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What Is Painting?

When we talk about art, many people’s minds will jump first to paintings. Paintings are some of the most well-known, highest valued, and recognizable artworks in existence.

But as art has moved into mixed media and digital art, the definition of what a painting is has become blurred.

Painting is defined as the process of applying paint, or another medium, to a solid surface – usually a canvas. Paints or other forms of color are commonly applied to using a paintbrush.

However, artists do use different tools such as sponges, spray paint, or even knives. In the art world, the term “painting” is used to describe both the act of painting and the resulting artwork created by the action. An artist can both be painting as action and create an object known as a painting.

Painting Definition

Painting is the act or process of using paint. The paint can create an artwork known as a painting, or it can be used more practically as a protective coating or form of decoration. Paintings are a form of visual art that captures the expression of ideas and emotions on a two-dimensional surface. Artists use the elements of shape, colors, line, tones, and textures in unique ways to produce paintings that convey sensations of movement, volume, space, and light – traditionally on a flat surface.

A painting can represent a natural scene or object, describe a narrative, or be wholly abstract.

The Origin of Painting

Paintings are one of the oldest known forms of visual expression. The oldest paintings are thought to be approximately 40,000 years old. Some of the oldest paintings from the Neolithic period are those found in caves.

Prehistoric cave paintings have been found in western Europe and Indonesia. However, painting has been a part of history and culture across all countries in the world.

The original cave paintings were rudimentary with just a few colored pigments available to the original artists. These first cave paintings are thought to be more instructional and created for the purpose of storytelling.

Over time the tools and mediums available to artists became more advanced, and paintings moved off cave walls and onto paper, canvas, ceramics, and wood.

The subject matter of paintings expanded and these artworks became primarily decorative. Paintings could then be maintained, collected, and displayed for wider enjoyment.

Painting Techniques

Painting has evolved over many centuries to encompass a wide range of styles and techniques. Some of these painting techniques are traditional, others unconventional or innovative.

Painting techniques are usually characterized not by the materials used, but by the method that the paints are applied. So although many techniques or styles are named by material, what really defines the style of a painting is the length and direction of strokes and the mixing of colors.

Many modern and contemporary paintings may also use multiple techniques and mediums within one artwork. For example, the painting “Flowers on Black” by Angelo Accardi uses oil, acrylic, and ink.

The Common Painting Techniques Are:

  • acrylic painting

  • action painting

  • aerial perspective

  • anamorphosis

  • camaieu

  • casein painting

  • chiaroscuro

  • easel painting

  • divisionism

  • encaustic painting

  • foreshortening

  • fresco painting

  • graffiti

  • gouache

  • grisaille

  • impasto

  • miniature painting

  • mural

  • oil painting

  • panel painting

  • panorama

  • perspective

  • sand painting

  • scroll painting

  • sfumato

  • sgraffito

  • sotto in su

  • tachism

  • tempera painting

  • tenebrism

  • tromp l’oeil

  • plein-air painting

Artists continue to innovate and create new painting styles. Paints and painterly techniques are used in mixed media and three-dimensional artworks that push the boundaries of what we traditionally define as a painting.

Most Famous Paintings

The art world is full of famous paintings all from different eras and in different styles. Many of the world’s most recognizable artworks are paintings, and many painters are household names. To name just ten of the most famous paintings only skims the surface of the vast collections of paintings in existence. However, here are ten of the most renowned paintings in history.

10 Most Famous Paintings

  • Mona Lisa, by Leonardo Da Vinci

  • Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Johannes Vermeer

  • The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli

  • The Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh

  • Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

  • The Kiss, by Gustav Klimt

  • The Arnolfini Portrait, by Jan van Eyck

  • The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch

  • A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, by Georges Seurat

  • Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, by Pablo Picasso

The definition of painting will continue to be redefined as artists continue to explore and innovate. Just as the perception of what art is has changed over time, so too has the concept of painting.

Even as they evolve, paintings continue to be a popular choice for art collectors and can be enjoyed in both gallery collections and private homes.



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