painting, direct application of pigment to a surface to produce by tones of color or of light and dark some representation or decorative arrangement of natural or imagined forms.

See also articles on individual painters, e.g., Rubens; countries, e.g., Dutch art; periods, e.g., Renaissance art and architecture; techniques, e.g., encaustic.

Materials and Techniques

Painters use a number of materials to produce the effects they desire. These include the materials of the surface, or ground; the pigments employed; the binder, or medium, in which the color is mixed; and its diluting agent. Among the various media used by artists are fresco, watercolor, oil, distemper, gouache, tempera, and encaustic. In addition to these, painting properly embraces many other techniques ordinarily associated with drawing, a term that is often used to refer to the linear aspects of the same art.

If painting and drawing are not always clearly distinguishable from each other, both are to be distinguished from the print (or work of graphic art), in which the design is not produced directly but is transferred from another surface to that which it decorates. While the print may be one of many identical works, the painting or drawing is always unique. Painting has been freely combined with many other arts, including sculpture, architecture, and, in the modern era, photography.


In ancient Greece and medieval Europe most buildings and sculptures were painted; nearly all of the ancient decoration has been lost, but some works from Egypt have preserved their coloring and give us an insight into the importance such an art can assume. The art of painting in China was linked from the 1st cent. A.D. with the development of the Buddhist faith. Early Christian and then Byzantine artists established iconographic and stylistic prototypes in wall painting and manuscript illumination that remained the basis for Christian art (see iconography).

Highly spiritualized in concept, the medieval painting tradition gave way to a more worldly orientation with the development of Renaissance art. The murals of Giotto became a vehicle for the expression of new and living ideas and sentiments. At the height of the Renaissance a large proportion of the works were decorations of walls and altarpieces, which were necessarily conceived in terms of their part in a larger decorative whole and their appeal for a large public. The greatest masterpieces of Raphael and Michelangelo and of the Florentine masters are generally public works of this character. The same period also saw the rise of the separate easel painting and the first use of oil on canvas. Simultaneously are found the beginnings of genre and other secular themes and the elaboration of portraiture.

Basing their art on the technical contributions of the Renaissance, e.g., the study of perspective and anatomy, the baroque masters added a virtuosity of execution and a style of unparalleled drama. From the age of the rococo, painting tended in the direction of greater intimacy. It is noteworthy, for example, that many of the masterpieces of the 19th cent., and particularly of impressionism, are small easel paintings suitable for the private home. The same period saw the rise of the large public gallery with both temporary and permanent exhibitions, an institution greatly expanded in the 20th cent.

A reawakened interest in mural painting and the contributions of painting to such arts as the motion picture and video have led some to believe that a return to a greater emphasis on the public functions of the art is taking place. Such a view can find support in the notable influence of abstract painting in the fields of industrial and architectural design. This art also continues to enjoy undiminished popularity in the home and gallery. Painting has had a long and glorious world history as an independent art. From Giotto to Picasso and from Ma Yüan to Hokusai, painting has never ceased to produce great exponents who have expressed not merely the taste but the aspirations, the concepts of space, form, and color, and the philosophy of their respective periods.


See M. Levey, A Concise History of Painting (1962); R. Mayer, Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques (3d ed. 1970); W. Slatkin et al., Art Through History (1986); G. F. Brommer and N. Kinne, Exploring Painting (1988); H. Hensche, The Art of Seeing and Painting (1988).

Painting made with a pigment ground in gum, usually gum arabic, and applied with brush and water to a surface, usually paper. The pigment is ordinarily transparent but can be made opaque by mixing with a whiting to produce gouache. Transparent watercolour allows for freshness and luminosity. Whereas oil paintings achieve their effects by a building up of colour, watercolours rely on what is left out, with empty, unpainted spaces being an integral part of the work.

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Painting applied to and made integral with the surface of a wall or ceiling. Its roots can be found in the universal desire that led prehistoric peoples to create cave paintings—the desire to decorate their surroundings and express their ideas and beliefs. The Romans produced large numbers of murals in Pompeii and Ostia, but mural painting (not synonymous with fresco) reached its highest degree of creative achievement in Europe with the work of such Renaissance masters as Masaccio, Fra Angelico, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. In the 20th century, the mural was embraced by artists of the Cubist and Fauve movements in Paris, revolutionary painters in Mexico (e.g., Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros), and Depression-era artists under the sponsorship of the U.S. government (e.g., Ben Shahn, Thomas Hart Benton).

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Painting executed with ground pigment mixed with a water-soluble material, such as egg yolk, gum, or wax. The special ground for tempera painting is a rigid wood panel coated with thin layers of gesso, a preparation usually made of plaster of Paris and glue. Tempera paint is resistant to water and allows overpainting with more colour; the thin, transparent layers of paint produce a clear, luminous effect. The exclusive medium for panel painting in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, it was largely superseded in the 15th century by oil paint.

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Depiction of inanimate objects for the sake of their qualities of form, colour, texture, composition, and sometimes allegorical or symbolical significance. Still lifes were painted in ancient Greece and Rome. In the Middle Ages they occur in the borders of illuminated manuscripts. The modern still life emerged as an independent genre in the Renaissance. Netherlandish still lifes often depicted skulls, candles, and hourglasses as allegories of mortality, or flowers and fruits to symbolize nature's cycle. Several factors contributed to the rise of still life in the 16th–17th century: an interest in realistic representation, the rise of a wealthy middle class that wanted artworks to decorate its homes, and increased demand for paintings of secular subjects other than portraits in the wake of the Reformation. Dutch and Flemish painters were the masters of still life in the 17th century. From the 18th century until the rise of nonobjective painting after World War II, France was the centre of still-life painting.

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Type of art practiced among the Navajo and Pueblo Indians and among Tibetan Buddhists. Sandpaintings are stylized, symbolic pictures (in Tibet, mandalas) prepared by trickling small quantities of crushed, coloured sandstone, charcoal, or pollen on a background of clean smoothed sand. The pictures may include representations of deities, cosmic worlds, animals, lightning, rainbows, plants, and other symbols described in chants that accompany various religious and healing rites.

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Art consisting of representational, imaginative, or abstract designs produced by application of coloured paints to a two-dimensional, prepared, flat surface. The elements of design (i.e., line, colour, tone, texture) are used in various ways to produce sensations of volume, space, movement, and light. The range of media (e.g., tempera, fresco, oil, watercolour, ink, gouache, encaustic, casein) and the choice of a particular form (e.g., mural, easel, panel, miniature, illuminated manuscript, scroll, screen, fan) combine to realize a unique visual image. Painting as an art form dates back to prehistoric cave paintings. The early cultural traditions of tribes, religions, guilds, royal courts, and states controlled the craft, form, imagery, and subject matter of painting and determined its function (e.g., ritualistic, devotional, decorative). Painters were considered skilled artisans rather than creative artists until eventually, in East Asia and Renaissance Europe, the fine artist emerged with the social status of a scholar and courtier. Fine artists signed their work and decided its design and often its subject and imagery. Over time painters have increasingly gained the freedom to invent their own visual language and to experiment with new forms and unconventional materials and techniques. In the early 20th century painters began to experiment with nonrepresentational art in which formal qualities such as line, colour, and form were explored rather than subject matter. Throughout the century styles vacillated between representational and nonrepresentational painting. In the late 20th century some critics forecast the “death of painting” in the face of new media such as video and intallation art, yet talented new artists repeatedly brought painting back to the centre of artistic production.

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Painting in oil colours, a medium consisting of pigments suspended in drying oils. Oil paint enables both fusion of tones and crisp effects and is unsurpassed for textural variation. The standard consistency of oil paint is a smooth, buttery paste. It is applied with brushes or a thin palette knife, usually onto a stretched linen canvas. Finished oil paintings are often coated with varnish. Oil as a painting medium is recorded as early as the 11th century, though the practice of easel painting with oil colours stems directly from 15th-century techniques of painting with tempera (see tempera painting). In the 16th century oil colour emerged as the basic painting material in Venice; it has been the most widespread medium for easel paintings ever since.

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Small, detailed painting, usually a portrait, executed in watercolour on vellum (parchment), prepared card, copper, or ivory that can be held in the hand or worn as a piece of jewelry. The name derives from the minium, or red lead, used to emphasize initial letters in medieval illuminated manuscripts. Combining the traditions of illumination and the Renaissance medal, it flourished from the early 16th to the mid-19th century. The earliest datable examples were painted in France by Jean Clouet the Younger at the court of Francis I; in England H. Holbein the Younger produced masterpieces in miniature under Henry VIII and inspired a long tradition of the practice, known as “limning.” Nicholas Hilliard served as miniature painter to Elizabeth I for more than 30 years. In the 17th–18th centuries, painting in enamel on metal became popular in France. In Italy Rosalba Carriera introduced the use of ivory (circa 1700) as a luminous surface for transparent pigments, stimulating a great revival of the medium in the late 18th century. By the mid-19th century miniature paintings were regarded as luxury items and rendered obsolete by the new medium of photography.

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Painting of scenes from everyday life, of ordinary people at work or play, depicted in a realistic manner. In the 18th century, the term was used derogatorily to describe painters specializing in one type of picture, such as flowers, animals, or middle-class life. By the mid-19th century it was being used more approvingly, and it is still popularly used to describe works by 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painters such as Jan Steen, Gerard Terborch, Adriaen van Ostade, and Johannes Vermeer, and later masters such as J.-B.-S. Chardin in France, Pietro Longhi in Italy, and George Caleb Bingham in the U.S.

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Method of wall painting in which water-based pigments are applied to wet, freshly laid lime plaster. The dry-powder colours, when mixed with water, penetrate the surface and become a permanent part of the wall. This technique is also known as buon fresco, or “true fresco,” to distinguish it from fresco secco, or “dry fresco” (painting on dry plaster). Early Minoan, Greek, and Roman wall paintings were frescoes. The Italian Renaissance was the greatest period of fresco painting, as seen in the works of Cimabue, Giotto, Masaccio, Fra Angelico, Correggio, and others. Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel and Raphael's in the Vatican are the most famous of all. By the 18th century, fresco had been largely replaced by oil painting. In the early 20th century it was revived by Diego Rivera and others, often as a medium for political art. Fresco painting is also found in China and India.

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Tapa wall drapery painted with animal clan emblems, from the Teluk Jos Sudarso (Humboldt Bay) area, elipsis

Abstract and figurative designs applied to nonwoven fabric made from bark. Also called tapa, the pieces are made by scratching or painting the designs. The most popular material is the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree. The bark is stripped off, soaked, and beaten until it is thin. Today hand-painted bark cloth is made in northern Australia, New Guinea, and parts of Melanesia. Styles and imagery vary by location, from naturalistic and stylized representations of human and animal forms to mythical beings, spirals, circles, and abstract motifs.

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Painting executed in the medium of acrylic resins—synthetic resins that dry rapidly, are water-soluble, and serve as a vehicle for any pigment. Its effects may range from the transparent brilliance of watercolour to the density of oil paint. Acrylics are less affected by heat and deterioration than oils. They were first used by artists in the 1940s but became popular with Pop artists when they were produced commercially in the 1960s.

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Italian Pittura Metafisica

Style of painting that flourished circa 1910–20 in the works of the Italian painters Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà (1881–1966). The movement began with Chirico, whose dreamlike works with sharp contrasts of light and shadow often had a vaguely threatening, mysterious quality. Chirico, his younger brother Alberto Savinio, and Carrà formally established the school and its principles in 1917. Their representational but bizarre and incongruous imagery produces disquieting effects and had a strong influence on Surrealism in the 1920s.

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