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

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.


47 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


34 reads

Tone or shade

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


37 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


25 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


21 reads

Mark Making

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


18 reads

Mood or Atmosphere

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


18 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


20 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


19 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.


22 reads

Form and Shape

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


21 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


12 reads

Viewpoint and Pose

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


15 reads

Subject Matter

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


13 reads

Still Life

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


18 reads



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