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Art Term


Painting is the practice of applying paint or other media to a surface, usually with a brush

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Lubaina Himid CBE RA
Between the Two my Heart is Balanced (1991)

© Lubaina Himid, courtesy the artist and Hollybush Gardens, London

In art, the term painting describes both the act of painting, (using either a brush or other implement, such as palette knife, sponge, or airbrush to apply the paint); and the result of the action – the painting as an object.

The beginning of painting

What we call art in all its forms – painting, sculpture , drawing and engraving – appeared in human groups all over the world in the period known as the Upper Paleolithic, which is roughly from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. In Europe, sophisticated and powerful paintings from this period have been discovered in caves such as Lascaux in France. In 1994 possibly even more astonishing works were found in the Chauvet cave in the Ardèche Valley, also in France. Cave paintings consist of pigments such as coloured earths rubbed onto the rock. In some cases they appear to have been mixed into a paste first. The paintings mostly represent animals but there are some human images.

Since then painting has changed in essence very little. Supports evolved from rock faces, through the walls of buildings, to portable ones of paper, wood, and finally cloth, particularly canvas. The range of pigments expanded through a wide range of earths and minerals, to plant extracts and modern synthetic colours. Pigments have been mixed with water and gum to make a paint, but in the fifteenth century in Europe the innovation of using oil (linseed) produced a newly flexible and durable medium that played a major part in the explosion of creativity in Western painting at the Renaissance and after. At the same time subject matter expanded to embrace almost every aspect of life ( genres ).

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Selected artists who paint

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A careful concoction of 'push' and 'pull'

Alison Gingeras and Rochelle Steiner

On the eve of Glenn Brown's solo exhibition at Tate Liverpool, Rochelle Steiner and Alison Gingeras talk about the enduring appeal of the painter's work.

Kings of the vast

Ian Christie

In the early nineteenth century a fashion for enormous paintings flourished, and artists including Martin, Benjamin Haydon and Francis Danby showed their huge pictures to an adoring public. These painters lived in a newly competitive age of showmanship and spectacle, typified by the panorama and diorama that flourished in the late Georgian and Regency period

Explore this term

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On Painting

Michael Baldwin , Charles Harrison and Mel Ramsden

This paper was presented by members of Art & Language (Michael Baldwin, Charles Harrison and Mel Ramsden) at Tate Modern in March 2003 as part of the talks series Painting Present. It argues that painting resists the Institutional Theory of art in as much as it does not depend on institutions for its status as art. In this respect, painting after conceptual art may be seen as just as critical of art institutions as conceptual art used to be.

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Contemporary Painting and History Symposium

How can artists find inspiration from modernist history and the more recent past? In what ways is contemporary painting negotiating the boundaries of its discipline? What is contemporary painting's attitude to theory?

Layers and players

Andrew Wilson

What does it mean to be a painter today? Five artists who work with paint in varying ways and for different ends give us a glimpse into new possibilities for the medium

How to spin the colour wheel, by Turner, Malevich and more

We take a quick skip through colour theory, and how some of modern art's giants have put it into practice 

Painting conservation

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How it's Made: Millais

In the second of our series on artists' techniques and processes, Susan Breen explains how the paintings conservation team breathed new life in to The North-West Passage by John Everett Millais

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The Rediscovery of John Hayls’s A Portrait of a Lady and a Boy with Pan 1655–9

A conservation project combining historical and scientific analysis to reveal the original scene of John Hayls’ A Portrait of a Lady and a Boy with Pan 1655–9. 

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Salvador Dalí’s Forgotten Horizon

A technical examination of Salvador Dalí’s Forgotten Horizon 1936 at Tate’s paintings conservation studio.

Related materials

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Acrylic paint

Acrylic paint is water-based fast-drying paint widely used by artists since the 1960s. It can be used thickly or thinly depending how much water is added to it

Oil paint

Oil paint is form of a slow-drying paint that consists of particles of pigment suspended in a drying oil that forms a tough, coloured film on exposure to air


Bitumen is a naturally-occurring, non-drying, tarry substance used in paint mixtures, especially to enrich the appearance of dark tones


Gouache is a type of water-soluble paint that, unlike watercolour, is opaque so the white of the paper surface does not show through


Canvas is a strong, woven cloth traditionally used by artists as a support (surface on which to paint)


A palette is a smooth, flat surface on which artists set out and mix their colours before painting, often designed to be held in the hand


Refers both to the medium and works of art made using the medium of watercolour – a water soluble paint with transparent properties


A diptych is an artwork consisting of two painted or carved panels


An artwork in three panels


Fresco is a mural painting technique that involves painting with water-based paint directly onto wet plaster so that the paint becomes an integral part of the plaster


The technique of painting with pigments bound in a water-soluble emulsion, such as water and egg yolk, or an oil-in-water emulsion such as oil and a whole egg

Related techniques

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Airbrushing is a painting technique which uses an airbrush to give an even and consistent surface, often used to create a high level of realism


Impasto refers to an area of thick paint or texture, in a painting

Matter painting

Matter painting refers to the technique of using thick impasto paint into which other materials such as sand, mud, cement and shells have been added


Fumage is a technique in which an image is created by painting with smoke from a lighted candle into a ground of wet paint


Gestural is a term used to describe the application of paint in free sweeping gestures with a brush

Graffiti art

Graffiti art as a term refers to images or text painted usually onto buildings, typically using spray paint

Related groups and movements

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History painting

The term history painting was introduced in the seventeenth century to describe paintings with subject matter drawn from classical history and mythology, and the Bible – in the eighteenth century it was also used to refer to more recent historical subjects


Neoclassicism was a particularly pure form of classicism that emerged from about 1750


Theory developed by Edmund Burke in the mid eighteenth century, where he defined sublime art as art that refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation

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Impressionism developed in France in the nineteenth century and is based on the practice of painting out of doors and spontaneously ‘on the spot’ rather than in a studio from sketches. Main impressionist subjects were landscapes and scenes of everyday life


The Pre-Raphaelites were a secret society of young artists (and one writer), founded in London in 1848. They were opposed to the Royal Academy’s promotion of the ideal as exemplified in the work of Raphael

Action painters

The term action painters is applied to artists working from the 1940s until the early 1960s whose approach to painting emphasized the physical act of painting as an essential part of the finished work


Expressionism refers to art in which the image of reality is distorted in order to make it expressive of the artist’s inner feelings or ideas


Name given by the artist Kazimir Malevich to the abstract art he developed from 1913 characterised by basic geometric forms, such as circles, squares, lines and rectangles, painted in a limited range of colours


Photorealism is a painting style that emerged in Europe and the USA in the late 1960s, characterised by its painstaking detail and precision

Abstract expressionism

Abstract expressionism is the term applied to new forms of abstract art developed by American painters such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning in the 1940s and 1950s. It is often characterised by gestural brush-strokes or mark-making, and the impression of spontaneity

Colour field painting

The term colour field painting is applied to the work of abstract painters working in the 1950s and 1960s characterised by large areas of a more or less flat single colour

Painting at Tate

Left Right Exhibition

A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance

A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance at Tate Modern takes a new look at the relationship between performance and painting since 1950

Tate Modern 14 Nov 2012 – 1 Apr 2013 Free Exhibition

Painting Now: Five Contemporary Artists

Painting Now: Five Contemporary Artists; exhibition at Tate Britain, 12 November 2013 – 9 February 2014, featuring Tomma Abts, Gillian Carnegie, Simon Ling, Lucy McKenzie and Catherine Story

Tate Britain 12 Nov 2013 – 9 Feb 2014 Free Exhibition

The Indiscipline of Painting: International abstraction from the 1960s to now

'The Indiscipline of Painting' at Tate St Ives is an international group exhibition including works by forty-nine artists from the 1960s to now

Tate St Ives 8 Oct 2011 – 3 Jan 2012 Free Exhibition

Hybrids: International Contemporary Painting

Hybrids International Contemporary Painting past exhibition at Tate Liverpool 2001 Franz Ackermann Inka Essenhigh Fabian Marcaccio Beatriz Milhazes Sarah Morris Monique Prieto Fiona Rae David Reed

Tate Liverpool + RIBA North 6 Apr – 24 Jun 2001 Free Exhibition

British Painting in the Eighteenth Century

British Painting in the Eighteenth Century: past Tate Britain exhibition

Tate Britain 15–25 Aug 1957 Free Exhibition

Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity

Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity: Tate Britain

Tate Britain 26 May – 18 Sep 2005 Free Close

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