Oil painting terms can be embarrassing.
I was standing at the front of a queue in a packed art shop in London. There were 15+ people behind me, and I felt more embarrassed than I could remember.
I had been researching new art materials and product releases, and I’d spotted something new out, and I was convinced the store stocked it.
After waiting for what seemed like days, I was at the end of the queue and overconfidently asked: “Umm…do you stock alkalid paint?”
It seemed like the shop suddenly fell silent…
Then the owner stepped in and said,
“Alka- what? Sorry, we don’t stock that”
Me: “You know, the quick-drying oil paint.”
Owner: “Oh Alkyd (Pronounced al-kid) we have that in stock.”
My cheeks started burning.
Honestly, if you’ve ever been corrected in front of an audience, you know how terrible it feels.
Even now, when I work with Alkyd paints, a little piece inside of me is physically wincing.
Now it seems trivial, but at the time I felt mortified. One little word or turn of phrase out can make a big difference.
An Italian Tale
So this is a practical guide to understanding oil painting terms, products, and more importantly, pronunciation!
Many oil painting terms stem from Latin roots, so mispronunciations (especially with me) are commonplace.
When I was studying in Italy, Vanessa was trying to order a liqueur after we’d had a fantastic meal in the Tuscan hills.
After a prolonged exchange with the waiter, he asked if should he call an Ambulance.
What was wrong?
What had she asked him?
He kept saying, “There was something wrong with her heart?”
We were confused, all we wanted was a drink!
The offending pronunciation was a simple misunderstanding.
- Liquore (Pronounced: lee/KWOH/reh) – liqueur
- Cuore (Pronounced: KWOH / reh) – heart
We never got that drink, but hopefully, this guide will help you feel confident when choosing materials and discussing the techniques.
Glossary of Oil painting terms
Alkyd mediums – (Pronounced: al-kid) Alkyd is a synthetic resin that can be added to oil paint to speed up the drying time of the paints. They are usually soy-based oils that have been polmerized by heat.
You can buy an alkyd-based medium that you can mix in with your oils, the most commonly available is Liquin by Winsor & Newton, Gamblin also produces an alkyd medium called Galkyd.
Alkyd Paints – these paints are commonly known as fast drying oil colour and can be handy if you work quickly or have a tight deadline for a client! Different brands have different names e.g: Winsor & Newton have Griffin Alkyd.
Pro tip: Alkyd oil paints have been developed more for the hobby market so the quality of the pigments used can often be less intense than standard artist-quality paints. Gamblin has produced a lovely paint called ‘fast matte.’ It is both fast drying, artist quality and dries with a matte finish. This is very handy if you are going to paint on top with standard oils because the matte surface gives you a ‘grab’ for the paint to form a strong bond.
(nerd alert – the Alkyd is called a resin because it dries by solvent evaporation, rather than oxidation (exposure to air) like an oil.
Alla Prima – (Pronounced: ah-luh pree-ma) this is an Italian phrase that describes a painting created entirely in one sitting, it translates as ‘at the first’. Usually, there isn’t any underpainting to the piece and is created in one go.
ASTM – a labelling on paint tubes that is an International Standard for testing and material qualities.
Binder – the substance mixed with the dry pigment which holds together (binds) the pigment colour and helps the paint to stick to the support. For oil paint, the binder is usually cold-pressed Linseed oil. (For egg tempera painting, the binder is an egg, yes, egg!)
Bloom – a dull, progressively opaque, white effect that can appear on varnished surfaces if the paintings are kept in damp conditions.
Brushwork – this describes the characteristic way that each artist paints. It is like your personal signature to your painting.
Campitura – An even, opaque, flat tone applied to the canvas by mixing coloured pigment with a white gesso primer layer to create a tinted coloured ground.
Chiaroscuro – (Pronounced: key-ARE-oh-SCURE-oh) an Italian word literally meaning “light-dark”. Most are usually used to describe a painting created with strong contrasts, such as Caravaggio.
Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, Oil on Canvas, 1768
Cold-pressed linseed oil – oil often used in the grinding process of oil paints, the oil is extracted from Flaxseed, without the use of heat. The process takes longer than extracting using heat but is a purer oil.
Colour Field Painting – a style of painting prominent from the 1950’s through the 1970’s, featuring large “fields” or areas of oil colour, meant to evoke an aesthetic or emotional response through the colour alone.
Copal – this is a natural resin, used in making varnishes and painting mediums.
Couche – a thin layer of medium or oil that you can paint thin glazes into whilst the medium is still wet, commonly called ‘laying down a couche’
Craquelure – (Pronounced: krak-loo r) this is the term used to describe the tiny cracks and fine lines covering the surface of old oil paintings. They are caused by the shrinking and movement of the ground and the oil paint surface.
Crazing – very fine surface cracks or lines that appear on the surface of a varnish film due to unequal drying times.
Dammar – a natural resin, used in making mediums and varnishes. Dammar can also be spelt Damar.
Dead colouring – a term used to describe the under-painting of a painting, when using a lean oil paint mix. The mix is usually diluted with turpentine or OMS which evaporates quickly leaving a matte appearance. It allows you to establish the tonal values using a thin application quickly.
Drier – a material that speeds up the drying time of the oil paint. Traditionally, driers were cobalt driers, but now they are often Alkyd resin dryers.
Dry Brush – an effect when you have very little moisture on your brush to apply the paint. When you use a dry brush you need more of a scrubbing motion and it leaves a broken colour effect.
Drying time – how long the paints take to dry. Different oil paints contain different quantities of oil binder, depending on how easily the raw ingredients ‘mix in’ with the oil. So some paints are fast dryers (such as Burnt umber) and others are slow drying (Ivory black).
Drying oils: oils such as Linseed oil, Walnut oil and Poppy oil that have the chemical properties of creating a solid, elastic surface when exposed to air (oxidization). Non-drying oils – unsuitable for oil painting are Olive oil and Almond oil.
Egg tempera painting – egg (either whole, yolk or white) can be used as a pigment binder. Tempera painting was very popular until the late fifteenth century.
Antony Williams, Antonia, Egg Tempera, 2001
Fat – this describes the oil content in paints, for example, Burnt umber has a ‘low fat’ oil content, so it is a fast drying oil paint because there is less oil in the paint mixture to oxidise and dry. Ivory black has a ‘high fat’ oil content so takes longer to dry.
Fat over lean – means that each succeeding layer of paint should have more ‘fat – oil’ than the preceding layer. If you are painting in an indirect method (working in layers rather than all in one go – alla prima) you need to adhere to this rule to prevent cracking.
Film – a fine layer of paint or varnish that has hardened. Too little binder in the paint can cause a ‘weak paint film’.
Flat colour – paint applied in a solid, flat colour, like the paint on your wall at home.
Fugitive pigment – a phrase used to describe a pigment’s impermanence and tendency to fade or change colour under the influence of natural effects such as sunlight, heat, water, etc.
Reynolds famously has many portraits that have lost the skin tones because he used Alizarin crimson which was a fugitive pigment, however, modern Permanent Alizarin crimson has a permanence A.
AA – Extremely Permanent
A – Permanent
B – Moderately Durable
C – Fugitive
Note: this should not be confused with Lightfastness which is how the pigment is affected by light alone, although often they tend to cross over.
Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Charles Coote, 1st Earl of Bellamont (1738-1800), in Robes of the Order of the Bath, 1773-1774
In this painting the face is strongly painted with vermillion red, the fugitive carmine used for the robes has now turned to pink
Gallery Tone – the yellowish colour of old paintings usually caused by the ageing of natural resins used in a painting or varnish.
Gesso – traditional oil gesso is a mixture of glue (usually rabbit skin) water, and chalk (calcium carbonate) used to create a flexible, yet absorbent surface for the oil paint to be applied onto.
Glass Muller – a glass muller is needed when grinding paint by hand and to coat the dry pigment in medium. The base of the muller has been sandblasted to form a slight roughness and is usually slightly curved. The surface you grind on to, usually glass, can often be slightly textured to help with the grinding process.
Gloss – the appearance in sheen of the paint or varnish. For example, Alizarin crimson has a glossy surface when dry.
Glazes – the term used for a thin, transparent layer of paint. Glazes are used on top of one another to build up depth and modify colours in a painting. A glaze must be completely dry before another is applied on top. Traditionally glazes were used on top of a black and white under-painting called a Grisaille, thin layers of colours were then applied once the initial form had been established. The best paints to use for glazes are pigments that have a translucent quality.
Grinding colours – a process of grinding dry pigment with a binder, usually mixed initially with a palette knife and then mulled down to a thinner, smoother consistency with a glass muller or marble slab.
Grisaille – (Pronounced: griz-zai) is a monochromatic oil painting often used in underpaintings or as a black & white portrait painting technique.
Ground – a thin layer of paint, applied to a support to make it ready for painting, it can be white, but I prefer to use a coloured ground.
Half paste – a semi-translucent coat of paint that allows the dry underpainting to appear as if through a mist. Sometimes called a Velatura.
Hue – labelling on a paint tube that denotes a combination of less expensive pigments that closely imitates the mass tone of a more expensive pigment, not to be confused with Hue when describing colours, as in the perceived colour of an object, the lemon has a yellow hue.
Impasto – the texture created in a painted surface by the movement of the brush. Impasto usually implies thick, heavy brushwork, but the term also refers to the crisp, delicate textures found in smoother paint surfaces.
Imprimatura – (Pronounced: im-pree-muh-tur-uh) an initial stain of oil colour painted on a white ground which provides you with a transparent toned ground. It is similar to a coloured ground but more transparent. It comes from the Italian for ‘first paint layer’. Often, the initial stain of colour painted on a ground is left visible in areas of the finished painting.
Rubens, Singer Sargent & Anders Zorn used this technique in their paintings.
Inpainting – a technique commonly used by conservators to unify a painting that has suffered paint loss and refers to paint applied over damaged areas only.
Laying out – refers to either ‘laying out your colours’ on to palette (setting the paint out) or your composition, traditionally done with cut-out drawings on paper.
Lean – a term used to describe the low oil content in paints and mediums. Thinning with solvent results in a lower oil content to the paint mix, therefore, a leaner mix.
Lean paint – a paint layer or paint that has a reduced oil (fat) content.
Lightfastness – is the chemical stability of the pigment under long exposure to light. Artist quality paints are often rated according to the Blue Wool Scale (U.K) or American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM)
Lightfastness is especially important in painting because the length of time a pigment retains its original colour saturation and value determines the life expectancy of the work of art.
Note: this should not be confused with Permanence which refers to the chemical stability of the pigment in relation to any chemical or environmental factor, including light, heat, water, acids, alkalis, or mould. For example, the pigment Ultramarine blue is extremely lightfast, but it will fade if brushed with a dilute acid.
I – Excellent lightfastness
II – Very good lightfastness
III – Fair lightfastness
Lining – a conservation term for placing a new canvas on the back of a deteriorating original oil painting.
Litharge – a powdered form of lead used in making black oil (used as a basis for various Old Master mediums)
Mahl stick – (Pronounced: mar-hl) a wooden stick used to lean on when painting fine details. It has a long handle with a pad at one end, you rest this end on a dry area of the canvas to help steady your painting arm when painting a detailed, controlled part. You can make your own by tightly wrapping cotton wool in a ball around the end of a length of wooden dowel. Cover the cotton wool with a piece of fabric or chamois and you will be Old Master a go-go!
Mass Tone – the undiluted colour of a pigment or paint when it’s in a large blob. Also known as mass colour.
Medium – the mixture you add to your paint to dilute it, or to change consistency, drying time & working properties.
Monochrome – a painting created in a range of tints and tones of a single colour.
Natural varnish: tree resins (Mastic and Dammar), fossil resins (Copal and Amber), and insect resin secretions (Shellac).
Oiling out – this is where you paint a very thin coat of medium over the painting to bring the colours back to how they looked when you first painted them.
Depending on the absorbency of your canvas, the oil can soak into the canvas, leaving the paint looking dull. This is called ‘sinking-in’. Oiling out can blend wet layers into the layer below but is often best used when you’ve had a bit of practice with oils.
It is most notable in dark areas of painting, and oiling out enables you to judge the colours as they were when you first painted them. I don’t usually recommend it for absolute beginners as you can get into a mess quite quickly and it can create issues with fat-over-lean principles. However, for more advanced painters, especially realist painters, it can be an invaluable technique to use.
Paint body – description of the consistency of the paint, a thicker paint is described as having “a lot of body”. Just the same as Golden paints describe their thicker acrylics as ‘heavy body’.
Painting Knives – similar to Palette knives, but used more for applying paint directly to the canvas rather than mixing colours. See: Beginners Palette knife video tutorial.
Plein air – (Pronounced: plen-air) a painting created outside rather than in a studio. The term comes from the French ‘en plein air’ meaning ‘in the open air’.
Pigment – pigment is the substance or powder that makes up the colour of paint. Pigments are either organic (carbon-based) or inorganic (mineral-based).
Priming – the application of sizes and/or grounds to a support to prepare the painting’s surface, modify its absorbency, texture and colour before you start painting.
Refined Linseed Oil – made from the seeds of the flax plant. It adds gloss and transparency to paints and is available in several forms. It dries thoroughly, making it ideal for underpainting and initial layers in a painting. Refined linseed oil is a popular, all-purpose, pale to light yellow oil which dries within three to five days.
Retouching – the work done by a restorer to replace areas of loss or damage in a painting.
Scumble – a very thin layer of opaque or semi-opaque paint that partially hides the under-layer. Scumbling is the painting technique where a thin or broken layer of colour is brushed over another so that patches of the colour beneath show through. It can be done with a dry brush, or by removing bits of paint with a cloth.
Sfumato – (Pronounced: sfoo-mah-toe) from the Italian word for “smoke.” Sfumato is a painting technique in thin glazes to achieve a hazy, cloudy atmosphere, often representing objects or landscapes that are perceived as distant from the picture plane.
Sight-size – a painting technique where the key idea is that your eye needs to see both the canvas and the subject in one glance, so they both appear the same size. This makes it easier to flick your eyes between the subject and your painting to judge shape, proportions and colours. The artist viewing position is roughly 6 – 12 feet away from the setup, so you step forward to make a mark and then step back to observe your painting again. This results in a more painterly, naturalistic finish.
Sight size set up for cast drawing
Sinking in – this happens when the underlying layer of paint absorbs the paint medium, this could be due to a too-absorbent or unevenly applied absorbent ground. The resulting appearance is a visually inconsistent surface, with some parts shiny and some matte.
Size – a glue applied to fabric (canvas) or paper before priming to seal and protect it from the oil in the ground and paint. It’s also used to seal wood panels before painting.
Acrylic Size is available, which is water-based, odourless, archival and comes premixed. Animal lovers, avert your eyes!!! Traditionally artists used rabbit skin glue, be warned if you want to give this a go as we did at art college; it is very, very, smelly, as to apply it, you have to warm it up.
Support – the actual material or surface on which a painting is created, for example, paper, canvas, or panel.
Tint – A colour that has white added to it.
Turpentine (spirits) – the traditional solvent or thinner for a drying oil (such as Linseed oil) distilled from the resin from certain trees, e.g. the European larch, white fir, and American longleaf pine. It is used to ‘cut through’ the oil in oil paints, however, due to this ability, it has a strong solvent smell so it is best used in a well-ventilated area. Alternatively, I would suggest using an Odorless Mineral Spirit such as Gamsol, a safe solvent that allows oil painters to use most traditional painting techniques without compromising on the vapours.
Underpainting – the initial stage or first layer of an oil painting commonly executed using a monochrome or dead colour as a base for the composition.
Value – the lightness or darkness of a colour, rather than the actual colour.
Varnish – a final layer that can be applied to a finished painting. A varnish protects a painting from environmental dirt and dust and is removable for cleaning and conservation purposes.
Velatura – (Pronounced: vella-tora) essentially glazing with opaque paint. A method of adjusting colours is applying semi-opaque or opaque layers of paint over dry paint. It’s a bit like a mix between a scumble and a glaze.
Verdaccio – (Pronounced: ver-dar-cheo) is an Italian oil painting term used to describe a muted earth green used to create a complete monochromatic underpainting. Often used as a nice base to apply warm, pinker tones on top of portraits.
Yellowing – this effect on oil paintings is usually caused by one of three reasons: excessive use of linseed oil medium; applying any of the varnishes that are prone to yellow with age; or, most often – an accumulation of dirt embedded into the varnish.
Are there any oil terms you’re still unsure of?
Add them to the comments below, and I’ll add them to the glossary.
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Acrylic painting Glossary