Art Terms and Definitions — S

dictionary of art terms

A dictionary of art terms and their descriptions that begin with the letter “S”. The following are more than 50 general art-related words from SABLE BRUSH to SYNTHETIC BRUSH.

Quick links to more dictionary listings of art terms are located at the end of the list.

Sable Brush

dictionary of art terms

An artist’s brush made from the fur of any member of the weasel family with “red” hair. Despite what their name implies, sable brushes do not come from sables. Some less common natural hairs used for sable brushes are badger, camel, goat, mongoose, ox, pony, and squirrel. Sable brushes are softer and more delicate than bristle or synthetic brushes; however, they are more expensive and require more care. They are great for blending, glazing, and making soft, less-defined marks. The best sizes for this type of brush are one-half inches in width or smaller.

Sacred Art

See “Religious Art.”

Sand Art

The art of pouring different colored sand into a plastic or glass bottle to create a scene or image.


The art of pouring colored sands and pigments onto a surface to make a temporary or permanent picture.

Sand Sculpture

The art of modeling sand into an artistic form. Sandcastles are a common form of this type of art form; however, sand sculpting has progressed into more elaborate sculptures that you would expect to see in stone, bronze, or wood.

Sans Serif

dictionary of art terms

In typography, a typeface, such as Arial or Helvetica, does not have a serif (crossline) decorating the main strokes of the characters. Sans is French for “without” (see illustration).

Screen Art

Artwork that has been set up for the screen printing process. It is essential that the artwork is set up correctly to obtain good results in screen printing.

Screen Printing

dictionary of art terms

A printmaking technique used to apply inked images to an underlying layer using a mesh stencil or a series of stencils. The ink is distributed to the desired area(s) by being pressed through a porous screen made from fabric (silk or synthetic) stretched tightly over a frame, hence the name screen printing. Also referred to as silk screening or silkscreen printing because silk was once used in the process. The most popular screen in general use is made of polyester. This process is used in printing screen art onto garments, such as T-shirts and sweatshirts, and such items as tote bags, towels, umbrellas, etc.


An artist who creates sculptures.


Any three-dimensional form created as an artistic expression. Sculpture is primarily concerned with space: occupying it, relating to it, and influencing the perception of it.


seascape painting
Seagull Beach by Teresa Bernard

A painting that depicts the sea or a scene offering an expansive view of the ocean or sea. Seascapes include marine landscapes showing life around the sea with lighthouses, beach scenes, fish, and marine animals, as well as views of the ocean itself. Fish and other marine animals can also be categorized as wildlife. Seascapes should not be confused with Maritime Art which depicts life out on the open sea. For more on seascape art, click here.

Secondary Colors

secondary colors on the color wheel

Orange, green, and violet (purple). These colors are created by mixing equal parts of any two primary colors (red, yellow, and blue).

    • Red + yellow = orange
    • Yellow + blue = green
    • Blue + red = violet (purple)


Self Portrait by Vincent van Gogh
Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh, 1889

A portrait an artist makes using himself or herself as the subject. It is typically drawn or painted from a reflection in a mirror. A self-portrait may be of the artist only or one that is part of a larger work, including a group portrait. Vincent van Gogh was one of the most well-known and prolific self-portrait artists; between 1886 and 1889, he painted himself more than 43 times.

Also, refers to a portrait taken by the photographer of him/herself, either in a mirror, using a remote release, or with a self-timer.


A reddish-brown hue sometimes applied to black-and-white pictures, which gives the finished print an antique appearance often associated with monochrome photographs of the 19th and early 20th centuries.


A seven-panel altarpiece that must be seen as a whole. Septych is not a widely used term although the visual arts use it. It is derived from a combination of words “septem” (Latin for “seven”) and “ptychē” (Greek meaning “fold”). Also called, “Heptaptych“. Also see “polyptych.”


In typography, serifs are the small features at the end of strokes within letters (see San Serif illustration above).


See “screen printing.”


(Pronounced sfoo·mah·toe.)
A Renaissance Italian painting technique that involves gradually blending colors and tones to create a subtle transition between different areas of a painting. This is achieved by applying multiple layers of transparent paint and softening the edges with a brush. The visual result is soft, imperceptible transitions between colors and tones, giving a sense of blurriness or smokiness. Sfumato mimics the effect of human vision or the out-of-focus plane, creating a realistic and atmospheric rendering of facial features and other forms. Leonardo da Vinci, a Renaissance polymath, was a master of the sfumato technique, known for its fine shading and soft transitions between colors and tones. His most famous work, the Mona Lisa, is renowned for its use of this technique without lines or borders.


A color produced by adding black to a pigment.


dictionary of art terms

Showing changes from light to dark or dark to light in a picture by darkening areas that would be shadowed and leaving other areas light. Shading is often used to produce illusions of dimension and depth (see illustration).


An area that stands out from the space next to it or around it because of a defined boundary or a difference in value, color, or texture. It can be geometric (square, circle, hexagon, etc.) or organic (puddle, blob, splatter, etc.).


A form of limonite clay most famous for the production of oil paint pigments. Its yellow-brown color comes from the ferric oxides contained within. As a natural pigment, it (along with its chemical cousins ochre and umber) was one of the first pigments to be used by humans and is found in many cave paintings.


A dark image outlined against a lighter background.


See “screen printing.”


See “Visual Economy.”

Simultaneous Contrast

A term used in art to describe how two distinct colors or values interact when positioned next to one another. According to the hypothesis, one color can cause the tone and hue of another to look brighter and more vivid. This idea is based on the complimentary color theory, which holds that although colors are the same in nature, their proximity to one another changes how we see them. Simultaneous contrast is essentially an intriguing way that two colors interact, changing our impression of the hue and tone of a surrounding color.

Site-specific Art

A unique form of art that is designed specifically for a specific location and cannot be moved or exhibited apart from its intended environment. Site-specific art is intentionally created to exist in a specific location, and its unique characteristics are meticulously considered during the planning and creation process.


A rough or unfinished freehand drawing or painting that is used to capture the basic elements and structure of a situation. A sketch is not intended to be considered a completed artwork. They are rendered quickly with few details and can be created in any drawing medium, including pencil, ink, watercolor, and paint. Sketches are frequently used by artists as a preliminary work for more intricate paintings or drawings.

Social Realism

(Art history. Art movement: United States, 1920-1930s. Also known as: urban realism.)
An art movement that arose between WWI and WWII to address social and political concerns. Artists used realism to make their art more accessible and legible to the public, often portraying their subjects as heroic symbols of persistence and strength. This movement aimed to expose and criticize social and political problems like poverty, oppression, injustice, and corruption.

Solvent-free Oils

See “Water-soluble Oil Paint.”

Space (in art)

A design principle that refers to the interval or measurable distance between, around, above, below, or within shapes and forms in an art piece. It can be either negative space (empty) or positive space (occupied). In art, it can also be represented as two-dimensional or three-dimensional space.

Space Art

space art
A View of The Full Moon and Earth by Teresa Bernard

A modern-day art movement still in its infancy, space art attempts to communicate ideas and appreciation for the infinite variety and vastness of outer space. Its subjects are frequently interstellar and interplanetary elements. Thanks to the invention of telescopes, artists can now depict the grandeur of our universe by rendering what they see out there. Planets, stars, nebulas and galaxies, spacecraft, astronauts, black holes, moons, comets, asteroids, and other celestial bodies are often depicted in space art. Sometimes referred to as astronomical art. For more on space art, click here.

Space Artist

An artist who has an interest in the universe and draws inspiration from space and space exploration. A space artist creates space art (also called astronomical art) in various forms such as paintings, sculptures, and abstract imagery.


dictionary of art terms

A variation on the complementary color scheme. Split-complementary is a color scheme that takes two colors on either side of the complementary color, rather than the color opposite the key color. This scheme allows for a wider range of colors while maintaining the basic harmony between the key and complementary colors. It has the same visual appeal as the complementary color scheme but with less contrast and tension. Split-complementary color schemes are a safe choice for almost any design due to their ease of manipulation and always look good.

Spot Color

A solid color created using a premixed ink, typically based on Pantone Matching System (PMS) colors. Spot colors are used when a specific color is required, such as a company’s logo.

Stained Glass

stained glass graphic

Glass that has been colored or stained through different processes. This term is also used to refer to the art of cutting colored glass into various shapes and joining them together with lead strips to create a pictorial window design.


A sculpture representing a human or animal.


Stiff paper (or other sheet material) with a design cut into it as a template for shapes meant to be copied. Also a method of applying a design by brushing ink or paint through a cut-out surface.


A decorative technique in the visual arts where an image is created by passing ink or paint through the cut-out perforations of a stencil onto an underlying surface.

Still Life

still life painting
The Study by Teresa Bernard

An art form that involves arranging inanimate everyday objects on a table or surface, either natural or man-made. Items like flowers, food, wine, rocks, seashells, or man-made objects like drinking glasses, books, bottles, pottery, dishes, etc. The term still life comes from the French word “nature morte,” meaning “nature dead.” For more on still life art, click here.

Still Life Artist

An artist who creates paintings or drawings of inanimate objects that are either natural or manufactured. The term “still life” comes from the Dutch word “stilleven,” meaning “dead nature” or “motionless life.”


A drawing technique consisting of many small dots or specks to construct the image; a method of using small dots to simulate varying degrees of solidity or shading; to paint, engrave, or draw using dots or small touches of the brush, pen, or other tools.


A kind of pencil consisting of a tight roll of paper or soft leather, or a cylindrical piece of rubber or other soft material used to rub down hard lines in pencil or crayon drawings to blend the lines of shading to produce a uniform tint.

Street Art

A form of contemporary art intended to be experienced outside of the typical art gallery setting, as in out on the street. It encompasses a variety of mediums, like painting, sculpture, or stained glass. Public murals are the most common form of street art. It is not considered to be the same as graffiti.

Stretcher Bars

stretcher bars graphic

Wooden support frames used by artists to mount canvas fabric for their canvases, which is stretched across the frame and fastened to the bars using staples, tacks, or other fasteners. They are typically rectangular in shape; however, many artists enjoy painting on square, oval, and even round stretched canvases. Stretcher bars come in various weights and sizes to accommodate the requirements of different types of canvases.

Stretched Canvas

A classic (traditional) type of canvas used by artists to create paintings on top of the canvas surface. Canvas material is stretched across and side-stapled to stretcher bars. The sides of the canvas are usually left raw or unpainted. Paintings composed on this type stretched canvas will require a frame before display. For more information see blog article “Three Types of Oil Painting Canvas.”

Stylized Art

A style of art that deviates from realistic representations of subjects to express a specific aesthetic. It can involve simplifying shapes, exaggerating features, or using non-naturalistic colors to create a specific mood or atmosphere. Stylized art is not completely abstract, but rather modifies the natural appearance of the subject. It can be found in various forms, including drawings, paintings, and digital art. Stylized art allows creators to break free from strict realism and infuse their work with a unique visual language that resonates with viewers. It can be seen as whimsical characters, vibrant landscapes, or abstract concepts, inviting viewers to see the world through a creative lens.

Subject Matter

The topic dealt with, or the subject represented in a work of art. The subject matter is what the artist has chosen to paint, draw, or sculpt.


The material providing a surface upon which an artist applies color, collage, etc.


Art Terms and Definitions -- S

A modern art style that juxtaposes various abstract concepts to create a startling effect. Fully recognized images are realistically painted, then reconstructed or structured within an ambiguous, contradictory, or shocking framework, removed from their usual settings and circumstances. Surrealist paintings are often illogical and express imaginative dreams with visions that emphasize the subconscious rather than rationale. Surrealism originated in France and flourished as an art movement in the early twentieth century.

Symbolism (art)

A late 19th-century French and Belgian movement, aimed to express emotions and ideas through rich, evocative imagery and symbolic representations. Symbolist artists reacted against Western European culture’s rationalism and materialism by using color and line to create scenes with figures from biblical, mythological, or fantastical sources. They moved away from the representational tradition of Classical art, exploring new ways to express psychological truths and spiritual realities. The purpose of paintings in the symbolism art movement was to focus on what each element or the whole symbolizes rather than what the elements literally are.


A design or composition that uses identical or nearly identical shapes on opposing sides of a dividing line or central axis to demonstrate formal balance. It consists of equivalent components that face each other or rotate around a central axis to promote harmony and balance. The opposite of “asymmetrical.”

Symmetrical Balance

A type of visual balance in a composition achieved through the equal distribution of identical forms and weight on both sides of the central axis. Symmetry is the simplest and most prominent type of balance. It creates a secure, safe feeling and a sense of solidity.

Synthetic Brush

Synthetic brush

paintbrush manufactured from either nylon or “Taklon,” a polyester filament. Synthetic brushes offer more versatility than a natural one because it can be used with acrylic and oil paints. These brushes are a good budget alternative to natural bristle brushes, but make sure they’re made for oil paints.

Some advantages of synthetic brushes are:

    • They are more resistant to damage from turpentine, insects, or paints.
    • Cleanup is easier since they don’t tend to trap paint in the individual hairs.
    • The hairs last longer because they are less prone to breaking and are more durable on many different canvas surfaces.

One disadvantage is that less expensive synthetic brushes tend to lose their shape more quickly than natural brushes.

You May Also Like

This glossary of art terms is provided as a valuable resource for art enthusiasts. If you like the information here and find it helpful, please consider purchasing a painting. Your support helps to cover the cost of keeping this dictionary of art terms online. Simply click or tap the thumbnail link of any Teresa Bernard oil painting to view additional details.

seaside work of art
Sea of Galilee at Capernaum (2005)
20″ w x 16″ h
pine trees forest painting
Song of The Trees
24″ w x 36″ h
astronaut painting
30″ w x 24″ h

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Contributing to The Art Dictionary

The dictionary of art terms is a work in progress. New terms and definitions are added on a regular basis. If you know of an art term and definition that isn’t already listed in it but you believe it should be, send it to us and we’ll consider adding it. We’ll let you know if we do. Thanks!

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