Vocabulary for Talking About Art History

The following words and terms may frequently appear when studying, reading about, or discussing Art or the History of Art. We briefly explain what they mean and give you examples to learn how to use them. Learning this subject specific terminology is a great way to improve your performance in exams such as IELTS, GRE, SAT, LSAT, Civil Services, and Banking.


In the foreground

The foreground is the part of a picture or photograph which is nearest to the viewer

In the background

The background is the part of a picture design photograph or seen that is the setting for the image or is the part which is farthest from the viewer.

is framed by

Being 'framed by' something refers to being surrounded in a way that creates a pleasing image.

is surrounded by

Being 'surrounded by' something means to be encompassed or enclosed on all sides.


Landscape can refer to the format of something such as a photograph, painting or print which is wider than it is high. A landscape is also a work of art which features a place with no human characters.


A portrait can refer to the format of a photograph, painting or print which is is higher than it is wide.  A portrait can also refer to a work of art which predominantly features the image of a person.

still life

A still life is a painting drawing or photograph of an arrangement of objects.


A work of art considered realistic represents something in a way which is accurate and represents something which is natural or real.


Abstract art is art that does not attempt to represent something real or natural, which instead uses shapes, colours and textures to represent the subject or theme.


Architecture is the skill or art of designing buildings.


Baroque art is a style of European aesthetics from the 17th and 18th century, which often contains elaborate ornamentation.


When you speak about brushwork, you are referring to the way a painter uses their brush, usually because it is easily apparent in their paintings.


Impressionist art aims to give a general view, emotion or idea of a subject instead of realistically or naturally portraying it.


A canvas is a stretched piece of fabric attached to a frame used as a surface for painting.


Something which is monochrome contains only various tones of one colour; such as black and white drawings or photographs.


Artwork which is described as Classical can mean it is related to ancient Greek or Latin art or culture. Classical can also describe something which is considered the standard within a respected form or style.


Something which is described as colourful contains many different colours and variations in tone.


Something which is described as contemporary is associated with the present moment in time.


Conceptual art deals with subjects or images expressing mental concepts or ideas.


Cubist art is a style which favors geometric shapes over natural, realistic ones.


Surreal art deals with subjects and landscapes that often mix fact and fantasy and are dreamlike or bizzare.


Something decorative is an object or design which has no specific functions other than to be aesthetically pleasing or pretty.


Historical art is art which is about a specific period of history, or art capturing historical events.


The framing of a picture or a photograph refers to the way in which an object or subject is positioned in relation to its surroundings.


Art which is 'futuristic' contains images or concepts related to imagining how things will be in the future.


Grotesque art is art which is made to be deliberately distorted or ugly.


Iconic art deals with subjects which are iconic, such as religious figures or work which is classically Greek.


An image is a representation of a person or thing.


An installation in art is a three-dimensional piece of work that usually transforms a space or the viewer's perception of a space.

 medium (oil, acrylic, pastel, chalk,  pencil)

A 'medium' is the name for materials artists use to create work.


Something which is considered dramatic is exciting or impressive, or portrays tension.


The horizon is the line where an observer can see the Earth's surface and the sky meeting in the distance.


A skyline is an outline of a landscape or buildings presented against the sky.

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