wheel from each other.

I use complimentary colors to mixing paint colors for neutral tones such as grey, brown or black.

warm and cool colors

Red, yellow and orange are warm colors. Blue, green and sometimes violet are considered cool colors.


Hue is the color group mixed from a primary color.

For example 'Blue Hue' colors are all mixed from the primary color blue. We can also have 'Red Hues' and 'Yellow Hues'.

However be aware, if we see the term Hue on a paint at the paint store. That means the manufacturer mixed colors in order to get their 'hue'. It doesn't mean they got them directly from a primary color. The manufactured hues do not mix well with other colors. They produce muddy colors when mixed with other colors.

I try to have only single pigment paints on my palette. They will make clean, clear colors when they are mixed.

saturation, chroma or intensity

This is getting into real technical stuff. To me it just means the color is more intense, brighter.


Mix any color with black to get its shade. Adding black makes the original color darker.


Any color mixed with white makes a color tint. Adding white makes the color lighter and a bit cooler. It also makes a transparent color opaque because white is opaque.


A tone in painting is how light or dark a color is.


Values are the light and darkness of a color. Yellow is the lightest value and violet is the darkest color on the palette.

art supplies - painting dictionary

Some items you may need for your painting projects.

brushes - painting Dictionary

The different painting medias use different brushes.

Don't use the same brushes for watercolor, acrylic and oil painting.

You will run into cleaning problems because oil does not mix with water.

Artist Paint BrushesArtist Paint Brushes

oil painting brushes

Brushes for oil painting can be either stiff or soft.

The traditional hog bristle brushes are stiffer. They produce a painterly effect that is good for landscape painting.

Animal hair brushes, like sable and synthetic brushes are softer. They are good for smoother work like portrait painting.

watercolor brushes

Watercolor brushes are softer. They may be made out of sable or soft synthetic fibers.

Watercolor artists use a variety of round and flats brushes.

acrylic brushes

Acrylic brushes seem to be any or all of the above. I think it is just a marketing ploy to name another type of brush.

I am however using an acrylic brush for my current 'oil paintings'. The Galeria brush by Winsor Newton allows more detail painting and it seems to wear better than the hog bristle brushes.

rounds, flats, filberts and brights

Round brushes have their bristles inserted into the metal ferrule in a round arrangement.

Rigger and script liner brushes are rounds with extra long bristles that make flexible, fine lines such as tree branches.

The bristles are arranged in a flat manner for flats, filberts and brights. Flats are have longer bristles. Brights have short bristles. Flats and brights leave brush strokes when painting.

Filbert brushes have rounded corners and leave a softer stroke without edges.

paint palette

The palette is the place to lay out your paints with space for mixing colors.

Oil painters use a wood, glass or disposable paper palette.

Watercolor artists use ceramic, plastic or disposable plates.

Acrylic artists often use a disposable paper palette over a moisture retaining base.

Many artist place their palette into a covered container between painting sessions to keep the paint moist.

artist paint photo by Daian GanArtist Paint On A Palette
photo by Daian Gan

paint - painting dictionary

All paints are made with the same color pigments. The vehicle used to carry the pigments give the paints their names.

Professional paints have more pigment in them. They cover better and have more brilliant color than the student paints.

acrylic paint

The pigments of acrylic paints are suspended in acrylic polymer. They dry very fast. There are acrylic mediums available to extend their painting time.

alkyd paint

Alkyd paint uses the same paint pigments as any other types of paint. It has the pigment suspended in alkyd resin. It drys much faster than traditional oil paints. It will dry overnight or sooner depending on the temperature.

I have been using alkyd paints in place of oil paints for many years.

oil paint

The pigments of oil paints are suspended in linseed oil. They take longer to dry, sometimes a week to months for complete drying. Also the colors dry faster and others dry slower.

watercolor paint

Watercolor paints have their pigments suspended in gum arabic. They are water soluble.


Liquid frisket is a rubbery type substance that can be applied to your watercolor support. It takes about an hour to dry.

When watercolor paint is applied, the paint does not penetrate the areas covered with frisket.

After the watercolor paint is dry, remove the frisket with a rubber cement pick-up tool or your fingers.

supports - painting dictionary


Canvas is the traditional support for oil or acrylic painting. There are also, watercolor canvases available now-a-days.

The linen or cotton canvas may be stretched around a wooden frame. Stretched canvas paintings last for years.

Canvas boards have the canvas attached to a hard paper support. These are good for practice and student paintings, but they tend to warp with age.


There are a number of hardwood and pressed wood panels available. They take up less space in storage. They do however lack the spring of painting on a stretched canvas.

Why I use art panels for my watercolor paintings.

paper - painting dictionary

watercolor paper

Watercolor paper is normally made out of cotton. It is sized with rabbit glue to prevent the paint from soaking down into the paper.

There are different weights. 140# paper is common in tablets. It will buckle from a lot of water, so it will need to be stretched. 300# paper is heavier, it resists buckling and it does not need stretching.

other papers

Drawing papers are normally made from wood pulp. Water will make them fall apart. But they are great for drawing.

Newsprint is just like it sounds. It is recycled from newspapers. Use it for sketching out ideas and student work.

Graphite paper has graphite on the backside. It can be used for transferring your drawing to the painting support.

Carbon paper is not suitable for transfering drawings. It will not erase well. It can show thru in your final painting.

painting techniques - painting dictionary

painting alla prima

Alla prima artwork is painted 'wet into wet' paint.

As opposed to waiting for a paint layer to dry before you add the next layer of paint.

This is the method I used when I learned painting. And it is still my favorite way to paint.

Alla Prima is my favorite style of oil painting. art by Carol MayI Often Paint Alla Prima


Traditional oil painting is done with an underpainting. The underpainting often is done with a color that will predominate in the painting. The predominant color will tie the whole painting together.

Conversely the underpainting may be done in a complimentary color to make a lively painting.


When one layer of paint is dry. An additional color can be painted over the previous color to adjust the color.

Glazing is often done with diluted transparent colors.


Scumbling is also done over a previous dry layer of paint. Paint is used on a dry brush and rubbed on with the side of the brush. Normally opaque colors are used.


Splattering is often done with watercolor. Use your finger to splatter paint off of a toothbrush. Or knock the paint off of a paint brush by knocking the brush handle against the forefinger of the opposite hand.

Splattering my also be done with oils or acrylic to produce the effect of sand, for example.

what is a hard edge in painting?

A hard edge occurs in painting when the change from one color to another is abrupt and sharp.

Hard edges attract the viewer's eye. They are often used in the focal area.

  • See the hard edge on the hummingbird's head.

what is a soft edge?

Soft edges are created by blending the juncture of two different paint applications together. Soft edges attract less attention.

  • See the soft edge on the cactus leaf.

watercolor washes - painting dictionary

wet wash

A wet wash in watercolor is smooth color covering a large area such as a sky.

Mix your color ahead of time. Dampen the paper before you apply the color. Apply with smooth even strokes. The water moves the paint.

dry wash

A watercolor wash on dry paper will give you a crisper effect. You have more control over the paint. You move the paint with your brush.

dry brush on dry paper

Applying watercolor with a somewhat dry brush onto dry paper - gives you the effect of a scumble in oil painting. It produces a lot of texture.

watercolor blossoms - back-runs

When you apply more paint to a painted area that is not completely dry, the paint will run to the edge. Where it collects on the edge of the new paint application is called a back-run.


A painting dictionary would not be complete without composition. It is the arrangement of the elements in a painting.

Composition is probably the most important aspect of painting. Your paintings will stand out, when they have good composition.

I hope this painting dictionary has given you a better understanding of the common painting terms used by artists.

It is my pleasure to share my art experience with you.

Go and create your own beautiful paintings.

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