Watercolor Glossary

How to Paint


When found on a tube or other container of paint, indicates the standard degree of color permanence. AA-highest, A-standard, B-less than standard though fairly durable, C-fugitive.

Having to do with the alphabet, or arranged in alphabetical order. Sometimes spelled ABCDarian. Among other ways of ordering things, it should be compared with numerical and chronological ordering, periodicity, taxonomy, etc.

Absorbant paper
A type of spongy paper used in watercolor painting to absorb color and pick up excess water. Used to open up white areas by removing excess paint.

In painting, blocking in -- the first sketching done on the canvas, and also the first underpainting. In sculpture, a mass of material that has been carved or manipulated into a rough form of the ultimate work.

Refers to the light absorbing behavior of some surfaces -- various characteristics determine the degree to which surfaces absorb certain colors. The light which is absorbed is converted to heat, while light not absorbed is either transmitted (by transparency or translucent surfaces) or reflected (by opaque surfaces). Not to be confused with adsorption. Also see additive, angle of incidence, reflected color, and reflection.

Abstraction and abstract art
Imagery which departs from representational accuracy, to a variable range of possible degrees, for some reason other than verisimilitude. Abstract artists select and then exaggerate or simplify the forms suggested by the world around them. The paintings of Georges Braque (French, 1882-1963) as well as the sculptures of Henry Moore (English, 1898-1987), Barbara Hepworth (English, 1903-1975), and Jacques Lipchitz (Russian-American, 1891-1973) are examples of abstract art. Wassily Kandinsky, (Russian, 1866-1944), was one of the first creators of pure abstraction in modern painting. After successful avant-garde exhibitions, he founded the influential Munich group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider; 1911-1914), when his paintings became completely abstract. His forms evolved from fluid and organic to geometric and, finally, to pictographic.

Ridiculously incongruous or unreasonable, because of a flaw in logic. Also, pertaining to the view that there is no order or value in human life or in the universe -- a condition in which human beings exist in a meaningless, irrational world in which people's lives have no purpose or meaning.

Having to do with the affairs or ways of academies, or works of art that were done according to established, traditional ways.

A learned group accepted as authoritative in its discipline (subject area), or a school in which art is taught. Originally the school of philosophy founded by Plato in the garden of Academe, near Athens. It was closed by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, with the other pagan schools, in CE 529. The term usually refers to a recognized society established for the promotion of one or more of the arts and sciences. The earliest such organization was the Museum of Alexandria, founded by Ptolemy Soter in the third century B.C. The first such academy following the classical era in Europe was the Accademia di Designo in Florence, founded by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) in 1563. Numerous academies have flourished in Italy, France, Germany, Austria, and Britain. Among the several academies in France, the one concerned with the visual arts is the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, founded in 1648 by Colbert and King Louis XIV, and later known as the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Because the French academies dictated elaborate conventions and aesthetic doctrines for the manufacture of works of art, the term "academic" came to imply derivative rather than creative work. In England, the Royal Academy of Arts was established in 1768. Today it serves primarily as an art school and exhibition facility. The first art museum and art school in the U.S. was the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, founded in 1805 by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). Because they've generally supported the aesthetic tastes of their elders, academies have often been the targets of innovators in the arts.

In design, a distinctive feature or quality, such as a feature that accentuates or complements a decorative style. In line drawing, accenting lines is the gradual increase or decrease in the weight or thickness of lines as produced by a pencil or similar medium by the amount of pressure exerted on it while drawing. Accenting should not be confused with shading-- the filling in of areas to represent shadow. Accenting refers only to lines used for the contours or outlines in the drawing of a subject. Generally, lines representing the nearest parts of a subject are accented most boldly. Also see value and gradation.

Accession number
A control number unique to an object, used to identify it among the other objects in that collection. It is part of the numbering system encompassing the permanentcollection of an individual or an institution, and reflects the transaction making an object a part of that collection. An accession number is assigned based on the order in which it was acquired, not on its kind, and typically consists of the year of accession and the serial number within that year.

Accident, Accidental
An accident is anything which happens by chance; uncontrolled occurrence; aleatory. Although this may traditionally have negative connotations, an accident may be taken as a positive thing, as an oportunity. The word "accidental" is usually an adjective, but it is sometimes used as a noun: an act interpreted as an accident occurring in the production of art is sometimes called "an accidental."

Accidental color
Color obtained by mixing on a painting's surface without conscious preliminary planning during the process of painting.

Borrowing between cultures, or, the modifying of one person's or group's culture by contact with a different culture. Also, the process by which people acquire knowledge of the cultures in which they live.

Correctness or exactness.

Color having no chroma-- black, white and grays made by mixing black and white. All other colors employ chromatic pigments.

Acid free
Said of papers with a 7 pH, or very close to 7 pH. Below 6.5 pH or above 8.5 pH is not considered acid-free. Acid-free material are more permanent, less likely to discolor, or to corrupt materials they are placed with over time. Works on paper, and the mats, mounts, etc. with which they are framed, are best acid-free.

May refer to the additive system for representing the color spectrum using combinations of the primary colors of light -- red, green and blue -- demonstrates combinations which produce an array of lighter, brighter colors, including white. This is also called the RGB (red green blue) system of color mixing. Mixing red and blue lights, for example, produces magenta. Mixing blue and green creates cyan, and curiously, red and green lights combine to produce yellow.

Aerial Perspective
The perception of depth in nature can be enhanced by the appearance of atmospheric haze. Although this haze is most commonly humidity (or cloudiness), it could be rain or snow, smoke, or any other kind of vapor. Aerial perspective is the portrayal of that atmospheric haze-- one means to adding to an illusion of depth in depicting space on a flat surface. It is achieved by using less focus, along with bluer, lighter, and duller hues for the distant spaces and objects depicted in a picture.

Aerial View
A view from a great height, also called a bird's-eye view. Any picture in which the horizon line, and consequently the vanishing point (-s), have been placed near or above the top of the work, this applies to renderings of any subject, but most often to landscapes, cityscapes, etc. (Be careful not to confuse aerial view with aerial perspective.)

Aesthetic experience
Experience of intrinsic features of things or events traditionally recognized as worthy of attention and reflection, such as literal, visual, and expressive qualities, which are studied during the art criticism process. Also spelled esthetic.

Aesthetic value
The value (worth) a thing or event has due to its capacity to evoke pleasure that is recognized as arising from features in the object traditionally considered worthy of attention. Also spelled esthetic.

When used in an artist's inscription, it means that that artwork was modeled on the work of another artist. It may either be nearly identical to the other's work, or differ to some degree from it.

An optical phenomenon in which the eye's nerves continue to convey an image after an initial image has departed. Typically, the afterimage appears as a likeness of the initial image, except that each of its colors is the complement to those in the initial image. Sometimes called a complementary afterimage or a photogene.

A sense of isolation, depersonalization, disenchantment, estrangement, or powerlessness. Alienation has been considered an especially important issue during the twentieth century. It's often noted as being at the heart of modern dissatisfactions -- especially of youths, women and racial minorities. Also see angst, anti-art, existentialism, and issue.

Alla prima
Italian expression which means first time. The technique of direct painting in which
the painting is completed in one setting. Usually with little or no previous preparation.

An indirect reference to something or someone presumed to be familiar to the viewer, in order to increase the effect of an image

Something open to two or more possible meanings; amphibolous. In expository writing, ambiguity is usually something to be avoided, because its result is the reader's confusion. Many creative works, nevertheless, employ it quite effectively, when the desired result is poetic rather than the straight communication of knowledge.

An anomalous, shapeless form, without crystalline structure. Amorphous materials have no sharply defined melting point, and surfaces of pieces that break have undulating surfaces like those of lumps of broken glass or of resin, both of which are examples of amorphous materials.

Susceptible of two meanings; ambiguous; equivocal.

Analogous colors
Colors that are next to each other on the color wheel and are closely related. For example, blue, blue-green, and green all have the color blue in common. Families of analogous colors include the warm colors (red, orange and yellow) and the cool colors (green, blue and violet). Analogous colors are sometimes referred to as adjacent colors.

In German, an emotional state of anxiety without a specific cause. In existentialism, the term refers to general human anxiety at having free will, that is, of being responsible for one's actions. This condition may or may not help you as an artist! An example of a work in which angst is an important element:

An opening. In photography, the circular hole in the front of the camera lens which controls the amount of light allowed to pass on to the film. On all but very inexpensive cameras the size of the aperture. is variable. The degree of variability is indicated by "f" numbers (f/stop).

highest point or summit.

In philosophy, what is visible, or manifest to the senses, but what is ultimately illusory. Appearance is usually contrasted with reality, and so the term often occurs in the schools of philosophy known as idealism and skepticism.

Applied arts
The arts concerned with making objects with functional purposes, but for which aesthetic concerns are significant. The applied arts may include architecture, interior design, the design of manufactured items, ceramics, metalwork, jewelry, textile, glass, furniture, graphics, clocks and watches, toys, leather, arms and armor, musical instruments, etc. Commercial art may be considered a branch of applied art. The applied arts are usually contrasted with the fine arts (drawing, painting, sculpture, fine printmaking, etc.), which are seen as serving no purpose other than providing an aesthetic experience. Most of the applied arts might also be described as design. The distinction between the applied and the fine arts did not emerge strongly until the time of the Industrial Revolution (about 1775-1875), and accompanied a growing secularization of art and the emergence of a need felt by some artists to replace dying spiritual values with purely aesthetic values, setting art apart from the rest of life. Nevertheless, some have emphasized the importance of craft and regard the distinction between the fine and the applied arts as false and undesirable. Even to those who see it as important to make this distinction, many objects make it very difficult because their purposes are so dominated by their aesthetic ones.

This is a combination of gum arabic and silica formed into a jelly-like substance to give an impasto look to watercolors. Not to be confused with Oleopasto.

The technique of drawing or painting with transparent watercolor, or a piece of work made this way. French for "watercolor."

Aquarelle brush
A particular style of watercolor brush, used flat for large areas and on the edge for fine light.

An etching technique that produces an unlimited number of gradations of tone from black to a very pale gray. It usually will have a granular appearance. The name is not from the actual technique, but in its visual similarity to that of a watercolor. The technique is usually used in conjunction with other processes such as engraving or drypoint. The majority of Goya's prints are done in a combination of aquatint and etched lines.

Watery. Often used to designate pigmented media in which water is an ingredient in the vehicle, as in gouache, tempera, and watercolors. Such media are water-soluble.

A portion or section of a curved line; a single curve or arch. In strict mathematical terms, a segment of a circle.

Archival image
An image meant to have lasting utility.

Archival materials
Materials meant to last indefinitely, of museum grade. Pigmets which are lightfast, papers which have neutral PH.

An order or composition. Or, a setup or composition of items used for a still life painting or drawing.

Ashcan School
A group of early twentieth-century American artists who often painted pictures of New York city life. Although they are sometimes called the New York realists, because a critic who did not appreciate their choice of subject matter -- alleys, tenements, and slum dwellers -- gave the artists involved in this art movement a more colorful name that's more popularly used: the "Ashcan School." Confusingly, another label that is used for them is that of another more clearly defined group -- "The Eight." The Ashcan School included these six members of The Eight: Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928), Robert Henri (1865-1929), George Luks (1867-1933), William Glackens (1870-1938), John Sloan (1871-1951), and Everett Shinn (1876-1953). Others who are considered in the Ashcan school: Alfred Maurer (1868-1932), George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), Edward Hopper (1882-1967), and Guy Pène Du Bois (1884-1958).

French. An artist's or an artisan's studio; a workshop. Sometimes refers to a studio where an artist trains for his profession.

Term used in art which relates to the distance or space separating the foreground and the background. Sometimes used to refer loosely to an art works sense of feeling.

Abbreviation for American Watercolor Society.


The part of a picture or scene that appears to be farthest away from the viewer, usually nearest the horizon. This is the opposite of the foreground. Between background and foreground is the middle ground.

A principle of design, it refers to the way the elements of art are arranged to create a feeling of stability in a work; a pleasing or harmonious arrangement or proportion of parts or areas in a design or composition. Portions of a composition can be described as taking on a measureable weight or dominance, and can then be arranged in such a way that they appear to be either in or out of balance, or to have one kind of balance or another. Balance can be symmetrical, or formal; or it can be asymmetrical, or informal. It can also be radia.

Boringly commonplace and predictable. Trite and obvious. A ban once meant a widely proclaimed order, originating in the Indo-European bha, "speak." Marriage banns, proclaiming a couple's engagement, are still publicly posted by some Christian churches. A French boulin à ban or four à ban was a mill or an oven which the lord of the manor provided for his tenants to use in common in return for a share of the output. To the French, and then the English, banal came from this idea of the common or usual.

Barbizon School
A group of naturalist landscape painters who worked in the vicinity of Barbizon, a village on the outskirts of the Forest of Fontainebleu, southeast of Paris, in the 1840s and 1850s. Théodore Rousseau (French, 1812-1867) was the founder of the group. Other members of the group were Jean-Baptist Corot (French, 1796-1875), Narcisse Diaz de la Peña (French, 1807-1876), Constant Troyon (French, 1810-1865), Jules Dupré (French, 1811-1889), Jean-François Millet (French, 1814-1875), and Charles-François Daubigny (French, 1817-1878). Their approach constituted an art movement which eventually led to both Realism and Impressionism. Daubigny was the first of the plein air painters.

Bevelled edge
The slope or slant of a line or surface when not at right angles to another. In art a In watercolor painting a dry form of pigment in bevel is the inner edge of the border of a mat window. Usually 45 degrees.

Binary colors
Colors made by the mixing of two hues. Examples are orange, green, and purple.

The ingredient in the vehicle of a paint which adheres the pigment particles to one another and to the ground. It creates uniform consistency, solidity, and cohesion. Also see solvent.

Pigments that run into an adjoining area or up through coats of paint, usually undesirably (see bleeding through and bleed-proof). A fuzziness or spreading at the edges of a painted area. And, in the graphic arts, to extend the edge of a printed area, leaving no margin at one or more edges of a page. This is done by printing an extra 1/8 inch of image area, to be trimmed later.

Blocking in
Laying down the initial statement of a picture by a broad indication of line, color, and tone. After blocking in, artists typically develop their compositions from general to particular by ever-increasingly refining shapes, colors, textures, etc., until an artwork is finished.

May refer either to a piece of lumber or to a sturdy sheet of some other material, such as cardboard, Masonite, etc.

Botanical painting
Painting which studies flowers, plants, trees, and fruits from a scientific point of view.

In photography, the act of taking pictures of a specific subject using differing exposures to ensure the correct exposure. Usually, one exposure is one f stop under exposed, one exposure is correctly exposed, and one exposure is one f stop over exposed.

Intensity or saturation of a color. Purity of color. Paintings are considered "bright" if their tonality is bright.

brilliance, brilliant
Brilliance is the brightness of a richly hued color. A color is brilliant when it has both high lightness and strong saturation. When prepared by mixing pigments, a large amout of a hue might be mixed with a small amount of white, but only to the degree that it remains richly hued. The opposite of brilliant colors in their value -- much darker, but just as high in saturation -- are called deep colors. Opposite to brilliant colors in saturation -- little saturated, but just as high in lightness -- are called pale colors. Opposite to brilliant colors in both value and saturation are dark colors.

bristol board or Bristol board
A sturdy drawing surface used for many types of two-dimensional artwork, including lettering. It is available in several finishes, including a smooth plate finish and a medium vellum. It can be used on both of its sides.


Abbreviation for Celsius (after Anders Celsius), which is the same as Centigrade, a temperature scale on which the freezing point of water is 0°, and the boiling point of water is 100° under normal atmospheric pressure.

A metal found in several compounds: cadmium oxide, cadmium carbonate, cadmium chloride, cadmium sulfate, and cadmium sulfide. In paints, inks, enamels, glazes, and dyes, and permanent pigments are prepared from cadmiums, mostly cadmium sulfate. Cadmiums are toxic.

In watercolor painting a dry form of pigment in cake or block form.

The art of fine handwriting.

Used to make cardboard boxes. A miracle invention of the twentieth century. Not archival. High acid content.

A full-size preparatory drawing for a painting, fresco, tapestry, or embroidery pattern. In the case of a fresco, the completed cartoon would be placed on the wet plaster of the wall and the outlines pricked or incised through the paper. Usually a fine black powder would be pounced, or rubbed through the holes or incised lines, leaving an outline of the design on the surface beneath. To prevent the cartoon from being ruined through contact with the damp plaster, artists would often prick the outline of their original drawing onto another sheet, which would in turn be used for any direct contact with the fresco. An auxiliary cartoon is a full-sized study for a significant detail in the composition, such as a head, based upon outlines traced from the complete cartoon to a separate piece of paper. The artist would usually work up the auxiliary drawing in some detail, so that it could serve as a guide or model when he came to paint the corresponding passages in the painting or fresco.

Cats tongue
A popular name for the filbert brush.

Censorship, censor, censure, censorious
Censorship is the act or process of examining and removing obscene or otherwise objectionable material; the act of expurgating. A censor is a person who examines and removes such material. To censor is to examine and remove such material. To censure is to criticise severely; to blame. A censure is an expression of disapproval, blame, or criticism, which may be an official declaration of such disapproval. Censorious describes the tendency to censure.

To make something become different. To give a different position, course, or direction to something. To substitute, alter, vary, modify, transition, or transform. To become different, as a design or picture might. To move away from sameness, monotony, exact repetition. The concept of change is linked with those of permanence and impermanence, metamorphosis, adaptation, evolution, innovation (newness), and modernism.

Disorder or confusion. The opposite of order.

A wood carbon formed by slowly heating bundles of twigs in airtight chambers, a process that produces charred wood rather than ash. Because charcoal is composed of large, almost weightless, particles and is both very fragile and friable, allowing it to be erased with even the gentlest of rubbing, it is most suited for broad, rapid preliminary sketching on canvas, panel, paper or wall.

Parts of areas of a painting which allow the forms of the figures to show even in dark shadow. Aka, Carravachio, Rembrandt.

Chiaroscuro Drawing
A manner of drawing by which the usual drawing method of applying dark strokes over light colored paper is reversed. Instead, the composition is defined by light values, such as white gouache, over a dark ground. The etymology of the word is the combination of the two Italian words chiaro, meaning light, and scuro, the word for dark.

Among colors other than those in the black-white scale, the specific combination of a color's hue, intensity, and saturation; or the degree of a color's vividness.

Chroma key
Refers to a level of chroma from high to low intensity and saturation. A high chroma key is bright and pure. A low chroma key is dull and murky.

Chromatic scale
The succession of colors in a spectrum. Like a rainbow.

About, approximately. (From Latin.) Abbreviated c. and ca. Frequently used before approximated dates.

The length of a line which is at the outside edge of a circle; periphery of a circle. Mathematical formula for circumference of a circle: two times pi (3.14159), or diameter times pi.

To draw a line or lines around something; to encircle, as when enclosing (perhaps a polygon or polyhedron ) within lines, curves, or surfaces. To determine the limits of; to define or restrict.

This term has come to have several meaning. Originally it was used when referring to the art of ancient Greece produced during the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. Later it included all works of art created from 600 BCE until the fall of Rome. Still later it was used to describe any art form thought to be inspired or influenced by ancient Greek or Roman examples. Today, classical is used to describe perfection of form, with an emphasis on harmony and unity and restraint of emotion. Usually, it is applied to works that are representational but idealistic. Classic is used to describe anything which is the epitome of its type.

An idea or expression that has lost its originality or its force, and become trite because of its overuse. A stereotype. Most clichés become popular over the years because they express a thought aptly and concisely, when, if used too often, their aptness can be overwhelmed by their dullness.

Closed shape
Space that is completely enclosed by a line, or unbroken contour. For example, a triangle is a closed shape.

Of low, common, or inferior quality. Lacking in refinement or delicacy. Indecent or vulgar. Or, consisting of large particles, not fine in texture. Do not confuse it with course, which is pronounced identically.

Having to do with the mental process or faculty of knowing, including such things as analysis, application, awareness, comprehension, perception, reasoning, synthesis, evaluation, and meta-cognition.

Cold-pressed (CP) and Not-pressed (NP) papers have an open or course texture. Some of the heavier papers are also available in Rough which has a still courser grain.

The term Collage is from the French verb Coller meaning "to glue." In English it means to attach objects to a surface. It can be used as either a noun or a verb. The first collage in art was by Picasso, Still Life with Chair Caning, produced in 1912. After World War I, the Dada artists used found objects to make political statements. Since this time, collage has been used by many artists to make statements about our society. Since it uses real objects it has a particularly strong impact in the form of social statement. Other artists involved in collage have been Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Hamilton, and David Hockney.

Produced when light strikes an object and then reflects back to your eyes. An element of art with three properties: (1) hue or tint, the color name, e.g., red, yellow, blue, etc.: (2) intensity, the purity and strength of a color, e.g., bright red or dull red; and (3) value, the lightness or darkness of a color.

Color wheel
A radial diagram of colors in which primary and secondary, and sometimes intermediate colors are displayed as an aid to color identification, choosing, and mixing. The complement to each color is the color opposite that color on the color wheel.

Artists, usually painters who give more importance to color believing that form may be differentiated using only color.

Complementary afterimage
The afterimage (in a complementary color) that is retained briefly by the eye after the stimulus is removed.

Complimentary colors
Secondary colors opposite primary colors and vice versa on the color wheel. Red is the compliment of green, orange the compliment of blue, purple the compliment of yellow.

Conté Crayon
Invented in 1795 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté in response to the short supply of graphite during the Napoleonic Wars, Conté crayons were a mixture of refined graphite and clay. The process of manufacture used less graphite and, by altering the proportion of lead to clay, allowed the degree of hardness of the crayon to be altered. Deficiencies in the quality of the natural chalks, particularly red chalk, appear to have been the impetus at the end of the eighteenth century for the production of Conté crayons from carbon black and iron oxide. Orange-red in color, and slightly less friable than natural chalk, these became known as sanguine Conté crayons. Since the late nineteenth century, many fabricated dry or waxy crayons have been referred to as "Conté crayon."

Contour drawing
Drawing in which contour lines are used to represent subject matter. A contour drawing has a three-dimensional quality, indicating the thickness as well as height and width of the forms it describes. Making a contour drawing with a continuous line is a classic drawing exercise (sometimes modified as a "blind continuous-line contour"): with eyes fixed on the contours of the model or object, drawing the contour very slowly with a steady, continuous line, without lifting the drawing tool or looking at the paper. There are other variations on this method.

As in Values. The difference in value between light and dark. A large difference between two things; for example, hot and cold, green and red, light and shadow. Closely related to emphasis, a principle of design, this term refers to a way of combining elements of art to stress the differences between those elements. Thus, a painting might have bright color which contrast with dark colors, or angular shapes which contrast with curvaceous shapes. Used in this way, contrast can excite, emphasize and direct attention to points of interest. When paired with compare, as in "compare and contrast," "compare" emphasizes similarities while "contrast" emphasizes differences.

Cool color
Color often associated with water, sky, spring, and foliage, and suggest coolness. These are the colors which contain blue and green and appear on one side of the color wheel opposite the warm colors. Psychologically, cool colors are said to be calming, unemphatic, depressive; optically, they generally appear to recede.

Traditionally, any drawing material made in stick form, including chalk, pastel, conté crayons, charcoal, lithographic and other grease crayons, as well as wax crayons. To children, the term invariably refers to these last sticks of color made of paraffin, and patented under various trade names, available in several sizes and shapes, either water-soluble or not, usually in a paper wrapper.

A critical review or discussion, especially, for our purposes, one dealing with works of art. Often refers to involving a group of art students in a discussion resulting in the assessment of those students' artwork. To review or discuss critically in order to sustain and nourish critical reflection. Unfortunately, to many the word "criticize" has a negative connotation. The word "critique", however, is invariably used more neutrally, or practically. With the focus on anything from a portion of a project that will be completed within the semester to a large body of recent works, a critique should advance the students' work, and convey a structure that will sustain the work long after graduation. Also see art criticism.

To trim a picture's edges.

A line or edge that deviates from straightness in a smooth, continuous way. Or, a surface that deviates from flatness in the same way. Or, something that has the shape of a curve, such as an arc. Or, to make something curve, such as when a straight piece of wire is made to be curved. A curlicue is a curve with flourish.

Cutout or cut-out
In art, a piece of paper cut into a shape and arranged with other cutouts to form designs and picture.