Words for Talking About Art and Critiquing Paintings - Deepstash
Words for Talking About Art and Critiquing Paintings

Words for Talking About Art and Critiquing Paintings


164 reads

Words for Talking About Art and Critiquing Paintings

Art vocabulary

To talk about paintings, you need to be familiar with the vocabulary to describe, analyse and interpret what you're seeing.

The more art terms you know, the easier it becomes to think of the right word.


32 reads


Think about your overall impression of the colours used in the painting. Consider how they look and feel, work together, and fit with the subject of the painting.

  • Natural, clear, compatible, distinctive, lively, stimulating, subtle, sympathetic
  • Artificial, clashing, depressing, gaudy, jarring, unfriendly, violent
  • Bright, deep, earthy, harmonious, intense, rich, strong, vibrant, vivid
  • Dull, flat, bland, pale, subdued, quiet
  • Cool, cold, warm, hot, light, dark
  • Blended, broken, muddied, pure
  • Complementary, contrasting, harmonious


17 reads

Tone or shade

Consider the shade of the colours and the way tone is used in the whole painting.

  • Dark, light, middle
  • Flat, uniform, unvarying, smooth, plain
  • Varied, broken
  • Constant, changing
  • Graduated, contrasting
  • Monochromatic


18 reads


Look at how the painting is arranged, the underlying shapes (structure), the relationships between the different parts, and how your eye moves around.

  • Arrangement, layout, structure, position
  • Landscape, portrait, square, circular, triangular
  • Horizontal, vertical, diagonal, angled
  • Foreground, background, middle ground
  • Centred, asymmetrical, symmetrical, balanced, unbalanced, lopsided, off-centre
  • Overlapping, cluttered, chaotic
  • Separate, spacious, empty
  • Free, flowing, fragmented
  • Formal, rigid, upright, confined


11 reads


It's often hard or impossible to see texture in a photo of a painting, so try not to talk about it if you don't see any texture.

  • Flat, polished, smooth
  • Raised, rough, coarse
  • Cut, incised, pitted, scratched, uneven
  • Hairy, sticky
  • Soft, hard
  • Shiny, glossy, reflective
  • Semigloss, satin, silk, frosted, matte


10 reads

Mark Making

In some painting styles, all brush marks are eliminated by the artist. In others, the marks are clearly visible.

  • Visible, blended, smooth
  • Thick, thin
  • Bold, timid
  • Heavy, light
  • Edgy, smooth
  • Exhibiting glazes, washes, dry brushing, stippling, hatching, splatters
  • Layered, flat
  • Precise, refined, regular, straight, systematic
  • Quick, sketchy, uneven, irregular, vigorous
  • Regular, patterned
  • Showing marks made with a knife, brush


9 reads

Mood or Atmosphere

Consider the mood or atmosphere of the painting. What emotions do you experience?

  • Calm, content, peaceful, relaxed, tranquil
  • Cheerful, happy, joyful, romantic
  • Depressed, gloomy, miserable, sad, sombre, tearful, unhappy
  • Aggressive, angry, chilling, dark, frightening, violent
  • Energetic, exciting, stimulating, thought-provoking
  • Boring, dull, lifeless, insipid


7 reads


Does the painting seem to be a particular style? There are many terms for different styles throughout the history of art, and knowing these descriptors can leave instant impressions.

  • Realism, photorealism
  • Cubism, surrealism
  • Impressionism
  • Modernism, expressionism
  • Chinese, Japanese, or Indian style
  • Plein air


9 reads


Knowing which medium the work of art was created in can be useful to include in your description.

  • Oil, tempera
  • Acrylics
  • Pastel, chalk, charcoal
  • Mixed media, collage
  • Watercolour, gouache
  • Ink
  • Fresco
  • Spray paint
  • Wood panels, canvas, glass


9 reads


When a work is particularly large or small, it may be necessary to include the size and descriptive words, such as mural, miniature, or triptych.


11 reads

Form and Shape

Consider the sense of depth and volume of the artwork.

  • 2-D, flat, abstracted, simplified, stylized
  • 3-D, realistic, natural sense of depth and space
  • Sharp, detailed
  • Blurred, obscured, overlapping, indistinct
  • Distorted, exaggerated, geometric
  • Linear, long, narrow
  • Hard-edged, soft-edged


9 reads


The lighting of the painting is shown in terms of direction, how it creates shadows, its colour, intensity, the mood it creates, and whether the light is from the sun (natural) or a fire (artificial.) Describe the shadows and highlights as well.

  • Backlit, front-lit, side-lit, top-lit
  • Indirect, reflected or no directional light
  • Natural
  • Artificial
  • Cool, blue, grey
  • Warm, yellow, red
  • Dim, faint, gentle, gloomy, low, minimal, muted, soft
  • Clear, brilliant, bright, glowing, fiery, harsh, intense, sharp


5 reads

Viewpoint and Pose

Consider the angle or position of the subject of the artwork. How has the artist decided to present it?

  • Front, side, three-quarters, profile, rear (behind)
  • Close up, far away, life-size, bird's eye view
  • Upward, downward, sideways
  • Standing, sitting, lying down, bending
  • Gesturing, moving, resting, static


6 reads

Subject Matter

It can seem like you're stating the obvious, but if you consider how to describe an artwork to someone who has never seen it, you would probably tell them the subject of the painting.

  • Abstract
  • Cityscape, buildings, man-made, urban, industrial
  • Fantasy, imaginary, invented, mythological
  • Figures, portraits
  • Interiors, domestic
  • Landscape, seascape
  • Still life


3 reads

Still Life

First, describe the overall aspect before you describe the individual objects.

  • Antique, battered, damaged, dusty, old, worn
  • New, clean, shiny
  • Functional, decorative, fancy
  • Domestic, humble
  • Commercial, industrial


8 reads


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