Fine Art Painting: Terms & Techniques

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever painted a picture? Did you use a brush, knife, sponge or another kind of tool? In this lesson, let's explore terms and techniques related to the art and craft of painting.

Introduction: Many Types of Painting

For thousands of years, artists have used paint to create images. The earliest paints were natural substances, but painting methods and materials have changed over time. First, however, a deceptively simple question -- what is paint? It's a combination of a dry colored powder, called a pigment, and a binder, a substance that holds the pigment and allows you to spread the paint. The binder determines what kind of paint it is. The surface to which paint is applied is called a support, which includes everything from paper to wood panels.

Different kinds of paint are used in different ways and sometimes require different techniques. Let's explore three kinds of painting.

Watercolor Painting

Watercolor painting is a method of creating images by using paints with a water-soluble binder. When you add water, the result is a colorful, transparent, rapidly drying paint. Watercolor artists must be fearless about their work. If they make a mistake, they have to start over because you can't paint over watercolor to fix it!

Watercolor paintings are usually done on thick paper. You can get wonderful effects with watercolor paint through thin washes, where the paper is brushed with water and then thin layers of paint are brushed on. You can then work other colors in through a wet on wet process, which means brushing thinner lines of a color through a still-wet surface. Watercolor can also be applied with a dry brush technique. Dipping the brush in the paint with much less water and using it on dry paper results in deeper color and more sketchy, solid lines.

Watercolor paint set with brush and example of paint application
watercolor paints

Oil Painting

Some of the most famous artists in the world, including Leonardo Da Vinci and Vincent van Gogh, worked in oil paints. Unlike watercolors, oil paints are made with a binder of a natural water-resistant substance like linseed or poppy oil. The result is a thick, buttery paint with rich color that can be used in layers. Oil paints take a long time to dry, and if you make a mistake you can rework it or paint over it. You can apply oil paints with a brush or a knife, and using different tools gives different effects in the paint surface. Artists squeeze the paint out onto a palette, a flat support that they can hold in their hand, so that they have the colors that they need nearby. Oil paintings can be done on supports of wood, stretched canvas, or even metal.

Example of an oil painting palette
oil paint palette

There are two ways to approach an oil painting. If you're working in an indirect way, you carefully complete a drawing of the subject, and then add a monochromatic (variations of one color) underpainting on the canvas. You allow that layer to dry and then add thinner layers of more transparent paint. This is called glazing, and it allows for the detail of the drawing and underpainting to show through but adds brilliant color. Each layer dries before the next in added, and the completion of a single painting can take months. Leonardo da Vinci worked in an indirect manner.

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