What is Painting? - Definition, Evolution & Major Artists

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  • 0:00 Painting: Definition & Types
  • 2:02 History of Painting
  • 2:39 Famous Painters
  • 5:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Learn about what defines a painting as a specific form of art work. Explore famous painters in history and the works for which they're remembered. Discover what makes the painting a consistent form across the history of art.

Painting: Definition & Types

What is a painting? In essence, does it refer to a visual composition of oil on a cloth canvas surface? Actually, the term can be applied more broadly than that.

Ask a critic to define the art of painting. He or she will inevitably linger on the question of form. In art, a medium, such as musical composition, can be broken down into smaller categories based on form, such as a song or an opera. In this example, the musical composition is the medium, and the song is the artistic expression's particular form. But also consider how the meaning expressed in a song might have come across if the artist had chosen a different form, like a written poem, for example.

The definition of painting is also a matter of form. Is a painting realistic or abstract? Does it use organic or geometric forms? Is the subject a landscape or a person, and does it fall in a particular genre, like surrealism? Was the paint applied using a brush or sponge, or was it splattered and tossed in artistic action? These are questions that can help you understand the form of a painting. So what is it that unites the field of painting?

The defining aspects that unite all works of art under the category of painting include the use of certain materials. This means that a painting is usually defined as consisting of some kind of paint applied to some kind of surface, usually a flat, two-dimensional canvas. But that doesn't mean that the only works of art considered painting will be those made of oil paint on cloth canvas. In the broadest sense, graffiti is a kind of painting because it's made with paint - aerosol spray paint - applied to a flat surface, like a wall or slab of pavement.

There are a variety of types of paints often used, like tempera, acrylic, watercolor and fresco. The possibilities of what medium to apply paint to range from paper, to wood, to leather and more.

History of Painting

Painting is one of the oldest art forms. When societies began crafting tools and making fire, they were also learning to represent the world in pictures. These pictures were recorded in cave paintings that still exist today. Some of the oldest paintings known to exist can be found in the Chauvet Cave in France.

The art of painting evolved over time, through the hieroglyphics of ancient civilizations to the classical and Renaissance paintings that hang in the Louvre today. The art of painting has taken some radical turns, with modern forms of painting including color field and action painting.

Famous Painters

Let's look at six famous painters whose works represent a broad spectrum across the history of painting:

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was a Renaissance inventor, artist and painter. Da Vinci's style was copied and improved upon by later artists, which stands as a testament to this true innovator; imitation is the highest form of flattery. In works such as the Mona Lisa, Virgin on the Rocks and The Last Supper, Da Vinci drew on his knowledge of physiology to depict the human form as accurately as possible. Many of his paintings depict biblical settings and religious imagery.

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