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General terms

collage – a technique that involves sticking papers and other objects onto a surface to create an artwork. Collage can also be used as a noun to describe a type of artwork made using this technique.

gesso –  used for preparing surfaces before painting, gesso is a thick white paint made from white chalk, gypsum powder or pigment – or a combination of these – mixed with a glue binder and water. It can be used to seal and create a base layer on canvas, wood panels and walls or applied to sculpture before paint or other finishes are added.

mixed media – the use of a range of different materials to make an artwork. The term can be used both to describe the materials used and an artist's technique.  For example, artist Helen Marten's work could be described as being 'mixed media sculptures' and she could be described as a 'mixed media artist'.

new media art – art that is made using new media technology and techniques, including digital art, sound art, video art, interactive art, computer animation, internet art, video games and 3D printing. 

pigment – pigments are the coloured compounds in paint, inks, pastels and other art materials. Pigments can be derived from natural sources such as minerals, or can be synthetically produced. Manufacturing paint or crayons involves grinding pigments to a fine powder and mixing them with a binder such as oil, gum arabic, wax or resin.

Painting

acrylic – paint containing pigment combined with acrylic polymer emulsion. First used in the 1950s, it is fairly fast-drying and is popular with artists today.

brushwork – the way in which a painter uses their brush to apply paint.

canvas – common painting support. It consists of strong unbleached cloth, which is normally coated with gesso (a white mineral) before being painted on.

impasto – the process or technique of laying on paint or pigment thickly so that it stands out from a surface.

medium – binds particles of pigment together, e.g. oil, acrylic or tempera, to make paint. The type of medium, and ratio of medium to pigment, has an impact on the effects that can be achieved with the paint.

oil – paint made by mixing pigment with oil. Oil paint dries slowly and allows artists to achieve a broader and more detailed application of paint, which enables a wide range of optical effects to be achieved. It was first used in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Northern Europe, before becoming more widely used in the fifteenth century.

support – surface an artwork has been made on, e.g. canvas or board.

tempera / egg tempera – paint made by combining pigment with a medium, such as egg, glue, honey, water, milk and a variety of plant gums. Tempera most often refers to egg tempera, which has been used since antiquity and was commonly used in early Italian painting, before oil paint became widely used.

Drawing

chalk  ancient natural chalks were mineral substances, which, after being mined from the earth were cut with a saw or knife into a suitable shape. The most common colours were black, red and white. Fabricated chalk is made by mixing pigments with a binder to make a paste, which is then rolled into a stick and dried.

charcoal – a drawing stick obtained by carbonising wood, bone, or other organic matter in an air-tight chamber. Charcoal is greyer than black chalk and is often used for underdrawing because it is easily erasable.

gouache – also known as bodycolour. A method of painting using opaque pigments ground in water and thickened with a binder.

pastel – a crayon made of powdered pigments bound with gum or resin. It is thought that Leonardo da Vinci was the first Italian artist to use fabricated pastels in his drawings, an experimental technique that he learnt from the French artist Jean Perréal around 1495–1499.

wash – diluted ink applied with a brush. Commonly used to indicate the modelling of form or intensity of light.

watercolour – paint made of finely ground dry pigment, suspended in water with gum arabic as a binder. When the water evaporates, the binder fixes the pigment to the support. Watercolour was used long before the development in the 1750s of the British watercolour tradition. In medieval times, artists illustrated the vellum pages of hand-written books with brightly coloured paintings in watercolour.

Sculpture

Materials

alabaster – a mineral or rock that is usually light in colour, translucent and soft. Its softness makes it ideal for carving, and alabaster has been used for centuries as a material for sculptures and decorative artefacts. 

bone – animal bone as a material for carved sculpture and decorative objects has been used since prehistoric times by a wide range of world cultures.  It is cheaper than ivory and, since the banning of trading in ivory in the late twentieth century, a legal alternative. Bone was sometimes used by metalworkers to try out their designs before making them in metal. These bone models are known as 'trial-pieces'. Animal bones are also used by artists in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in assemblage sculptures.

bronze – an alloy (or combination) metal consisting largely of copper, with tin and sometimes other metals such as manganese and zinc added. Typically modern bronze is 88% copper and 12% tin. Bronze is widely used for casting metal sculptures. It was first used for casting monumental sculptures in the seventh century BC and is still one the main metals used for monumental statuary.

Casting a metal sculpture involves heating the metal until it is in a liquid metal state and then pouring it into a mould. Bronze is ideal for this as it expands slightly just before it hardens, so will fill the finest details of a mould, and as it cools it shrinks a little so is easier to remove from the mould.

clay – clay is one of the oldest and most common materials used for making sculpture. It is also very versatile. It can be variously used in its different states: when moist is can be easily modelled or pushed into moulds and fine detailing achieved; partially dried out clay can be carved; adding water to clay creates a slip – a thick liquid clay – that can be poured into moulds and cast. When fired, clay is hard and durable.

Sculptors often use clay for working out ideas or making a preliminary model that can then be cast in metal or plaster or carved in stone. Clay is also a sculptural medium in its own right and, in recent years, has become a popular medium for contemporary sculptors.

There are different types, textures and colours of clay, and when unglazed it can be white, grey, buff, pink or red. Different terms are applied to finished pottery objects depending on the nature of the clay used and the temperature at which it is fired. All of these types of pottery are used for sculpture:

  • earthenware is opaque, relatively soft, and porous
  • stoneware is hard and nonporous
  • porcelain is fine-textured, translucent and almost glass-like in nature
  • terracotta is a pottery made from a low-fired clay that is usually red or buff in colour

corten steel / COR-TEN steel – the generic trademark for weathering steel. Weathering steel refers to a group of steel alloys designed to have a stable, rust-like appearance after exposure to the weather, thus eliminating the need for painting.

found object – translation from the French phrase 'objet trouvé', the term is used to describe an object not originally made for an artistic purpose (often a functional, manufactured or object from nature) that has been repurposed for art. The artist using the object may make small modifications to it or use it as it is. An artist might choose the found object because its appearance, function or history (personal or social) is interesting to them.

horn – animal horn can be carved, cut or incised to form a sculpture. The most common horn used is that from antelope or deer, though horns from other animals such as cows and buffalos are also used. Often a sculptor will retain the overall shape of the horn, while cutting into it to create detail and ornament. Horn is cheaper than ivory and, since the banning of trading in ivory, a legal alternative.

iron – a strong, cheap metal widely used in the construction of buildings and structures, and is the main ingredient used to make steel. Cast iron and wrought iron are the forms of iron most frequently used by sculptors. Both of these are iron alloys. Cast iron has the advantage of a low melting point, so is useful for casting sculptures. Wrought iron has a lower carbon content than cast iron so is less brittle and can be more easily forged (heated and bent). Sculptors who work with construction techniques often use wrought iron.

jesmonite – a composite material used in sculpture and construction for casting and laminating. Jesmonite consists of a gypsum-based material mixed with acrylic resin.

marble – a metamorphic rock typically composed of a meshed mixture of carbonate crystals. (Metamorphic rocks are rocks whose form has changed due to high temperatures and pressure from the earth's crust.) Marbles range in colour from white to black. The swirls and veins in many coloured marbles are due to various mineral impurities (such as clay, sand and iron oxides) originally present in the layers of stone. Marble has been prized as a material for sculptures since classical times. White marble, such as Carrara marble from Italy, is especially valued as it is softer (and so easier to carve) and its surface is more uniform than other marbles. 

metal – a general term covering a range of metals used by sculptors, including bronze, steel, copper, aluminium and iron. Until the twentieth century, casting was the most common metalwork technique used by sculptors, with bronze the main metal used for casting. Since the mid-twentieth century artists have used metals such as iron, steel and aluminium to construct sculptures – using forging and welding techniques.

papier-mâché – a French phrase that translates literally as 'chewed-up paper'. Papier-mâché is made by mixing pieces of paper with a binder such as glue or plaster to create a moldable material for making sculptures.

Parian ware – a type of unglazed, white porcelain (biscuit porcelain) that looks like marble. It was developed in the 1840s by Minton pottery in Staffordshire and named after Paros, the Greek island famous for its fine white marble.

plaster / plaster of Paris – a versatile material that can be modelled, carved after it has set, or poured as a liquid into a mould and cast. In its raw form plaster is a fine white gypsum powder that, when mixed with water, forms a malleable paste which hardens when dry.  In the past, the main sculptural use for plaster was for moulding and casting clay models as a stage in the production of cast metal sculpture. It was also often used for reproducing existing sculptures for teaching or study purposes.

polymer clay – a modelling material manufactured using polyvinyl chloride (PVC). It can be moulded and cast like mineral clay and dries in the air to a hard consistency, or can be hardened in an oven.

slip – a mixture of clay and water. Slip is used as a glue for joining clay sections together. It can also be used for casting clay objects.

stone – stone is one of the main materials traditionally used by sculptors and carvers for making sculptures. These are some of the common types of stone you will find on Art UK:

  • limestone – a soft stone that is easy to carve, so ideal for creating fine detail. It is grey or buff in colour. Hopton Wood stone, Portland stone and Clipsham stone are examples of British limestone often used by sculptors.
  • sandstone – a buff, often reddish-brown, medium to hard stone. Has been used as a building material for thousands of years though is difficult to carve fine details into and is prone to weathering.
  • granite – a very hard stone often used for the bases of monuments. Usually grey, black or brown in colour.
  • marble – the most preferred stone for carving since classical times, prized for its translucency, durability and naturalistic physical properties. Comes in a range of colours from white to black. Marble is moderately hard to work, but can be finely detailed.
  • soapstone – a very soft stone that is easy to carve and can be used to create fine detail. Its surface has a soft soapy feel. It comes in a range of greys, greens and black.
  • alabaster – a soft stone that comes in a range of colours from translucent white to yellows, oranges and reds.

stucco – a construction material made from a mixture of gypsum or limeplaster and other additives such as sand, resin and glue. Until the twentieth century, sculptural reliefs made from stucco were widely used to decorate buildings. Stucco was also used for free standing sculptures and ornately decorated objects such as picture and mirror frames.

terracotta  a type of fired clay, typically of a brownish-red colour and unglazed, used as an ornamental building material and in modelling (meaning 'baked clay' in Italian).

wood – both hardwoods and softwoods are used for sculpture. The strong fibrous nature of wood means that it can be cut thinly and allows for more freedom than stone as a material for carving. Woodgrain gives pattern and texture to sculpture surfaces. Wood is used mainly for indoor sculpture, as it is vulnerable to changes in humidity and temperature (that may cause it to split) as well as attacks by insects and fungus.

The main woods used for sculpture are oak, mahogany, limewood, walnut, elm, pine, cedar, boxwood, pear, and ebony. Tree and shrub roots are also sometimes used for carved sculptures – the organic shapes incorporated into, or inspiring, the design.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, sculptors have used wood as a material for construction as well as for carving. With sheets and planks of timber, laminated wood and fibreboard glued, jointed, screwed, or bolted together.

Techniques

Construction techniques:

3D printing – the construction of a three-dimensional object from a digital design. The object is built up layer by layer with a computer controlling the process. Plastic is the most common material used for 3D printing as it is cheap and easy to use, though ceramic and metal can also be used with 3D printing technology. 

assemblage – a three-dimensional artwork made using a combination of found objects and/or non traditional art materials. Assemblage can also be used to describe the technique of using a mix of materials to create an artwork.  

carving – a sculptural technique that involves cutting or incising stone wood or plaster to create a design. Sculptors use a mallet and a range of sizes and shapes of chisels depending of the detail required.    

casting – a technique that involves filling a mould with a liquid substance such as plaster, wax, liquid metal, clay or resin to create a sculpture or artefact. Slip casting refers to using a clay slip (clay mixed with water to create a liquid) to create ceramic sculptures or objects. Lost-wax casting is an ancient technique that involves creating a model of the design from wax, creating a mould or cast from this using plaster, and then melting the wax by pouring molten metal into the cast.

ceramic – describes an object made from clay.

forging – the process of heating and bending or cutting metal.

modelling – while carving involves cutting away and removing material, modelling involves building up forms by adding clay or plaster and moving it around to create the desired shapes and details. Modelling often involves using an armature or skeleton to support the sculpture while it is being made.

moulding – the process of creating the mould (or cavity form) that liquid material such as molten metal or plaster will then be poured into to form a sculpture. Moulds are made from an original model (usually clay or wax) and carry the negative or reverse of the model. In the past moulds were generally made from plaster, but resin or rubber are more common materials for moulds today.

turning – shaping or carving wood by rotating it on a lathe and using hand tools to cut a symmetrical shape around the axis of rotation. Chair legs and wooden candlesticks are typical objects that a lathe would be used to shape.

weaving – the process of interlacing materials to form a panel or structure. We generally associate weaving with yarns and textiles or wicker and baskets, but all sorts of things can be woven, including twigs, metal wire and plastics.

welding – used by metalworkers, the process of joining pieces of metal by heating the surfaces of the areas to be joined to the point of melting.

Surface techniques and treatments:

burnishing – the process of flattening a metal surface by rubbing it with a hard metal tool. Burnishing improves the finish of the metal and also makes it more durable.

chasing – a technique, used since ancient times, that involves hammering a design into the surface of a metal object, from the front side. Tools are used to shape the metal by sinking – or 'chasing' – it around the surface. Unlike engraving techniques, chasing does not involve removing any of the metal.

direct carving – an approach to making carved sculpture where, rather than working to a pre-planned design, the process of carving suggests or reveals the final form.

electroplating – the technique of using an electric current to thinly coat a metal object with another metal, usually silver or gold plate.

enamelling – a decorative technique, enamelling involves applying a glass powder or paste to a metal object and then heating it to fuse it to the surface. Enamel can be translucent or opaque depending on the temperature used to melt the glass.

glazing – a surface treatment for ceramics that involves applying a vitreous layer to the surface of a ceramic object and then firing it to fuse it to the object. Glazes can be coloured or clear and matt or glossy. They are used to add colour, surface pattern and detail, and to waterproof a ceramic object.

gold leafing / gilding – the layering of gold leaf onto a surface. Gold leaf is gold that has been hammered into very thin sheets of foil. It is applied to a surface using an oil or water-based size. Gilding can be applied to the surface of paintings as well as objects such as sculpture, picture frames, book covers and furniture.

sgraffito – an Italian word meaning ’scratched’, the term describes a technique used in painting, pottery, and glass-making, which involves covering a layer of paint or a surface with another layer and then scratching through the top layer so that the underneath surface shows through.

powder coating – a technique used to create a hard finish on metal objects, that is tougher than conventional paint. The coating is applied as a dry powder and then cured under heat or ultraviolet light.

repoussé – a technique that involves hammering metal from the reverse side to create a low relief design. Repoussé is a French word meaning 'pushed up'.

Printmaking

drypoint – the simplest of the intaglio processes. The artist scratches the lines directly into the copper plate with the needle, a sharp metal point. The principal difference between engraving and drypoint is that in engraving the metal is dug out of the lines and any burr on the plate surface is scraped before printing, whereas in drypoint it is simply thrown to the side and left on the plate. The drypoint needle allows only a very shallow line that quickly wears down.

Chine-collé – printmaking technique in which the image is transferred onto a surface that is bonded to a heavier support in the printing process. This allows the printmaker to print on a much more delicate surface, such as Japanese paper or linen, that pulls finer details off the plate. It can also provide a background colour behind the image that is different from the surrounding backing sheet.

engraving – the principal and oldest intaglio process. The artist, using a tool called a burin, incises through the metal plate to create a drawing. Engraving is a highly skilled technique and any mistake can be repaired only by knocking up the copper from the back of the plate and smoothing down the surface before recutting the line.

etching – one of the most common intaglio methods. A metal plate – usually copper – is coated with an acid-resistant ground through which the artist draws with a tool to expose the metal. Finally, the plate is wiped clean, inked and printed.

intaglio – a general term for printmaking processes where the ink is held in incised lines or areas that lie below the plate's surface and the surface is wiped clean of ink. Paper is forced into the cut lines or areas using a printing press and picks up the ink. Intaglio is an Italian word meaning etched or incised. Etching, drypoint, engraving and aquatint are all forms of intaglio.

linocut / linoprint – a similar principle to a woodcut, a linocut involves using a sharp tool to remove areas from the lino to create a design. Ink is applied to the surface of the design with a roller. The areas that have been cut away will not be inked and will come out as the colour of the paper. Lino (short for linoleum) was originally made as a floor covering in the mid-nineteenth century, and is formed of a mixture of materials including solidified linseed oil, resin and cork. Artists began using lino for printmaking from early in the twentieth century as an easier-to-cut material than wood.     

lithograph – a print realised by printing from a flat surface – originally stone, hence the term 'lithography' which means 'stone drawing' – treated so as to repel the ink except where it is required for printing.

metalpoint – a metal stylus of lead, silver, copper or gold. The artist would draw upon an abrasive surface – usually paper prepared with a slightly coloured wash – producing a faint grey line. Silverpoint achieved great popularity with fifteenth-century Italian and Flemish artists as Filippo Lippi and Jan van Eyck. The silverpoint lost favour in the seventeenth century but was revived by eighteenth-century miniaturists and was still occasionally used by modern artists, most notably by Pablo Picasso and Ivan Albright, though in a manner that defied the convention for precision established early on.

mezzotint – the only printmaking process which works from dark to light. A copper plate is 'grounded', worked with a spiked tool (rocker) by scraping down a roughened plate. It became a very popular technique for its suitability for reproducing portraits.

monotype – a print obtained with a metal plate, painted with ink by an artist and printed onto paper. It will only produce one strong and one weak impression.

plate – a sheet of metal, plastic, or other material bearing an image of type or illustrations from which multiple copies are printed.

photogravure – an image produced from a photographic negative transferred to a metal plate and etched in. Photogravure prints have warm blacks and subtle shades of grey.

screenprint – a variety of stencil printing. A fine-mesh screen, fixed onto a rectangular frame and inker over its upper side is laid directly on top of a sheet of paper. The ink is squeezed through the mesh with a rubber blade so that the ink transfers to the paper. The screen is usually made of silk, cotton, nylon or a metal mesh.

woodcut – the most ancient relief printing process. The printing block is made of wood, taken from a plank of soft wood sawn lengthwise along the grain. The artist's design can be either drawn directly on the block or on a sheet of paper that is then glued onto the block's surface. The block-cutter, using a tool similar to a penknife, cuts away the wood from the sides of the lines of the design. When finished, the image will appear as a network of lines standing in relief.

wood-engraving – the design or picture is engraved into the mirror-smooth surface of a block of endgrain wood, often boxwood. The block is then inked (on its top surface) and printed onto paper. The cuts that were made into the wood, therefore, come out as the colour of the paper and the remaining top surface, which gets inked, as black.

Photography

albumen print – invented in the 1840s and became the most common form of photographs from around 1855 until the beginning of the twentieth century. Albumen prints were the first commercial method of producing photographic images on paper from a negative. The process involves using the albumen from egg whites to bind the photographic chemicals to the paper.

Chromogenic print (C-type / photographic print) – a photographic print made from a colour negative or transparency slide which is exposed to chromogenic photographic paper. The paper is composed of three emulsion layers, each sensitive to a different primary colour. After the image has been exposed it is placed into a chemical bath and each layer reacts to create a colour image. 'C-type' was originally the name Kodak used for their colour print photographic paper, but the term is now generally applied to all colour photographic prints. Digital chromogenic prints, sometimes known as digital Type-C prints or Lambda prints are chromogenic prints made from digital files rather than negatives. The photographs are exposed using digital exposure processes.

Cibachrome print / Ilfochrome print – process for producing high-quality photographic prints directly from colour transparency film. Unlike chromogenic processes, the colour dyes are incorporated into the emulsion on the paper rather than being chemically formed.

digital photograph – a photograph taken with a digital camera. The camera's digital image sensor captures the picture by turning light into electrical signals, which are stored as tiny dots or bits of data. These create the image by combining to form into rows and columns of dots called a bit map. The image sensor eliminates the need for film and allows you to instantly view images after you take them.

gelatin silver print – a black and white photographic process invented in 1871 by Dr Richard Leach Maddox. The process involves exposing paper, that has been made light-sensitive by coating it with a gelatin silver emulsion, to artificial or natural light.

inkjet print (giclée print) – a print made from a digital image using an inkjet printer. Inkjet printers propel droplets of ink onto paper to reflect the picture elements or pixels of the digital image. Giclée prints are a high-quality archival inkjet print, printed on fine art watercolour paper.

Polaroid print – a print produced by an instant camera – a camera that uses self-developing film, which develops shortly after the photograph is taken. Polaroid was the first manufacturer to develop and patent instant cameras and film.

photobook – a form of artist's book made from photos, usually on a single theme.

photogram – a technique that involves placing objects onto photosensitive paper and exposing it to light. French surrealist artist Man Ray developed his own version of this technique which he called a Rayograph. 

photomontage – the process of combining a number of photographs or photographic images, often taken from different sources, to create an artwork. The photographs are often cut up, arranged together, and superimposed. The term can refer both to the technique and the art object. Surrealists used photomontage to create surreal images. Artists such as Hannah Hoch in the 1920s and 1930s used photomontage to create satirical images that criticised the Nazi regime in Germany.

platinum print – also called platinotypes, are monochrome photographic prints made with paper containing light-sensitive iron salts and a platinum compound, rather than the more common silver salts (see gelatin silver print). The paper is exposed to daylight in contact with the negative. The process was invented in 1873 by William Willis and made commercially available in 1879.