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General terms

academic art – (also academicism or academism) refers to art made under the influence of the European academies from the late seventeenth century onwards. Academic art was usually made to a set of conventions with figures based on idealised classical sculptures on subjects taken from history, literature or mythology – often with a high-minded moral message. In the nineteenth century, the strict conventions of academic art seemed out-of-step with the growing interest among realist artists such as Gustave Courbet and later, the Impressionists.

acquisition method – the means by which the artwork has entered the collection.

allegory – an artwork, or elements within an artwork, that includes a hidden meaning, often a moral, political or spiritual one.

appropriation – the intentional borrowing or copying of pre-existing objects or images, in art. From the mid-twentieth century appropriation became more common with the proliferation of images through mass media. For example Pop Artists used images from everyday sources – such as advertising and celebrity photographs in magazines – to reflect and comment on the culture and lifestyle of the 1950s and 1960s. More recently artists working in various mediums have re-used, sampled and remixed images from digital sources.

arabesque – a linear, flowing decoration, often inspired by foliage.

attribute – objects, and sometimes animals or plants, closely associated with a specific person or deity and used in an image to identify that figure.

attribution – an assessment of the creator of an artwork. There are also uncertain attributions, e.g. a work is possibly by an artist. 

avant-garde – experimental, or radical new approaches in the arts or culture. The term comes from the French, literally meaning 'advance guard' or 'fore-guard'. 

commissioned – the artist was requested to produce the artwork for a specific place or purpose. 

complementary colours – colours that are opposite each other in the colour spectrum as set out in a colour wheel. For example blue is the complementary colour of orange. When placed next to each other, complementary colours create an optical effect that makes each colour more powerful.

contemporary art – loosely refers to art made in recent times that is innovative in approach. Art made in the late twentieth century and twenty-first century might be described as contemporary. 

contraposto – Italian word meaning 'counter pose' and used to describe a pose when one half of the body is twisted in the opposite direction from the other. The pose is often seen in classical artworks, where a standing figure is depicted with one leg bent and the weight shifted onto the straight leg to create a counter-twist to the body.

dimensions – the size of artwork. On Art UK, this is shown in height, width, then depth, in centimetres. Art UK uses (E) to indicate the dimensions are estimated.

ébauche – from the French term meaning ‘rough draft’, the term can be used to describe the first rough under-layer of a painting, or an unfinished sculpture at a preliminary stage of its execution, (not to be confused with a preparatory study for a sculpture).

écorché – anatomical-style drawing, painting or sculpture depicting a human or animal with skin removed to show muscles, tendons and veins. (Écorché is French for ‘flayed’.)

edition – generally applies to print editions, though can also apply to sculpture editions. An edition is a run of prints produced from the same plate or block – or a series of sculptures produced from the same mould. Artworks made as part of an edition are numbered to record the total of artworks within an edition, and where in the sequence of the edition the artwork is placed. For example 20/100 identifies the artwork as being number 20 in an edition of 100.

figurative – an artwork that is clearly derived from sources in the real world. The term is often specifically used to reference artworks that depict people – or figures. 

form – can refer to the overall physical construction of an artwork – what form the artwork takes; or can refer to the element of shape among the various other elements within an artwork (such as colour, texture, materials, subject etc.). Form is often used specifically in relation to sculpture, while shape suggests the flat shapes within two-dimensional works of art. 

formal – refers to the physical qualities of an artwork – its composition, shapes, colours, forms and textures. 

genre – generally used today to describe artworks or approaches to art making that share a technique, form or subject. For example, sculptures made for public spaces; art made from found objects; and paintings that depict a figure at a window, could all be described as genres. Historically genre was used more specifically in relation to types of painting. In the seventeenth century five types – or 'genres' – of painting were established: history painting; portrait painting; landscape painting; genre painting (scenes of everyday life) and still life. These genres, as set out by the art establishment, had different levels of importance, with history painting (the painting of scenes from history, the bible or literature) as the most important genre and still life (paintings of still objects) as the least important. 

grotesque – a type of decoration often used in antiquity that includes foliage and similar ornamental devices, as well as medallions and mythical beasts such as sphinxes. The origin of the term derives from this type of ornament often featuring in classical grottoes, leading the decorative forms to be described as 'grotteschi'.

iconography – the subjects, images and visual symbols used in a work of art, and the study or interpretation of these. 

mandala – an oval shape with pointed ends, often found in mystical artworks.

mark-making – the lines, textures and patterns made by artists in the process of creating artworks.

media / medium – refers to the material or materials used in the making of an artwork – such as oil paint, pastel, graphite, clay or marble. Medium is the singular and media is the plural form of the term. Medium can also refer to the wider materials or technique an artist uses. For example, an artist could be described as using the medium of painting or the medium of sculpture.

monochrome / polychrome – monochrome refers to the use of only one colour, or black or white. Polychrome refers to the use of many colours. 

motif – an image or design, sometimes recurrent, and often repeated to form a pattern. Motif can also refer to a key idea or recurrent theme in an artist's output.

multiple – a run of identical artworks (usually sculptures) produced as a limited, signed edition with the specific purpose of selling them. They were one of the first forms of ‘affordable art’. Multiples are either produced by an artist or commissioned from an artist’s idea.

muse – someone who inspires an artist to make artworks of, or about them. A guiding spirit that is thought to inspire artists.

narrative – the story within an artwork. Narrative art is art that tells a story.

pendant – one of two artworks created as a pair. They are generally related thematically and displayed together. 

proportion – the relative size of one part of a composition or sculpture to the whole or to other parts. Proportion often refers to the human figure, and how the scale of the different elements of a figure relate to each other; but proportion can also refer to landscape compositions (the proportion of land or sea to sky); and can more generally be used in discussing the relationship between parts of a composition of an artwork. 

proof – the initial trial print made from an engraved plate, usually by the artist, to see what the print looks like before handing it over to a printer. Proof can also be used to describe a sculpture made by the artist to test a mould before an edition of sculptures is made.

representational – an artwork that depicts or represents a recognisable version of the real world. 

salon – originally used to describe the exhibitions organised by the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture and its successor the Academy of Fine Arts (Académie des Beaux Arts) in the seventeenth century. The term has since been used to describe more generally, officially sanctioned group exhibitions showing the work of members of art academies and societies across Europe. When used today in discussing art from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, the term has connotations of conservatism, as much of the art shown in the official salons was out of step with developments in modern art.

sketch – an early stage, small, preliminary version of an artwork, usually executed in an inexpensive material. May differ substantially from final work. A sketch can be a drawing, a painting or a sculpture. In French, 'esquisse', in Italian, 'schizzo' or 'bozzetto'. 

stylised – describes artworks where the colours or forms of the real world have been altered – exaggerated or abstracted – for artistic or decorative effect. 

subject matter – the theme or subject of an artwork – what the artwork is about.

tone – the relative lightness or darkness of a shade or colour.

trope – a recurrent theme or motif.

vanitas – a still life of objects that symbolise the transience of life and remind the viewer that no matter how many possessions or worldly pleasures we indulge in, these are worthless after death. Vanitas are similar to memento mori still lifes, though memento mori more specifically include objects that reference mortality – such as skulls and extinguished candles. 

viewpoint – the position from the which an artwork was made in relation to the subject. For example if an artist depicts a subject from a position below or above it, this could be described as a low or high viewpoint.

(?) – Art UK uses (?) to show there is uncertainty about the displayed information.

Painting and works on paper

chiaroscuro – Italian for light and shadow, the term describes the use of strong contrasts between light and dark areas of a composition. Usually the light comes from a specific source within the image such as a window or candle, and is often used to create a sense of drama. The paintings of Caravaggio and Rembrandt are good examples of the technique. The term can also refer to the contrasts of light used to achieve a sense of three-dimensional modeling in objects and figures.

composition – the artistic arrangement of the parts of a picture.

diptych – artwork consisting of two sections: left panel and right panel. The panels are sometimes joined by hinges. (A three-panelled work is called a triptych.)

foreshortening – portray an object or view as closer than it is, or as having less depth or distance, as an effect of perspective or the angle of vision.

genre painting – a category of painting that refers to depictions of ordinary, everyday scenes.

impasto – a technique used in painting, where paint is applied in thick layers with a brush or palette knife, so that the brush-strokes or palette knife marks are visible.

panorama – originally, a type of landscape painting developed in the late nineteenth century that captured all 360 degrees of a scene and was usually shown in a round structure for viewing. The term is generally now used to describe images that capture a broad or extensive view of landscape or cityscape. 

perspective – the art of representing three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface so as to give the right impression of their height, width, depth, and position in relation to each other.

picture plane – when an artist creates an impression of space within a painting, the picture plane is the transparent division between this fictive internal space and the real space outside, in which the viewer is placed. Sometimes painters attempt to give the illusion that the picture plane is pierced by an object or person, which appears to move towards the viewer. This effect can be achieved with extreme foreshortening.

picturesque  – originally, in the eighteenth century, the term was used to describe landscapes that looked as though they had come straight out of a picture (from the Italian 'pittoresco' relating to a painter). It developed later in the century to refer to kind of beauty in landscapes that is somewhere between sublime (spectacular, often dangerous-looking) and pretty. A picturesque landscape is one that is more irregular or rougher than a pretty landscape. Romantics in the nineteenth century adopted the idea of the picturesque in their approach to landscape painting.

polyptych – artwork consisting of a number of panels.

portfolio – an edited collection of an artist's work. The term can also refer to a large flat case used for storing or carrying two-dimensional artworks

predella – Italian word for the long horizontal structure at the bottom of an altarpiece.

recto – the front side of a painting or drawing (the reverse is the verso).

tableau – Tableau refers to a painting or photograph in which people are carefully, even self-consciously arranged for symbolic, dramatic or visual effect and seem absorbed in their action or pose. The term comes from the concept tableau vivant, (French for 'living picture') – static scenes in which actors or models were carefully posed, usually in costume and with props and/or scenery, but remained still and silent. 

triptych – artwork consisting of three sections: centre panel, left wing and right wing. The panels are sometimes joined by hinges. (A two-panelled work is called a diptych.)

trompe l'oeil – a French phrase which translates literally as 'deceives the eye', trompe l'oeil is used to describe the use of pictorial techniques (such as perspective an foreshortening) to trick the eye into seeing painted images as real three-dimensional objects or scenes. Illusionism is another word for trompe l'oeil.

verso – the reverse side of a painting or drawing (the front is the recto).

vignette – a small illustration or portrait photograph that fades into its background. The term can also be used to describe an artwork that captures a brief but evocative moment.


aedicule – an opening such as a door or a window, that is framed by columns on either side, and a pediment above. (The Latin word 'aediculum' means small house.)

aftercast – a bronze sculpture cast using moulds taken from a pre-existing bronze work rather than from an original model. 

analemmatic sundial – a horizontal elliptical sundial with mobile gnomon (vertical, shadow-casting object). Depending on the current date, the gnomon is moved to a position on a date line in the middle of the sundial and casts a shadow towards hour marks on a large ellipse.

animalier – French term for sculpture depicting an animal or group of animals, usually in bronze, or for a sculptor who specialises in subjects of this type. The term refers most frequently to a group of nineteenth-century French sculptors, e.g. Antoine-Louise Barye. Animalier can also be used to describe painters of animal subjects.

armature – rigid frame or skeleton used by sculptors to support materials such as clay or plaster during modelling.

assemblage – a three-dimensional work of art made from combinations of materials including found objects or non-traditional art materials.

baldacchino – canopy-type structure.

base – technically the lowest part of a column or pedestal, but now commonly interchangeable with either pedestal or socle, or used to describe a support where these two terms seem inappropriate.

bust – depiction of a person's head, neck and below, sometimes as far down to the chest of the subject.

cameo – a method of carving an object so that an under-layer is revealed. Cameos nearly always feature a raised (positive) relief image that is usually pale on a dark-coloured background. Cameos were traditionally carved from shells or gemstones that had natural contrasting layers. Glassworkers developed the technique of cameo carving by fusing layers of contrasting layers of glass together and carving and engraving the top layer.

cantilever – used in buildings and sculptures, a rigid horizontal component such as a beam or slab that is firmly attached at one end to the structure and forms an overhang. Its design is such that it can support a weight or load at its unattached end.

cartouche – ornamental enframements, such as for an inscription, monogram, or coat of arms, or ornately framed tablets, often bearing inscriptions.

caryatid – a figure used as a vertical supporting element in a building, instead of a column. Although strictly speaking, female figures are caryatids, and male figures are called atlantes, generally the term caryatid can be used for either.

cenotaph – a monument dedicated to a deceased person who is buried at another location. If they are buried at the same location, it is known as a tomb.

chamfer – to cut away a sharp right-angled edge or corner to create a 45-degree sloping edge between the two faces of an object.

colossus – a very large sculpted figure.

crocket – a hook-shaped carved architectural decorative ornament, usually in the form of curved and bent foliage, used on the edge of gables, spires or the sloping sides of arches.

cruciform – shaped like a cross.

dais – a low, raised platform.

date stone – stones on which the date of the construction of a building is inscribed. Date stones often appear over the main entrance or on a cornerstone, but can also be found in other locations on the exterior of a building.

diorama – a model of a three-dimensional scene often including figures. A diorama can be a miniature model or on a large scale – as often seen in museum displays.

effigy / gisant – found in tomb architecture, a full-length portrayal of a deceased person in a lying-down position, as if dead or asleep.

equestrian statue – a sculpture depicting a horse and its rider.

façade – the front of a building or architectural structure.

finial – a decorative device used to emphasize the top or end of an object or building. In architecture, a finial is usually carved in stone and added to the top of a dome, spire, or roof or to the corner of a building or structure. 

fluted – ridged or grooved.

foundry stamp – as seen on metal sculptures, a mark, name or logo identifying the foundry that cast the sculpture.

herm – a sculpted figure or bust that terminates – either at the chest or below the waist – in an abstract block-like mass.

inscription – text that appears on a sculpture. For example a phrase or dedication – such as an epitaph on a tomb or a signature identifying the maker.

maquette – related to model. A maquette is a preparatory model, usually executed in clay or wax, which represents on a smaller scale the subject and composition of a sculpture, which will be executed on a larger scale in a more expensive material.

marker stone  often carved with text, used to indicate a boundary, as signposts or notices, or to mark a location where a significant event took place.

memorial – a commemorative monument or structure.

model – preliminary version of a sculpture, usually executed with inexpensive material. In English, the term generally applies to all such objects, but other European languages have more specific vocabulary to define the model's particular function, and consequently, it's finish and the type of surface treatment. Therefore, the term model encompasses other terms, such as bozzetto, schizzo, modello, esquisse, maquette and sketch.

modular – a term used particularly in relation to minimalist sculpture, referring to a work of art with constituent parts that can be moved, separated and recombined.

mobile – a type of sculpture consisting of objects (often abstract shapes) that hang from horizontal rods, suspended in the air. The objects and rods are carefully balanced so the sculpture remains horizontal. The objects move with air currents, or a motor is sometimes used to drive the movement. Artist Alexander Calder is generally seen as the inventor of the mobile.

monument – a monument is a structure or edifice of importance or historical interest, typically erected in memory of the dead or of an important event.

non finito – an Italian phrase meaning 'not finished'. Used to refer to a sculpture that is considered unfinished because tool marks are still visible, or it lacks final carving, or a sculpture that is deliberately made to look unfinished, e.g. many of Michelangelo's sculptures.

obelisk – A tall, slender, four-sided, stone shaft monument that tapers upward and ends in a pyramidal tip.

openwork – decoration made from holes or gaps that pierce a solid material. The term can be applied to this type of decoration in metal, wood, stone or pottery.

parapet – a low protective wall along the edge of a roof, bridge, or balcony.

patina – surface quality produced by age, wear or polishing. Often the term describes the change of a surface through exposure, for example the brown or green film on the surface of bronze or similar metals, produced by oxidation over a period of time.

pedestal – a support on which a sculpture stands – generally larger than a socle. Can be either tall and narrow or deep and wide, to accommodate different kinds of sculpture. Traditional pedestals consist of three elements: the cornice of surbase (top section), the dado or die (middle section or body), and the foot, plinth or base (nearest the ground). 

plaque – can be used to refer to both small, single-sided reliefs, which can take any shape and therefore are distinguished from a medal or medallion, and also the metal or wooden labels attached to sculptures with information such as the title and date of the sculpture and/or artist's name.

plinth – a heavy, usually square, block on which a sculpture (or architectural feature such as a column) stands. 

protome – often used to decorate ancient Greek architecture, sculpture, and pottery, a protome is a type of ornamentation that is formed of the head and upper torso of either a human or an animal.

relief – a sculpture in which elements of the composition project from the surface of a more or less flat background, known as a relief plane. There are lots of different kinds of relief, many of which can be incorporated into the same work:

  • high relief: has the greatest degree of projection (in Italian, 'alto rilievo')
  • low relief: has the least (in Italian, 'basso rilievo')
  • middle relief: falls between high and low (in Italian, 'mezzo rilievo')
  • very shallow, low or 'crushed' relief: flattens elements of the scene to barely project from the plane (better known by the Italian, 'rilievo schiacciato', or just 'stiacciato'). Closely related to spatial representation in painting
  • hollow relief: the forms of the composition project below the surface towards the back of a relief panel (in Italian, 'cavo rilievo') 

replica – an exact copy of a painting or sculpture made by the artist of the original, or under their supervision.

reduction / enlargement – a reduction is a smaller version of a previous sculpture. An enlargement is a larger version of a previous sculpture.

reliquary – a box or sculpted container used to preserve, display and glorify relics.

reredos – a screen or altarpiece placed behind the altar in a church, usually depicting religious iconography or images. 

rustication – masonry technique that gives a textured finish to blocks of stone. The face of individual blocks is cut back around the edges leaving the central section either rough or projecting.

sarcophagus – a long, covered coffin, usually stone or marble. Has become a symbolic form incorporated in European tomb sculpture.

scale – refers to the size of an artwork – how big or small it is – or the size of elements within an artwork. Scale in art is generally discussed in relation to the size of the human body. An artist may decide to use a scale that is life-sized – or bigger or smaller than it would be in real life – this affects the impact of the artwork.

site-specific sculpture – sculpture that is made for a specific location. The sculpture may reference or respond to physical aspects of the location or may be a thematic response to it.

socle – three-dimensional support for a sculpture, which can be round, square, rectangular, polygonal or composite. They are usually decorated with mouldings at the top and bottom, and are sometimes narrower in the middle. A socle can be made from the same material as the sculpture, (though not necessarily), and can be an integral part of the sculpture if, say, cast together or carved from the same piece of stone. A socle is smaller than a pedestal.

stabile – an abstract sculpture or construction similar in appearance to a mobile but made to be stationary.

statue – a sculpture in-the-round which presents an entire figure or animal. A statue can be big or small. The term statuette is sometimes used to refer to small statues.

vitrine – glass display case.