Words to Describe Art

Artist making portrait of young woman

 valentinrussanov/Getty Images

To talk about paintings, and art in general, you need the vocabulary to describe, analyze, and interpret what you're seeing. 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, you'll start to remember more and more terms.

The list is organized by topic. First, find the aspect of a painting you wish to talk about (the colors, for instance), and then see which words match or fit with what you're thinking. Start by putting your thoughts into a simple sentence such as this: The [aspect] is [quality]. For example, 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, and you'll eventually be able to produce more complicated sentences.

Color

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 them (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

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 the 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

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

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

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. Remember that in some styles of painting, all brush marks are carefully eliminated by the artist. In others, the marks are clearly visible.

  • 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

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 painting? 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

The 3D street painting Salt World

 Zetpe0202/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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

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

Lighting

Rainy Night in Paris, 1930s

Heritage 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, its intensity, the mood it creates, whether it is natural (from the sun) or artificial (from a light, fire, or candle). Make sure to describe the shadows and the highlights as well.

  • 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

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 from which 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

Waterlilies
Claude Monet / Getty Images

This aspect of a painting is one where it can really seem like you're stating the obvious. But if you think of how you'd describe an artwork to someone who has not seen it or who isn't looking at a photo of it, you'd probably tell them 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

PB&J by Pam Ingalls
Pam Ingalls / Getty Images

Before you begin describing the individual objects in a still life painting, 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

Comp Save to Board Italy, Florence, Still life with fruit and insects by Rachel Ruysch, 1711, oil on canvas, detail

DEA / G. NIMATALLAH/Getty Images 

Does the painting seem to fit a particular style or be reminiscent of a particular artist's work? There are many terms for different styles in the history of art, and these descriptors can create instant impressions.

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

Media

Brushes and oil paint, messy spectrum of colours

Dimitri Otis/Getty Images 

If you know the medium in which a 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

People painting wall together

 Hill Street Studios/Getty Images

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

  • Mural 
  • Miniature
  • Triptych