Art Description List and Critique Word Bank

Find the Right Words to Describe Paintings and Other Artworks

To be able to talk about paintings, and art in general, you need the vocabulary to describe, analyze, and interpret what you're seeing. It's also part of learning how to critique paintings, whether your own or someone else's. Thinking of the right words becomes easier the more art terms you know, which is where this list comes in. The idea isn't to sit and memorize it, but if you consult the word bank regularly, gradually you'll remember more and more terms.

The list is organized by topic. First, find the aspect of a painting you wish to talk about (for instance the colors), and then see which words match or fit with what you're thinking. Start by putting it into a simple sentence such as this: "The [aspect] is [word]." For instance, "The colors are vivid." or "The composition is horizontal." It'll probably feel awkward at first, but with practice, you'll find it gets easier and more natural. You'll soon expand into longer sentences.

At times it may feel like you're stating the obvious, something that would be immediately evident to anyone looking at the painting. Think of it as answering the question, "How do I know that you know, except by your telling me?" Keep in mind that the person you're describing it for may not be looking at the painting. 

Color Words

Artist's oil painting palette
Chris Rose/Photodisc/Getty Images

Think about your overall impression of the colors used in the painting, how they look and feel, how the colors work together (or not), how they fit with the subject of the painting, and how the artist has mixed these (or not). Are there any specific colors or color palettes you can identify?

  • Natural, clear, compatible, distinctive, lively, stimulating, subtle, sympathetic
  • Artificial, clashing, depressing, discordant, garish, gaudy, jarring, unfriendly, violent
  • Bright, brilliant, deep, earthy, harmonious, intense, rich, saturated, strong, vibrant, vivid
  • Dull, flat, insipid, pale, mellow, muted, subdued, quiet, weak
  • Cool, cold, warm, hot, light, dark
  • Blended, broken, mixed, muddled, muddied, pure
  • Complementary, contrasting, harmonious

Tone Words

Still Life, after Jan van Kessel, 17th Century, oil on board, 37 x 52 cm
Still Life, after Jan van Kessel, 17th Century, oil on board, 37 x 52 cm. Mondadori via Getty Images / Getty Images

Don't forget to consider the tone or values of colors too, plus the way tone is used in the painting as a whole.

  • Dark, light, mid (middle)
  • Flat, uniform, unvarying, smooth, plain
  • Varied, broken
  • Constant, changing
  • Graduated, contrasting
  • Monochromatic

Composition Words

Robert Walpole First Earl Of Orford Kg In The Studio Of Francis Hayman Ra Circa 1748-1750
Robert Walpole First Earl Of Orford Kg In The Studio Of Francis Hayman Ra Circa 1748-1750. Print Collector / Getty Images

Look at how the elements in the painting are arranged, the underlying structure (shapes) and relationships between the different parts, and how your eye moves around the composition.

  • Arrangement, layout, structure, position
  • Landscape format, portrait format, square format, circular, triangular
  • Horizontal, vertical, diagonal, angled
  • Foreground, background, middle ground
  • Centered, asymmetrical, symmetrical, balanced, unbalanced, lopsided, off-center
  • Overlapping, cluttered, chaotic
  • Separate, spacious, empty
  • Free, flowing, fragmented
  • Formal, rigid, upright, confined
  • Negative space, positive space

Texture Words

Full Frame Shot Of Multi Colored Painting
Wendy Thorley-Ryder / EyeEm / Getty Images

It's often hard or impossible to see texture in a photo of a painting, as it doesn't show unless there's light shining in from the side that catches the ridges and casts small shadows. Don't guess; if you don't see any texture, don't try to talk about it in that particular painting.

  • Flat, polished, smooth
  • Raised, rough, coarse
  • Cut, incised, pitted, scratched, uneven
  • Hairy, sticky
  • Soft, hard
  • Shiny, glossy, reflective
  • Semigloss, satin, silk, frosted, matte

Mark Making Words

Brush strokes painted in shades of yellow, red and blue, close-up, full frame
Frederic Cirou / Getty Images

You may not be able to see any details of the brushwork or mark making if it's a small painting, and remember that in some styles of painting, all brush marks are carefully eliminated by the artist.

  • Visible, impastoblended, smooth
  • Thick, thin
  • Bold, timid
  • Heavy, light
  • Edgy, smooth
  • Exhibiting glazes, washes, scumbling, dry brushing, stippling, hatching, splatters
  • Layered, flat
  • Precise, refined, regular, straight, systematic
  • Quick, sketchy, uneven, irregular, vigorous
  • Regular, patterned
  • Exhibiting marks made with a knife, brush

Mood or Atmosphere Words

Rainstorm over the sea, seascape study with rainclouds, ca 1824-1828, by John Constable (1776-1837), oil on paper laid on canvas, 22.2x31 cm
Rainstorm over the sea, seascape study with rainclouds, ca 1824-1828, by John Constable (1776-1837), oil on paper laid on canvas, 22.2x31 cm. De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

What is the mood or atmosphere of the subject of the painting and the way it's painted? What emotions do you experience looking at it?

  • Calm, content, peaceful, relaxed, tranquil
  • Cheerful, happy, joyful, romantic
  • Depressed, gloomy, miserable, sad, somber, tearful, unhappy
  • Aggressive, angry, chilling, dark, distressing, frightening, violent
  • Energetic, exciting, stimulating, thought-provoking
  • Boring, dull, lifeless, insipid

Form and Shape Words

A flat circle, a 3D sphere and an apple
From circle to sphere to apple... Photo ©2010 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Think about the overall shapes in the artwork and the way forms (things) are depicted. What sense of depth and volume is there?

  • 2D, flat, abstracted, simplified, stylized
  • 3D, realistic, natural sense of depth and space
  • Sharp, detailed
  • Blurred, obscured, overlapping, indistinct
  • Distorted, exaggerated, geometric
  • Linear, long, narrow
  • Hard-edged, soft-edged

Lighting Words

Rainy Night in Paris, 1930s
Rainy Night in Paris, 1930s. Private Collection. Artist : Korovin, Konstantin Alexeyevich (1861-1939). Heritage Images/Getty Images / Getty Images

Look at the lighting in the painting, not only in terms of the direction it is coming from and how it creates shadows but also its color, how intense it is, the mood it creates, whether it is natural (from the sun) or artificial (from a light, fire, or candle). Don't forget the option the artist has for not including a light source at all, particularly in modern styles. You can also describe the shadows and highlights at the same time while describing the lighting, as harsh, bright lighting on a subject creates deep, stark shadows and blown-out highlights.

  • Backlit, front lit, side lit, top lit
  • Having indirect light, reflected light, no directional light source
  • Natural
  • Artificial
  • Cool, blue, gray
  • Warm, yellow, red
  • Dim, faint, gentle, gloomy, low, minimal, muted, soft
  • Clear, brilliant, bright, glowing, fiery, harsh, intense, sharp

Viewpoint and Pose Words

The clothed Maja (La Maja vestida), 1800, by Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), oil on canvas, 95x190 cm.
The clothed Maja (La Maja vestida), 1800, by Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), oil on canvas, 95x190 cm. DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / Getty Images

Consider the angle or position we're seeing the subject of the artwork. How has the artist decided to present it? What is the perspective?

  • Front, side, three-quarters, profile, rear (from behind)
  • Close up, far away, life-size, bird's eye view
  • Upward, downward, sideways
  • Standing, sitting, lying down, bending
  • Gesturing, moving, resting, static

Subject Matter Words

Waterlilies
Waterlilies. Claude Monet / Getty Images

This aspect of a painting is one where it can really feel like you're stating the obvious. But if you think of how you'd describe an artwork to someone who's not seen it or who isn't looking at a photo of it, you'd probably tell him or her the subject of the painting quite early on.

  • Abstract
  • Cityscape, buildings, man-made, urban, industrial
  • Fantasy, imaginary, invented, mythological
  • Figurative (figures), portraits
  • Interiors, domestic
  • Landscape, seascape
  • Still life

Still Life Words

PB&J by Pam Ingalls
PB&J. Pam Ingalls / Getty Images

Before you get into what the individual objects in a still life painting are, whether they're themed, related, or dissimilar, look at them overall and describe this aspect.

  • Antique, battered, damaged, dusty, old, worn
  • New, clean, shiny
  • Functional, decorative, fancy
  • Domestic, humble
  • Commercial, industrial

Style Words

Does the painting seem to fit a particular style, appear to be influenced by a style, or be reminiscent of a particular artist's work? There are many style types covering changes over the history of art, but these descriptors can create instant impressions.

  • Realism, photorealism
  • Cubism, surrealism
  • Impressionism
  • Modernism, expressionism
  • Chinese, Japanese, or Indian style
  • Plein-air

Mediums

If you know the medium in which the work was created or on what it was painted, that information can be useful to include in your description.

  • Oil, tempera
  • Acrylics
  • Pastel, chalk, charcoal
  • Mixed media, collage
  • Watercolor, gouache
  • Ink
  • Fresco
  • Spray paint
  • Wood panels, canvas, glass

Size

Size may be relevant to your description if a work is particularly big or small. You could use dimensions, of course, as well as descriptive words.

  • Mural 
  • Miniature
  • Triptych