Artful Definitions


a la prima - Italian meaning "the first." To paint a la prima is to finish a painting in one sitting. It usually is used to describe oil paintings and has less meaning for quick drying mediums like acrylic and watercolor. Oil paint stays wet for hours (and longer) so to paint in one sitting means you can continue to manipulate shape, color, edge, value from beginning to end because the paint stays wet and pliant.

atmospheric perspective - This is the sort of perspective used by landscape painters to create the illusion of great distance. It's based on the lessening of both contrast and detail as distance increases and on the loss of red from the color spectrum. In daylight as objects recede, they usually become bluer. If you've ever observed distant blue mountains, you have observed this loss-of-red effect.

blocking-in - The process of roughly establishing the basic design of a painting by painting the darker shapes and areas within that design.

chasing the light - to chase the light is to change your depiction of light and shadow in your painting in an attempt to match the light as it shifts and changes on your plein air subject. Chasing the light is discouraged by most plein air painters.

complementary colors - in color theory, two colors are called complements that when mixed together in the right proportions, form white, black or grey. This is obviously much more true in the abstract than in practice. There's no way to create white by mixing anything other than light waves, and as any painter will tell you no two colors ever create a true black. The traditional basic color complements are: black/white, red/green, yellow/violet, blue/orange.

composition - the design of a two dimensional work. This is a very brief definition for a very important feature of each and every painting.

cool colors - usually blue, green, and blue violet (please note the word usually!).

chiaroscuro - is using the contrast of light and dark to model three dimensional objects on a two dimensional surface. Leonardo de Vinci was the master of chiaroscuro.

cropping - is the elimination of a portion of an image (and is very noticeable when it involves the elimination of a human or animal body part!). For a painter, cropping usually takes place in the artist's mind to achieve a pleasing or compelling composition... that of course, can involve cropping off arms, legs, etc. from the image contained on one's canvas. Painters can also sometimes crop a finished work in the hopes of improving a composition that didn't work as well as anticipated.

direct painting - is a synonym for a la prima painting. It is the opposite of painting in layers using glazes.

edges - in a painting, an edge is where a value or a color meets another different value or color.  Like the short definition for composition, the shortness of the definition of edge belies its importance. If you think about it a bit, you'll realize that every painting, abstract or representational, is made up of many, many edges.

figurative - a work is figurative if it has as its subject the human body in a composition that is not intended to be a portrait of a particular individual or individuals. Often figurative is used as as a synonym for a painting of a nude. It can be, and often is, a painting of a nude body; but it can also be, and often is, a painting of the fully clothed.

focal point - the spot in a painting that commands the most attention. Paintings can, and often do, have more than one focal point; however, in a "good" painting, one focal point should dominate any and all of the others.

foreshortening - is a term usually used to describe the application of perspective to the drawing of form such as the human body. Foreshortening is used create the illusion of depth on a two dimensional surface. Unlike the "rules of perspective" where graphic devices (either real or imagined) are employed to establish horizons and vanishing points, foreshortening is primarily done by observation. The artist looks, truly looks, at a three dimensional object and translates as faithfully as possible the angles and shapes seen to his/her two dimensional surface.

form -the creation of the illusion of a three dimensional object in a two dimensional format.

fugitive colors - colors that are not colorfast and that will change over time. Fugitive colors are the enemy of all painters of every persuasion.

gesture - a quickly executed drawing which represents the essence of a figure's position or pose.

glaze –a transparent color wash over dry-to-touch paint. Glazing is done to modify the original color and to create depth in a painting. Glazing can create or enhance color harmony.

grey day  - a grey day painting is a painting done on an overcast day when there is no strong light and shadow in the landscape and objects appear as their "natural" color. Plein air painters see "grey day paintings" as a rather specific category of plein air painting.

hard edge - is an edge that is very defined and precise (please also read the definition of edge). Usually there is a great range from the value on one side of the edge to the value on the other. Often there is a decided color shift as well. Painters who are smart use hard edges sparingly because they call attention to themselves. So smart painters save them for focal points. (This is easier said than done!)

high key - a high key painting is one done in the lighter value range of color. Unfortunately to understand this definition, one must also see the definition of value.

hue - is another word for color, for the actual name of a color like red, blue, orange, violet, etc.

impasto - paint applied very thickly so that it has a very definite visual texture.

juried show – is an art exhibit where artists must submit their pieces for approval to gain acceptance into the show. The “jury” is usually a small committee or sometimes a single person who weighs the merits of the submissions both in technical skill, innovation, and artistic vision. There are almost always many more submissions than acceptances. Think college applications.

limited palette - A palette limited to very few colors. (I realize I just defined the phrase using both words in the phrase!) There are dozens of different colors available in premixed paint. Many artists cut down on mixing confusion by limiting the number of colors they use from the tube, mixing all other colors from a few. Supposedly, Zorn used only black, white, yellow and red (the black when mixed with white sufficed for all blues).       

line of action - in gesture drawing, it is the directional flow of the pose.

local color - is the natural color of an object undistorted by light or shadow. Grass is usually green, milk is usually white, etc. This definition is something of a paradox because color can not exist without light.

lost edges - in a painting, an edge is lost when there is no change in either value or color between the end of one shape and the beginning of another. The edge between one shape and another literally is lost for it disappears.  Painters often use lost edges to make a form meld with its background.

Mundy marbleizing. C.W. says Dan McCaw, another painting hero of mine, does something very like this. In marbleizing, the artist loads his brush with the mixed color he/she intends to apply, then before applying, the artist dips his brush into some, if not all, of the tube paint colors arrayed on his palette. The artist then applies the loaded brush to the canvas. The artist does not blend. If the painter doesn’t like the result, the only solution is to scrape it off. But if it works, there are tiny flecks and swoops of other colors (like red, purple, green etc.) within that single brushstroke. This, at a bare minimum, takes a sure hand and a good eye.

Mundy tissue disruption. Mundy paints his painting with lots of thick buttery paint and beautiful strong brushstrokes. Mundy then decides what he wants to leave alone and what he wants to “mess up.” Mundy takes his tissue and lightly, or sometimes not so lightly, wiggles and squiggles the tissue around his painting. This takes bravery and an excellent knowledge of what to leave well enough alone!


negative space - in a painting, the part of the composition that is not form. In a landscape, sky and sometimes field might function as negative space; in a figurative painting or still life, the space surrounding the figure or objects whether portrayed as room, landscape, or simply colored air would be negative space. Abstract paintings contain negative space as well.

neutral colors - are black, white and the greys. Supposedly they are devoid of color temperature that is they are neither warm nor cool. (Please note the word supposedly.)

notan- (Japanese) the design or pattern of a two dimensional work of art as seen in the flat areas of lights and darks only

open studio - is a gathering of artists to paint or draw together in the same place. Usually, but not always, these artists are painting the same subject. Often, but not always, the thing painted is a living breathing human being (the model). Open studios are not classes in that no instruction is given and no one teaches anyone else except perhaps through example.

painterly - for a painting to be painterly means that it actually looks like a painting. Because the viewer can see the brushstrokes, the texture of the paint and/or canvas, because some details are blurred, dimmed, or left out, for the viewer, it is obviously not a photograph. For a work to be painterly is usually considered very much a compliment... unless perhaps the painter is a photorealist (please note the word perhaps!).

palette - is, of course, the name of the surface artists mix and keep their paint on when painting. More importantly, it’s also the array of colors an artist uses. Most artists use the same series of colors, with minor additions or subtractions, for all their paintings. Admired artists’ palettes are often copied by other painters in the hope that the magic lies in those specific tubes of paint. [see also limited palette.]

perspective - is the science of creating the illusion of depth on a two dimensional surface. I use "science" because there are rules for perspective which artists have been following since the Renaissance (when the rules were formulated) to create this third dimension in drawing and painting. A sense of depth can also be made by means other than the rules of perspective.

plein air - to paint en plein air (French) is to paint out of-doors and usually to paint as your subject the landscape around you rather than from your imagination, for example.

primary colors - are red, yellow and blue. They are primary because you can't create them from other colors. You have to buy them from the art supply store!

saturation - is the intensity of a color. A color is made less intense by the addition of another color to it. Any color is the most intense, the most saturated, as it comes from the tube or the stick. Add another color and its saturation is lessened.

scumble – to apply opaque paint, usually in a thin layer, over dry paint with the intent to let some of the under paint show through. Painters scumble to soften or modify color.  

secondary colors - are purple, green and orange. Each is a mixture of two primary colors.

soft edges - (please read the definition of "edge" first) This is a definition that works by saying what it's not. A soft edge is not sharp and hard. Sometimes it's broken, sometimes its stutters, sometimes it's blurred. I personally like best the soft edges that happen because the values (see that definition, too!) between the two meeting shapes are very, very close. A master of the effortless soft edge is Sorolla; his soft edges just flow from his brush.


stretch –to wrap loose canvas tightly around wooden bars (stretcher bars) to form a rectangle or square suitable for framing. Usually canvas is stretched before being primed or painted but not always. [I paint the painting first.]


tertiary colors - colors made by mixing three colors together, a primary and a secondary. The result is a brown or a grey. These browns and greys often have no names because there are so many, many wonderful brown and grey color possibilities.

tint - as a noun is any color which has white added (think pastel).


tint - as a verb is the practice of applying an all-over color, often a neutral, to a white canvas for the purpose of reading the values of one's painting better. The stark white of the canvas can make initial darks seem quite a bit darker than they will be in the finished work.


Tonalism – is a technique and style that uses colors' middle values rather than stronger light/dark contrasts. Hues used tend to be greyed down. Tonalism also limits the color variety, for instance a painting might be done in a variety of blues with few, if any, other colors introduced. 


underpainting -  is painting either roughly done or quite finished which will be covered by another layer of paint and thus will be almost completely obscured in the final work. Painters sometimes use underpaintings to establish values before translating it to the color they actually see.

value - is the lightness or darkness of a color. To illustrate: imagine a full color photo; now in your mind convert that photo to a black and white image. The black and white image shows the values of the original colors. Value has a short definition like composition and edges. Good values, like good composition and good edges, are essential to a good painting.

value massing - simplifying value into fewer light-dark shifts, to mass value into a unifying pattern of shapes to help guide and direct the viewer through one's painting.

vignette – a painting or drawing that is not finished to the edges of its paper or canvas. The unfinished portion becomes a part of the overall composition.

warm colors - yellow, red, orange and most browns count as warm colors.

Crooked or the Charm of Imperfection

It was raining, very hard. We were outside with our easels, palettes, hats and assorted paraphernalia. Thankfully there was also a po...