How do you write an art history paper? Part II: Some very important basic terms!

Debra Thimmesch
8 min readJul 6, 2021

You’re probably eager to just begin writing your art history paper. Or, perhaps you’re procrastinating because you’re not sure where to begin. That’s perfectly understandable. Students who are new to art history are often surprised to discover that this field of study involves a lot more than just looking at art and giving one’s opinion about it. One of the most exciting things about art history, however, is that the study of an art object can tell us so much about not only the person or people who made it but also its rich historical context!

One of the fundamental ways to begin your adventures with this exciting field of study is to understand its vocabulary. There are specific ways to talk and think about works of art and specific words we use to describe what we see when we look closely at a work of art or architecture. In this article, I’m providing some of the basic visual art terms in alphabetical order. You’ll acquire others particular to the area of art and architecture you’re studying as you progress through a given course of study.

abstract: An image or object is adjusted by the artist so that fewer identifying details are visible. This can be done by simplifying or eliminating aspects of the object’s appearance. Abstraction may occur in varying degrees, from slightly abstract to fully abstract so that nothing is directly recognizable or as it appears in real life.

When the art is fully abstract, we call it non-objective (not a recognizable object any longer).

atmospheric perspective: In painting or drawing, a method for showing how objects in the distance appear to become blurry and less vivid further away. Artists tend to use blues and grays and to make them look washed out to simulate the way objects and landscapes look from a distance.

background: Areas in an artwork that look as though they are in the distance or at least behind the main objects in the foreground, which is the front portion of an artwork. If an artwork is fairly complex, there might also be a middle ground.

brushstroke: The way an artist applies the pigment (paint or ink or other substance to change the surface he or she is working on) with a brush is important. It can change the appearance of a work of art radically. For example, some artists paint carefully to make their brushstrokes disappear whereas others use them in different ways, such as sweeping lines or dots to create different effects.

color: The property possessed by an object of producing different sensations on the eye as a result of the way it reflects or emits light. Color is the word we use to describe the way we perceive the bands of the light spectrum. When we talk about color in art, we are also thinking about black and white. We describe certain qualities of color: hue, lightness/brightness, and saturation.

*important note on color: When composing their visual analyses, students who are new to art history sometimes find the discussion of color and its qualities challenging. Their visual analyses may seem more like lists or recipes than observations based on what they’re seeing. For example, avoid writing, “…the hue is red-orange and the saturation is…” to describe the effect these aspects of color have on the eye. Instead, write something like this: “The bright orange of the orb of the sun creates a dramatic contrast to the dark blue of the water’s surface.”

composition: The sum of an assembly of formal elements (see below).

compositional or formal elements: The different components of a composition are: 1) line, 2) color, 3) texture, 4) shape, 5) space, and 6) light.

Importantly, when analyzing a work of art, you will only discuss the formal elements that are significant to the work. In some cases, you will discuss implied formal elements. For example, in the Dutch painter Gerard ter Borcht’s work, The Letter (c. 1660–65, oil on canvas), the artist has described the various textures of the figures’ clothing and the objects in the room in breathtaking detail. Rather than treating, for instance, the satin of the standing woman’s dress, you would write about the ways in which the painter has simulated — implied — the appearance of satin.

Gerard ter Borcht, The Letter, c. 1660–65, oil on canvas, Royal Collection Trust, UK

contour: A line that describes the edges or outline of a form or shape.

figure: Any form or shape we see in a work of art that is distinct from the background. We also refer to humans in an artwork as “figures.” In the work on the left, we see three figures.

focal point: Any area in a work of art that somehow attracts and typically sustains the attention of the viewer.

form: A form is any three-dimensional object.

A form may be measured by height (from top to bottom), width (side to side), and depth (front to back). Importantly, form can also be implied and/or illusionistic. Form is also a term that refers to the design or structure of a work of art.

genre: This is the subject matter of a work of art, especially (but not only) painting. Historically, there was a hierarchy of genres within the classification of works of art with the most highly-regarded genre being history painting (depicting a moment in a narrative, whether from history, mythology, religious stories, etc.). Some other genres are: still-life (representations of everyday objects), portraiture, and landscape.

genre scene: In the context of subject matter, a genre scene is a scene depicting everyday life. Such scenes, like the one above by Gerard ter Borcht, don’t depict specific, identifiable people like portraits do.

horizon line: An even or somewhat even line (explicit or implied) running side-to-side in a painting or drawing where the land (or water) appears to end and the sky begins. It is usually at the eye level of the viewer. If the horizon cannot be seen, its placement must be imagined.

horizontal: A shape or line that runs parallel to the top and bottom edges of a surface.

hue: The term for color in relation to the color spectrum — for example, yellow, yellow-red, blue-green, violet, etc.

idealized: Usually referring to the depiction of a human such as with Classical Greek art that strived to make representations of some people look like gods. Look, for example, at the picture of the famous Venus de Milo (c. 130–100 BCE) in the collection of the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. Her partially nude body is flawless (except, of course, for those missing arms, which were lost at some point but were once attached and as perfect at the rest of her).

idealized: can also refer to a scene in which everything looks more perfect than you would ordinarily find in any specific example.

Alexandros of Antioch, Venus de Milo, c. 130–100 BCE, Louvre Museum, Paris

illusionistic space: The use of artistic devices such as mathematical and atmospheric perspective to produce the appearance of three-dimensional space on a flat (two-dimensional) surface.

landscape: A work of art that depicts land as the main subject matter. Some subcategories are: cityscape and seascape.

light: The condition of illumination upon which sight depends. In art, light can be depicted or implied in a variety of ways.

line: A mark with both direction and length. A line is created by a point moving across a given surface, whether paper or canvas or marble and can vary in direction, width, curvature, length, and even color. A line can be two-dimensional, three-dimensional (as with wire, for instance), or implied.

medium: The material or materials used to produce an artwork. Medium also refers to the type of art such as painting or sculpture or drawing, for instance.

mythology: The unverifiable, usually allegorical stories written or told via oral tradition in a given culture about its potentially supernatural origins, its higher beings (if any), such as gods and goddesses, and so forth.

narrative: A story or idea advanced by a work of art.

Naturalism: An artistic tendency that arose in the late 19th century in which artists were interested in representing everyday life in great detail and as ennobling (in contrast to history painting, for instance); there was a parallel movement in literature. The capital “N” denotes that this was a specific movement in art.

naturalism (with a lower-case “n”): A tendency of objects or scenes represented in art to resemble their corresponding objects and scenes in the real/natural world. It is often confused with realism, which pushes naturalism further, in some cases to an illusionistic extreme.

Art made using heightened naturalism is called trompe l’oeil, a French term that means “fool the eye.”

outline: A line that emphasizes or creates the outer edge of a form or shape (also known of as a contour; see above).

painterly: A painting style that emphasizes visible brushstrokes or brushwork. It is usually gestural, showing the motion of the artist’s application of the pigment.

perspective: The use of a variety of techniques to create the illusion of depth on a two-dimensional surface.

picture plane: The surface of a two-dimensional artwork.

pigment: Any substance/material used to bring color to an artwork. Most often, pigment consists of ground powder (minerals, plants, chemicals, etc.) mixed with a binder or liquid to produce dyes, crayons, paints, or inks.

Realism: A style of art that became important between c. 1850 to 1900. In part, it developed in response to Romanticism and depicted people, events, objects, and places as they would have been seen in real life (although there is always a degree of subjectivity involved in representation, of course). There was a social and political concern to some Realist art.

realistic: Art that depicts a recognizable subject using colors, textures, shadows and proportions reflective of the appearance of the subject in real life.

shape: A flat figure that is produced when actual or implied lines meet to enclose a space. Shapes can be divided into subcategories: geometric (square, triangle, circle) and organic (irregular in outline).

sketch: A drawing made quickly to capture main/important aspects of a subject. A sketch may also be a rough plan for a more finished work of art.

space: One of the formal elements of art, space refers to the open or empty area around or within an object. Forms and shapes are defined by the space around them, which is known of as negative space (empty space). In a two-dimensional work of art, space is implied rather than actual.

style: The specific qualities of a work of art that characterize it as belonging to a particular individual or group. For example, among other prominent features, the feathery and dotted brushwork of Impressionism makes it very recognizable as a specific style.

subject: An idea or topic represented by or in an artwork.

symbol: An object, figure, sign, form, or shape that stands for something else, whether a concept or a real object. For instance, a red octagon can mean “STOP.”

technique: The ways in which an artist uses materials to achieve a desired result.

value: This element of art refers to the lightness or darkness of a surface or portion of a surface and this depends on how much light a surface reflects. Tints are light values of pure colors. Shades are dark values of pure colors.

viewer: A person looking at a work of art.

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Debra Thimmesch

Debra is an art historian with 20 years of experience teaching, tutoring, editing, and mentoring students and scholars in the history of art.