Design Resources:   Art & Design Terms Course Index
Design Index
Red rule
Arthur Dirks        Professor of Theatre Arts, Bridgewater State College Print This Page

Art and Design Terminology

I will debate with you upon any subject you like, but first we must agree on terms [Voltaire].

There is a specialized vocabulary used by visual artists to discuss their materials and their work. The terms employed in reference to painting find most frequent use in the theatre, brought to bear on research materials and the work of the stage designers.

General Composition and Design Terms

Concept: A comprehensive idea or generalization that brings diverse elements into some basic relationship.
Composition and Design: The arrangement of the visible elements or parts of a work of art. Often used interchangeably to refer to the organization of elements. Composition implies the assemblage of existing parts. Design suggests a more intentional arrangement, often to a point.
Form: The total interrelationship of the elements in a work of art.
Content: Material that has meaning, shaped by an artist's concept or intent, and expressed in symbolic, abstract and concrete form.

Design Principles:          

Unity: The whole or total effect of a work of art that results from the combination of all of its component parts. Typically, a unified work is one in which the elements all work harmoniously together in support of the concept.
Proportion: There is a comparative fitness in the interrelationship of parts.
Scale: The proportional relationship among parts.
Contrast: Change of stress and accent or emphasis to set off elements against each other.
Sequence: Change or movement producing a progression; rhythmic tensions and transitions between linear and spatial movements.
Harmony: The adaptation of parts to one another so as to form a coherent whole.
Rhythm: Regular recurrence or alteration in sequence.
Balance: The equilibrium of all forces involved.
Distortion: Any change made by an artist in the size, position or general character of forms relative to how they normally appear. Almost all art necessarily involves a degree of distortion, simply through the process of artistic selection.
Texture: The surface feel of an object or the representation of surface character.


Design: A framework or scheme of pictorial construction on which the artist bases the formal organization of his total work. In a broader sense, it may be considered as synonymous with the term form.
Composition: The act of organizing all the elements of a work of art into a harmoniously unified whole.
Pattern: Repetitive use of an element or elements.
Interval: Distance or space between elements in a composition.
Accent: Any stress or emphasis given to elements of a composition that makes them attract more attention than other features that surround or lie close to them. Accent may be created through color, tone, size, or any other means by which difference may be expressed.
Dominance: The relative importance of certain elements above others in the same composition. It establishes focus and supports unity by subordinating some elements or ideas in relation to others.
Tension (pictorial): Dynamic interrelationships of force as seen in the interaction among the qualities of the art elements. Contrasting elements in terms of size, color, shape, etc., can characterize the space between them in terms of forces and tension.
Approximate symmetry: Arrangement of elements that are similar on either side of a vertical axis. They may suggest exact equity but are varied sufficiently to prevent visual monotony.
Asymmetrical balance: Arrangement of the visual units on either side of a vertical axis that are not identical but are placed to create a “felt” equilibrium of the visual space.

Elemental qualities:

Line and Shape:          

Size: The extent of a shape, or length of a line.
Shape: The specific spatial character of an area or line.
Volume: A shape having three dimensions or one that gives the illusion of solidity or mass.
Linear or lineal: Usually used interchangeably, pertaining to a line. All lines are linear.
Curvilinear: Stressing the use of curved lines as opposed to rectilinear, which stresses straight lines.
Outline: The demarcation between one area and the next, or the edge of a shape.
Contour: The outline or edge, and those lines that move across a shape or volume.
Attitude: Position or posture of a shape or line, its directional quality if it has one.
Amorphous: Without clarity of definition; formless; indistinct and of uncertain dimensions.
Biomorphic shapes: Shapes that are irregular in form and resemble the freely developed curves found in organic life.

Spatial Terms:          

Space: Extension in any direction.
“Deep Space”: A sense of voluminous recession or distance among the elements of a picture, as compared with a relatively two dimensional or “flat” treatment. A spatial effect is not necessarily dependent on conventional “perspective.”
Plane: A flat or even surface, either actual, represented or suggested.
Picture Plane: A plane of reference for spatial organization. Typically it is placed like a window pane, vertically and perpendicular to the line of sight. Objects appearing in space behind (or through) the picture plane can be marked or represented on the picture plane and will appear in perspective.
Value pattern: The total effect of the relationships of light and dark given to areas within the pictorial field.
  1. Two-dimensional: Value relationships in which the changes of light and dark seem to occur only on the surface of the picture plane.
  2. Three-dimensional: The value relationships that are planned to create an illusion of objects existing in depth back of the picture plane.
Perspective: The device of representing on a plain surface, objects in space as they appear to a stationary eye. “Lineal Perspective” has to do with drawing. “Atmospheric Perspective” has to do with representing effects of distance by tonal relationships.

Styles and Schools:


Abstract: Applies to painting in that certain aspects of recognizable objects are retained and others dispensed with. The selectivity of representation necessarily implies some level of abstraction.
Representational: Applies to all types of painting that deal with objects in terms of their visual appearance, which need not necessarily be painted “from nature” and may be handled creatively and expressively to a high degree.
Pictorial: Of or pertaining to pictures and in a critical sense material that especially lends itself to pictorial treatment.
Naturalistic: Painting that copies the superficial facts and the chaos of nature as seen by the physical eye, without organization into the artist's expression and design. Nature provides the picture.
Decorative: Designed to please by harmonious adaptation of pattern, line, color, rhythm, etc. Work bears restrictions such as space, position, length, etc. Sometimes used as disparagement suggesting the work has little depth and character.
Ornamental: That which fulfills no useful purpose but exists solely to embellish, adorn, or decorate.

Schools and Periods:          

Classicism: Conforming to idealistic models, or established coherent standards of excellence. As contrasted with Romanticism it especially typifies pure taste, sobriety, proportion and in a less favorable sense, the restraints of academic or conventional formality. It values line above color. (The derivation is from classicus relating to the classes of the Roman people, hence the word "classic meaning of the first rank.)
Neo-Classicism: A revival of interest in antiquity or an adaptation of motifs associated with Greek and Roman art.
Romanticism: Asserts imagination and feeling, emphasizes individualism in thought and expression as against the restrictive formality of Classicism. Characterized by freedom of fancy in conception and treatment, picturesque strangeness, or suggestions of drama and adventure. It takes an interest in humble life, the animal world, exotic, sublime, and awe inspiring nature, and extols coloring above draughtsmanship. Derived from Middle French romant with associations of chivalrous poetry.
Neo-Romanticism: Contemporary revival of interest in Romantic material, generally characterized by a moody nostalgic, mysterious character.
Realism: Fidelity to nature or real life, representation without idealizing (as in Classicism) or inclining to the emotional or extravagant (as in Romanticism). Interest in the accurate and graphic may degenerate into excessive minuteness of detail and preoccupation with trivial, sordid or offensive subjects.
Neo-Realism: A type of painting involving exaggerated clarity of representation and emphasis on detail.
Impressionism: A type of realism that seeks to render the immediate sense impression of the artist by depicting the effects of light or atmosphere. Historically, also called Divisionism, because of the use by the original practitioners of broken color as a technique, Lumenism, because of their preoccupation with light, and Pleinairists because they sought effects only to be found out-of-doors.
Neo-Impressionism: The development on more rigidly scientific lines of the theory and practice of Impressionism. Its characteristic method was Pointilism, a painstaking application of spots of pure color, more precise than the broken color of Impressionism.
Post-Impressionism: The reaction against the scientific and naturalistic character of Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism, which are characterized by emphasis on the visual impression. Post Impressionism stresses self-expression instead of naturalistic representation, and to many is thus, almost synonymous with Expressionism, but historically it embraces several specific schools.
Expressionism: A style of painting or other art in which an artist seeks to express emotional experience rather than impressions of the external world. Often the work exists as a perspective of a single individual, distorted by tensions from social oppression.
Abstract Expressionism: Movement in abstract art that emphasized the act of painting, the expression inherent in the color and texture of the paint itself, and the interaction of artist, paint, and canvas. Considered to have been drawn from the potpourri of abstract styles established in the first half of the twentieth century.
Postmodernism: Movement in the arts and architecture that rejects the preoccupation of Modernism with purity of form and technique. Postmodern designers use a mixture of style elements from the past and apply them to spare modern forms. There is a less stringent standard for unity, there is little concern for illusion, and works are more open to associations and meaning contributed by the observer.

Color and Light:


Spectrum: The band of individual colors that results when a beam of light is broken up into its component hues.
Color: The character of a surface that is the result of the response of vision to the wavelength of light reflected from that surface.
Hue: This designates the common name of a color and indicates its position in the spectrum or in the color circle. Hue is determined by the specific wavelength of the color in the ray of light.
Intensity (chroma): The saturation or strength of a color determined by the quality of light reflected from it. A vivid color is of high intensity, a dull color of low intensity.
Tone (color): A term used in a general way to include the factors of hue, value, and intensity.
Value: The characteristic of a color in terms of the amount of light reflected from it. It refers to the lightness or darkness of tone, not to its color quality. There are an infinite number of variations in value between white and black, but a scale of 7 equal gradations is useful, named High Light, Light, Low Light, Middle, High Dark, Dark, and Low Dark.
Tint: A hue at a lighter value than the one at which it appears at greatest intensity, i.e., a color with white added.
Shade (color): A hue at a darker value than the one at which it appears at greatest intensity, i.e., a color with black added.
Neutralized color: A color that has been grayed or reduced in intensity by mixture with any of the neutrals or with a complementary color.
Local Color: The color of an object, regardless of the color it may appear to be due to illumination under given circumstances.
Objective color: The naturalistic color of an object as seen by the eye.
Subjective color: Colors chosen by the artist without regard to the natural appearance of the object portrayed. They have nothing to do with objective reality but represent the expression of the individual artist.

Color Schemes:          

Achromatic: Relating to differences of lightness and darkness; the absence of color. Analogous colors: Those colors that are closely related in hue. They are generally adjacent to each other on the color wheel.
Complementary colors: Two colors that are directly opposite each other on the pigment color wheel. A primary color would be complementary to a secondary color, which is a mixture of the two remaining primaries.
Color Triad: A group of three colors spaced an equal distance apart on the color wheel. There is a primary triad, a secondary triad, and two intermediate triads on the twelve-color wheel.
Neutrals: Surface tones that do not reflect any single wavelength of light but rather all of them at once. No single color is then notice but only a sense of light or dark, such as white, gray or black.
Color tonality: An orderly planning in terms of selection and arrangement of color schemes or color combinations. It would concern itself not only with hue, but also with value and intensity relationships.


Tone (light): The character of a color or value of a surface determined by the amount or quality of light reflected from it. The kind of light reflected may be determined by the character of the medium that has been applied to the surface.
High Light: The reflection upon the surface of an object of the source of light. It is generally located where the surface of the object is at right angles to the direction from which the light is coming. The smoother the surface, the more distinct will be the high light, (Not to be confused with the term “High Light” in the Value Scale).
Half tone: In representational painting the tone of the area on the surface of an object between the lighted side and the shaded side of the object. It is generally that portion of the surface that is parallel with the direction from which the light is coming.
Shade (light): The tone of that area of an object that is turned away from the source of light and is thus deprived of direct light.
Reflected Light: The phenomenon of slight illumination within the shade of an object from light rebounding from nearby surfaces receiving light. Bounce.
Shadow: The tone produced upon a surface when light upon it is obscured by an object. Also called “cast shadow.” It is generally colder and more opaque than shade. Reflected lights may occur within cast shadow as well as in shade, but are likely to be less noticeable.
Modeling: The effect of revealing three-dimensional form through use of light, either real or suggested through color or other technique.
Chiaroscuro: An Italian word, literally “light – dark”, a term applied to extravagantly contrasted light and shade effects of late Renaissance painting.
Grisaille: Painting in grays, representing light and shade.
Tactile: In painting or sculpture, appealing to a sense of touch.

Technical Terms

Pigment: Any material or medium used by the artist to create the effect of color on a surface. Specifically, animal, vegetable, or mineral material, generally in the form of finely ground powder, which provides the color.
Binder: Organic or synthetic product that works in solution to make the pigment adhere to the paint object.
Vehicle or Medium: The liquid with which the pigment is mixed. Generally it is or contains the binder. Media fall into three major divisions: those mixing with water, those mixing with oil, and emulsions, which are a compromise between oil and water.
Size: A dilute binder applied to a porous surface to make it less porous.
Fixative: A thin binder blown upon surfaces treated with chalk, pastel, or charcoal, to preserve the surface.
Primer: A mixture applied to a canvas or other material as a first or under coat to fill up the pores and make a smooth surface.
Gesso: A mixture of a chalk-like substance with a glue-like binder, may be used as a primer, or as an undercoat. It may be tooled or carved.


Fresco (Buon Fresco): Painting upon freshly laid plaster while it is still damp with pigment, in a solution that is absorbed by the plaster and fixed by carbonization of the lime as the plaster dries.
Encaustic: Painting in which wax is the vehicle, applied in a melted state.
Tempera: Originally any binding medium, and mixing it with a pigment was "tempering." Certain types of gouache and show-card paints are called tempera today.
Egg Tempera: Dry pigment mixed with egg yolk and water as a binder and vehicle. This is in effect an emulsion, as egg yolk is slightly oily,
Oil paint: Pigment mixed with oil as a vehicle, and binder. The pigment is fixed by the oxidation of the oil. Gum or varnishes may be used or a medium, or diluent, but has no binding properties.
Casein Paint: Pigment mixed with casein (obtained from milk) and water, thus an emulsion.
Water Color: Pigment soluble in water mixed with a light binder, such as gum Arabic, dextrin, tracaganth, etc. Transparent.
Gouache: Opaque watercolor, same pigments and binders, with addition of fillers


Underpainting: The practice of painting a picture first in monochrome or grisaille to establish the value pattern and modeling. This reinforces the subsequent painting as oil paint becomes translucent with time.
Glaze: Oil color used transparently, generally over an underpainting.
Scumble: In easel painting, oil color with white in it used semi transparently over an underpainting. In scenic and ornamental painting, the direct wet mixing of two or more colors on the object. The effect is broken color that can be varied in the application by favoring one color over another in some areas.
Wash: A transparent layer or coating of color applied to a surface allowing underlying lines, shapes, or colors to show through. Any transparent medium may be lightly applied to previous painted shapes or areas in order to modify their appearance without completely hiding or covering them. Direct painting: Painting without an underpainting.
Impasto: Paint applied thickly, a built up surface.
Broken Color: The practice popularized by the Impressionists, of painting small strokes of pure colors close together on the canvas in such a way as to merge into composite hues when seen at a short distance.
Collage: The practice of pasting pieces of paper, wood, string, etc., on a plane surface to make a picture; often in combination with paint. From the French collé, paste, and similar to papier collé except that materials of all kinds are allowed.
Craftsmanship: Technically, aptitude, skill, or manual dexterity in the use of tools and materials. Generally, it also refers to the attitude of a worker toward her or his materials and quality of product. It also embraces the idea of artful choices.