Speaking the “Lingo” of Oil Painting Artists

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How do you define art?

One unknown source says “art is what artists do”. Another defines art as the skillful manipulation of materials and techniques under creative (intellectual or emotional) guidance and aesthetic principle in visual form. Still another definition describes art as the accomplished work of an artisan which is the manifestation of creativeness or imagination or both, that depicts a mood, feeling or tells a story. Also the use of skill and imagination in the creation of visually pleasing artistic objects to be shared and admired by others. For more information see the blog “What Is Fine Art?

How ever you define creativity, it will be helpful to know a few definitions and the “lingo” of art.

Artist — An artist is a practitioner in the arts generally recognized as a professional by their critics and peers.

Masterpiece — This refers to a creative work by an artist that has been fashioned with extraordinary skill and has received much critical praise. Generally a masterpiece is considered an artist’s greatest work of art.

Composition and Design

Composition — This is what artists create when they organize or arrange the various elements that go into a painting so they fit together to form a pleasing composition. The arrangement is based both the visual and emotional experience to give unity and consistency to a work of art and to allow the observer to grasp the purpose and meaning of the artwork.

an introduction to the principles of good design.Design — This is what the artist does when they arrange the various design elements to create a single effect. An effective design is one in which all the elements and principles of art have been combined in such a way as to achieve an overall sense of unity within the artwork. Unity is the ultimate goal of the designer.

Center of interest — Sometimes referred as the focal point, is a specific area or element of the painting that dominates a work of art and captures the viewer’s eye. The viewer’s eye is usually drawn there first.

rule of thirds exampleRule of thirds — This is a composition rule borrowed from photography that also works well to help artists compose their paintings. What it does is to divide the scene into three rows and three columns using horizontal and vertical lines. The rule states that the painting is much more interesting if the focal point is not in the center of the canvas but located at one of intersection points.

Perspective — This is a way to make flat two-dimensional objects appear to have volume or three-dimension. It is also beneficial in making a flat painting appear to have actual space and give the effect of distance.

Vanishing point — A technique used in perspective-this is the point on the horizon line in the distance where receding parallel lines appear to meet and visibility ends. The number and placement of the vanishing points determines which perspective technique is being used.

Negative space — Also called “white space”, negative space is the unoccupied or empty areas between elements in a composition and also function as shapes themselves in the total design. It helps to specify the element(s) and works best when there is a visual balance between the positive and negative spaces. Negative space also acts to attract the eye to the focal point.

Positive space — The area or space that is occupied by an element or a form in a painting. For example, it can cup and saucer in a still life painting, a person’s head and shoulders in a portrait, the ship and seagulls of a seascape painting.


basic color wheelColor wheel — A round diagram or circle that shows the position of color hues around a circle that shows relationships between primary colors, secondary colors, complementary colors, etc. “Color schemes” are often created using the color wheel.

Color schemes — Logical combinations of colors on the color wheel used to create style and appeal. A color scheme can be created using as few as two colors that look appealing together or more for advanced color schemes involving several color combinations.

color oppositesComplementary (opposite) colors — Two colors that are  directly opposite one another on the color wheel. When placed side-by-side, they are intensified and often appear to vibrate. If they are mixed together, a neutral color (brown or gray) is created. Some examples of complementary colors are red and green, blue and orange, and yellow and violet. Red-violet and yellow-green, red-orange and blue-green, and yellow-orange and blue-violet are also opposites.

Cool color — Blue, green and violet are considered cool colors because their visual temperatures make them appear cool. When you envision a cool lake or iced over pond, your mind’s eye will see cool colors.

Warm color — The warm colors consist of those who’s visual temperatures make them appear warm. Red, orange and yellow are regarded as being warm colors because they are colors you find in fire.

primary colors on the color wheelPrimary colors — Red, yellow and blue are the primary colors of oil painting. They are called primary because they are the only colors which can not be made from mixing other colors. With these three colors, along with black and white, all other colors of the color wheel can be made.

secondary colors on the color wheelSecondary colors — The secondary colors consist of green, purple and orange. These three colors are derived from mixing equal amounts of two of the three primary colors. For example, mixing red and yellow yields orange. When you mix blue and yellow the result is green. Red and blue mixed together makes purple.

tertiary colors on the color wheelTertiary colors — These colors are also called intermediate colors. They are made by mixing one primary and one secondary color. Red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet and red-violet are all tertiary colors.

Oil Painting

tube of oil paintOil paint — A type of paint made with pigment and linseed oil that dries more slowly than water based paints. This makes it easier to blended from dark to light creating the illusion of three-dimension. Oil paint has been the medium of choice for most artists since the Renaissance era.

Underpainting — This is the first layer of paint applied to a canvas, which serves as a base for subsequent layers of paint. This layer gets its name “underpainting” because it is a layer intended to be painted over (see overpainting) as the first of several layers of oil paint. Underpaintings can be monochromatic or multi-color.

Overpainting — The final layer of paint that is applied over the underpainting layer after it has dried. The purpose of an underpainting is to specify the basic shapes of the elements in a composition and the overpainting fills in the details of the oil painting.

Original oil painting — An original is a “one-of-a-kind” fine art piece created totally by hand to include drawings, paintings, handmade prints and sculpture. Not all hand painted oil paintings can be considered original if it is a painted copy of another work, in which case it is considered a reproduction.

Additional Reading

This is just a small sampling of art terms and definitions. More art vocabulary words can be found in the Art Glossary. See below.

Art Glossary

Glossary of common art terms and their definitions.
A     |     B     |     C     |     D     |     E     |     F     |     G

H     |     I       |     J     |     K     |     L     |     M     |     N

O     |     P     |     Q     |     R     |     S     |     T     |     U

V     |     W     |     X     |     Y     |     Z

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UPDATED: 26 September 2020

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