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Art Terms

All of the terms used in art can make the whole subject very confusing.  With a little knowledge, your experience with art can be more enjoyable.  Bookmark this page and come back weekly to learn a new term.


Below is a sampling of art terms featured in "Fine Print Terms" by Henry S.H. Young, now available for purchase, in a convenient pocket size to take to museums, galleries, for students and private collectors.  Never be caught off guard again.  Click here to purchase yours today!


Dictionary of Art Terms:


A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z 


Acid Bath: 

In the etching process, acid or acid mixtures in which a plate is immersed to be bitten or etched (usually a Nitric Acid or Dutch mordant mixture).  A tray containing acid and water in which the copper plate is immersed to be bitten.  See Bite.



Said of paper with a 7 pH (Ideal or balanced); above 8.5 pH or below 6.5 pH is not considered acid-free.  Observation of acid in paper is best described with this illustration:  If you put a newspaper out in the sunlight, it quickly turns brown.  The brown created by exposure to the sun in newsprint clearly illustrates the acid content in the paper.



A plastic sheet noted for its transparency, lightweight, weather resistance, color fastness and rigidity.  Acrylics are important in art preservation because of their stability, or resistance to chemical change over time, a characteristic not common to all plastics.  Some common trade names for the sheet form are: Perspex, Lucite and PlexiGlas.


The backing sheet used by contemporary artist Jamali for his "fresco" paintings. 


The material for casting an acrylic sculpture.  The method of casting sculptures using acrylic was innovated and developed by Frederick Hart in conjunction with Dupont Chemicals.  The acrylic used in casting for sculptures by Frederick Hart and Michael Wilkinson is imbedded with UV inhibitors to protect the sculpture from turning yellow with the sunlight.  Common trade names for castable acrylic are Lucite and Lexan.


A plastic sheet now used to train budding artists how to create an etching plate.  The use of the Acrylic sheet in place of a copper plate is an inexpensive way to practice the drypoint technique and the technique to render various line intensities on a single plate surface.



On copper.



A metal used in hand printed lithography as an alternative to the expensive lithographic Bavarian stone plate.



Sold by.



An intaglio printing process in which tones can be etched, rather than just lines, and rich darks as well as transparent tints can be produced; often resembles a wash drawing or watercolor rendering. 


Manuel Robbe innovated the full color inking process (a painterly application of numerous printers' inks onto the printing the completely aquatinted plate) with his aquatint etchings.  He was able to create moods and different day or night light scenarios by changing the colors used to color the plate.


Artist’s Proof: 

Traditionally, one of the first proofs from a limited edition of prints.  These proofs traditionally were imperfect and usually pulled from the press during the developmental inspection stages. Usually for the artist’s own use, marked as an artist’s proof (A.P.) and either unnumbered or more commonly found today, numbered (i.e.: A.P. 1/10).


Today, it indicates a portion of the entire edition size and available for sale.  Usually indicates 10 percent of the run.  The A.P.’s may draw a premium price because of the smaller edition size designation; however, it is only a “perceived value.”  They may be designated E.A. (Épreuve d’Artiste) instead of A.P. or in addition to the A.P.  E.A.’s normally were to indicate the artist proof impressions sold in Europe and Asia. 



A general term applied to any artistic production.



In etching, a liquid used on plates as a soft ground and on the backs of plates to protect them from the mordant or acid.  In lithography, used to chemically process the drawing.


Backing Up: 

In printing, a term meaning to print on both sides of a sheet of paper, as the pages of a book.  The “Latin Text” wood cut impressions of Albrecht Durer are woodcuts with Latin text printed on the back or verso.



Light coming from behind a subject.



On a printing press, the surface that establishes the maximum usable paper sheet size.



In etching and engraving, to remove metal from the plate via acid or burin creating a line or surface that will hold ink.



The felt or foam rubber material used between the paper and the roller on an etching or printing press.


Block Print: 

A print on paper or textile, each color requiring a separate block; the hand-carved wood or linoleum block may be stamped (printed) by hand or in a block printing press.  In the case of painter and printmaker, Angel Botello, the block was inked with many colors at one time.  The impression is printed with the pressure of a hand roller on the back of the paper laid onto the linocut plate. 


Picasso’s innovation to the linocut technique was the use of a single plate or linoleum block to print all the colors needed in the print.  After printing one color, the plate is cut away the original block for the next color printing.  This enables the artist to have “perfect registration” or perfect alignment for the printing of numerous colors.


Blotting Paper: 

An absorbent paper used to dry printed material.


Bordering Wax: 

Wax used around the edges of a large plate as a molded border so that the plate can be etched without immersion; also called walling wax.



A hand roller designed for inking printing blocks or plates; also used by artists in painting or inking large areas.  Spanish artist Angel Botello used the brayer to press the paper to the prepared inked linocut block.



The expansion and contraction, according to weather conditions, of papers and canvas.



A rough edge left on an incised line into a copper or zinc plate.  In dry point, the steel point stylist or diamond tip stylist is used to cut or incise a line into a plate.  The stylist, like a plow pulled through a dirt field, pushes metal out of the furrow to the either edge of the incised line.  Ink is applied to the plate and is daubed into the furrows.  Ink holds onto the burr’s surface.  Ink on the burr prints a “silvery,” “gray” or “velvet-like” edge on the side of the etched line.  Burr tends to only last for up to 10 impressions and the pressure of the press on the plate eventually dissolves and wears the burr away.  Collecting the impression with burr is like a rare proof and is a very desirable, collectable print or impression.


Cancellation Proof: 

A proof made from a cancelled plate or stone to show that no more prints can be pulled; usually with a large “X” drawn on the plate before the final proof.


Camera obscura

A portable box with an aperture, lens, and viewing screen. Light enters the box only through an aperture or tiny hole in one wall. A lens in this opening helps focus the light coming in from the outside. A small, upside-down, and reversed image of a view outside the box is projected on the opposite wall from the pinpoint light source. By placing a small mirror at a 45° angle on this wall, the reflected image can be projected on a ground-glass drawing surface on the top of the box. Tracing this projection on drafting paper yields an accurate rendering of the view.

The term camera obscura comes from the Italian (dark chamber). This forerunner of the photographic camera was created in the seventeenth century as a drawing aid, although the principle behind the device has been known since the seventh century.



Pigment mixed with a casein binder, i.e., one made from milk proteins extracted from curd.  Casein is an excellent adhesive on its own, but, when used as a binder, has an agreeable consistency, is quick drying and the matte surface is durable enough to be left unprotected (like oil paint on the surface of a canvas).



The chief constituent of the cell walls of all plants.  Also, the chief constituent of many fibrous plant products, including paper and some cloth.



(Ke-ära-skooro, Italian, light/dark) The strong emphasis on the change from light to dark in drawing, painting, woodcut and etching.  Italian Master Painter Michelangelo da Caravaggio and Dutch Master Painter and printmaker Rembrandt van Rijn are both known for their dramatic use of strong contrasts of light and shade for the most dramatic impact.  Rembrandt’s multi-patterned cross hatching on his etching plates created outstanding changes from light to dark in his etchings.


Chine colle

The bonding of two papers.  Occasionally Japon paper was bonded to Arches or European paper.  James Abbott McNeill Whistler used this ancient Asian process for some of his lithographs.


The Chine colle process is used in the works of John Lennon to symbolize the unity of Yoko and John in his artwork.



Color lithography.





See Chiaroscuro.  Albrecht Dürer’s engravings from 1512 transitioned into a new style incorporating the technique of Clair-Obscur utilizing the colors white, black on grey with the light source coming from the ‘left,’ with only three exceptions.


Cleaning Agent

In printmaking, ammonia, whiting, salt and vinegar used to remove fingerprints from metal plates.


Cockle Finish

An irregular surface on paper (The natural bubbling or wrinkling of the paper surface created after the moisten paper dries at the conclusion of the printing process). 


Copper Plate: 

An engraving or etching plate made from copper.  Rembrandt used an alloy of copper and tin for his copper etching plates.  Because of the softness of the copper alloy (early bronze), the scholars and art historians suggested that the artist tended to produce or “pull” a smaller number of impressions from the plate, usually up to 250 impressions.  Today, the copper etching plates are much firmer and durable which allows from more impressions to be pulled over the lifetime of the plate.



A means of creating tonal gradation effect by repeated and parallel horizontal, vertical or diagonal lines.  Rembrandt van Rijn innovated and utilized this technique to produce Chiaroscuro (Light and Shadow) on his etchings.


Cum gratia et privilegio Sac(rae)/Caes(areae) Maj(estates): 

Copyrighted in Germany and Austria (before 1806).


Dabber or Dauber: 

A roll or pad of leather or cloth used to apply ink to a print plate or type.


Damping the Paper: 

Placing the paper in a tray of water for a period of time (depending on the type of paper), heating the paper to expand the pores, then putting it between two blotting papers to absorb the moisture before laying the paper on the (copper or zinc) plate for printing.  Wetting the paper allows printing from a metal plate without cutting the paper with (at) the edge of the plate.  The Russian contemporary artist and master printmaker Sergey Tyukanov suggests placing the printing paper in water for up to four days for the very best results.


Depose a la Bibliotheque Imperiale: 

Passed by the French Censor (1804 - 1814); impression occasionally deposited for legal purposes.


Depose a la Bibliotheque Nationale: 

Passed by the French Censor (1848 - 1852; 1870 - present)


Depose a la Bibliotheque Royale

Passed by the French Censor (1814 - 1848).


Diamond Point: 

A diamond tipped needle used to directly incise into a plate.  See Drypoint.


In art, the measures of spatial extent, in the order of height, width and length.  When measuring framed and unframed art, the order in which the size is recorded is height first and width second with the type of measurement designated.  (i.e.: Image Size: 24 x 36 inches)



An original work of art most frequently made with graphite, chalk, pastel, pen and ink, and sometimes oil on paper. 



In graphic art, a technique in which an etching needle scratches directly into the metal plate (like a plow through a field).  


The displaced metal or burr (material pushed to the side after the burin or plow creates the cut or furrow), is inked and printed producing a soft, silvery, velvety effect of line.  The number of impressions which print with burr prints is usually up to 10 impressions or passes through the printing press.  The burr then wears away and the line prints sharp and clean.  An impression with burr is highly desirable and collectable.



An intaglio process of creating a design on the surface of a metal or other plate using a mordant (a waxy resistant ground) to block out the entire plate and with a steel tipped stylus or needle, the artist scratches through the mordant and exposes the plate so acid is allowed to bite (eat away) or cut lines into the plate.


Etching ground

A thin, usually darkened (so the artist can see if the plate is properly coated) acid-resisting coat applied to a plate, preventing the acid to effect the plate.  The design is incised through the mordant or ground exposing the plate.


James Abbott McNeill Whistler's etching tool, “The Whistler”



An intaglio print where even furrowed line is cut into a burin (a V-shaped steel shaft tool with a wooden handle).  Rembrandt didn't do engravings, however, he utilized engraving as a way to enhance or supplement his etchings.


Engraver's Charcoal: 

Charcoal in block form, used to polish plates in graphics.


Excusum Londini: 

Published in London (about 1600 - 1800).



In etching, to stir or move around the bubbles of the acid with a feather, brush or pipe cleaner.



(Latin. fecit, 'made') An abbreviation found in prints, indicating that the name it follows is that of the etcher or engraver.  also __f.,  __fe., __fec.


Felt Side: 

The smoother side of paper, the top side of paper.


Foul Bite: 

In etching, the accidental biting of an area of the plate that is not completely covered with ground, causing unplanned inking or printed patterns in the print.



The first color engravings for printing in magazines invented by avid Japanese print collector, Charles Gilot in 1879.  It was a process to faithfully reproduce a drawing or sketches for publication.  It involved both making of color separations for each color to be printed prepared by a highly skilled engraver and the plates were to be prepared by a photographer.  This process was, at the time, revolutionary and dramatically changed the course of color printing.



A technique in which gold wire is used to draw on specially prepared paper.  See Silverpoint.



A type of paint consisting of pigment, a binding agent (usually gum arabic), and sometimes added inert material, designed to be used in an opaque method.  It also refers to paintings that use this opaque method.  The name derives from the Italian guazzo, and is also referred to as opaque watercolor or bodycolor. 


Gouache differs from watercolor in that the particles are larger, the ratio of pigment to water is much higher, and an additional, inert, white pigment such as chalk is also present.  This makes gouache heavier and more opaque, with greater reflective qualities.  The usual gouache painting displays a light-reflecting brilliance quite different from the luminosity of transparent watercolors.



A kind of chisel-like tool used to gouge into wood or linoleum.


Grave par (name): 

Etched or engraved by.


Grease Pencil

A lithographic pencil or Touché; a pencil with a waxy, grease-like base.  It is used to mark the stone where the artist wants the ink to appear on the paper or printed surface.






Handmade paper; the pattern is more random, therefore, will not tear as easily as mold-made paper.


Hydrochloric Acid: 

In etching, a colorless, acid best used on zinc plates.



Design or lettering cut or bitten below the surface of the plate.  Ink is forced into the depressions and the surface of the plate is wiped clean (as in etching, drypoint, aquatint and engraving) leaving only the ink in the depressions or the image below the surface of the plate.  The plate is laid onto a printing press and the plate is covered with a damp sheet of paper and printed under extreme pressure between blankets and roller.  The print is then hung up to dry and the process begins again for the next print.



Paint applied in very heavy layers or strokes.  Any thickness or roughness of paint or deep brush strokes as distinguished from a flat, smooth surface.


Japan Paper/Japon Paper: 

Paper made with an irregular mottled surface.  Usually a wove paper made from the inner bark or pith fibers of Gampi, Mitsumata and Mulberry initially made only in Japan.  These were some of the types of papers first used by Master Etcher Rembrandt van Rijn for printing his etchings in the 17th Century. 


The 19th Century Master printmaker James Abbott McNeill Whistler also liked to use Japanese papers for his etchings.  Today, Japanese papers are still used by artists internationally.  For years Japon paper symbolized quality in papermaking.



The influence of Japanese art and decoration, especially in France from 1854 to 1910; a number of French/European based artists were influenced by the simplicity of Asian design.  A list of the artists include Monet, Whistler, Tissot, Degas, Bracquemond, Pissarro, Lautrec, Menpes, Gauguin, Renoir, Ibels, Somm, Buhot, Munch, Grasset, Steinlen, Vuillard, Cassatt, Rivière, Bonnard, Redon and Jacquemart.



Japanese for embossed print.  Also called Kimekomi.


Key Block: 

In color relief printing, a block containing the complete image and used to position partial images on other blocks for each individual color.


Lift-Ground Etching: 

Using aquatint as a base, positive images of lines or brush strokes are etched into the plate, which is then inked with a lift-ground solution (e.g. 50% saturated sugar dissolved in 50% India ink); also called sugar bite.


Light and Dark: 

Having to do with values of color and grays.


Light and Shadow: 

The change from pronounced light to pronounced dark.  See Chiaroscuro.


Limited Edition

A limited number of prints, determined by the artist or artist's agent or publisher, that are pulled from a plate or plates and numbered.  The plate is usually cancelled, effaced or destroyed.



A linoleum cut.  A sheet of linoleum is glued to a wooden board.  The artist gouges what he doesn't want to print leaving the ridges that will print the image he has designed.



A durable material used for linoleum cuts.  Also a floor covering material.


Linoleum block

A piece of wood with battleship linoleum mounted to the surface, which is cut or gouged by the artist and inked to print and make a block print called linoleum cut or linocut.  Pablo Picasso was considered a “master” of the media of linocut.  His innovation was the technique of cutting away the linoleum block with each color printing.  The registration was perfect because the same block was used for multiple color printings.



The oldest method of printing art utilizing Barvarian limestone plates.  Lithography works on the principal that oil and water do not mix.  The limestone plate is prepared by drawing an image with a grease pencil or touché onto the surface of the stone.  It is sealed onto the stone surface with acids.  The plate is then wet with water, which is repelled by the grease mark drawn on the stone surface.  Because Barvarian limestone holds water well, the rest of the plate is coated with a film of water.  The plate is now prepared.  Ink is now rolled onto the plate and because the ink is oil based, it is repelled by the water yet adheres to the grease mark or design on the plate.  The plate is now ready to print.


The paper is made wet with water, heated to expand the pores and laid over the plate to be run through the printing press.  The inked image has now transferred from the plate to the paper.  The paper is hung up to dry and the lithographic process is completed.


Today lithography is still occasionally done with limestone, however, more likely on less expensive Zinc plates.



The particular material with witch a work of art is executed utilizing oil paint, water colors, chalks, pen and ink, pastel, acrylic paint, etc.  It may also be the liquid in which powdered pigments are ground and combined to make paint.  Also the liquid used to render paint more fluid and workable.



(Italian, "halftone") A relief print made from a metal plate.  A “rocker” is used to roughen the entire surface of the plate until the plate would print completely black.  The areas that you want to show lighter is burnished and smoothed below the printing surface.  Halftones are created by removing or burnishing (flattening) part of the roughen surface of the plate.  The result is a subtly toned printed image.



Japanese “rice” paper used during the lifetime of Rembrandt van Rijn.  The paper, imported from Japan in the 17th century, was made from a plant only available in Asia and preferred by artists as a warm and luxurious printing medium.


Mixed Media

Two or more combined media used in one image or print.  (i.e.: Mezzotint with etching and engraving or Collage with oil paint; or in the case of many Joan Miro etchings that included the addition of Aquatint and Carborundum).



A process in which a one-of-a-kind original print is made by painting on the surface of a smooth plate or glass or acrylic, and pulling a single print or image from the plate before the ink is dry.

Nacre (Inomachi):  Japanese handmade paper of 100% Kozo fiber.  Expensive, durable and beautiful, and excellent paper for all woodcut and lithography.  (Some have been serigraphed or silk screened with color inks).  Usually not recommended for close registration of color work.



A term borrowed from the French which refers to the entire body of an artist's work.


Old Master: 

A popular term for any of the great artists of the Renaissance and for any of their works.  Because the term is derived form the masters of guilds, it is not strictly applicable to painters of the nineteen century.  Today the term is used loosely for any master artist and their works.


Original Print: 

One for which the artist is responsible for making the image on the plate from which the print is to be taken.  Recently, the law declares it as a print from the direct hand of the artist. 


However, the artist rarely executes the actual printing process.  When he does not do the actual printing process, he will determine the size of the edition or run with the publisher or agent and will give his approval of a trial proof before the run can begin.  Most original prints are signed, numbered and the plates defaced or destroyed after the edition is printed or complete.  See also limited edition.



A smooth, lightly toned painting, drawing, printing and writing surface made by scraping, drying and stretching animal skins, sometimes imitated in paper.  Salvador Dali utilized lamb's skin parchment when creating his "Alchemie Suite" of mixed media works.  An example of the suite is in the permanent collection of the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.


Pelure Paper:

A very thin and strong paper used to print etchings by Seymour Haden and James McNeill Whistler

Printer’s Proof:  A print or impression that is exactly like the regular edition that is the property of the printer responsible for printing the edition.



Original works made by transferring ink from a matrix onto a piece of paper.  It is commonly and improperly used to describe all printed artwork and materials, including offset prints and Giclee on paper or canvas images.



Hand written on a proof of the finished state to test the inking



Everything that determines perfection, depending on the harmonious interplay of all the different elements that go into a single image:  the type of paper, its color, the ink, the inking, the ability of the artist and the printer to blend art and craft in perfect equilibrium.  The subject, theme, composition and rendering all come into play in the determination of quality



There are two kinds of rarity: "absolute" rarity, resulting from a very low number of prints being produced, and "relative" rarity, which depends upon the frequency with which examples of a particular print appear on the international market.  It has been shown that rarity does not always reflect the number of examples in existence, since even a print from a large edition, most of which has been acquired by museums or has "disappeared" into private collections, is to be regarded as rare.  (Toulouse Lautrec's "Divan Japonais" original lithograph is considered the highest valued lithograph by the artist, which, by the way, was originally produced in the thousands.)


Registration Marks: 

Marks used by printers to line up the paper with the area to be printed.  During the 19th Century, Jules Cheret invented the first registration marks for multiple color printing.


Remarque/Remarque Proofs: 

These proofs contain small sketches that echo or develop a composition's main subject: the sketches are executed in pencil or color pencil and sometimes in watercolor.  At the beginning of the 20th Century it was a very common practice to enrich proofs with these additions.  Early remarque sketches were engraved, etched or lithographically reproduced in the margin of the artwork or unfilled spaces of the art.



A posthumous print or an entire edition printed after the artist passes from the original stones or plates that an edition was printed from while the artist was living.  A term coined by Mary Cassatt expert and catalogue raisonné author Adelyn Bohme Breeskin.

Sepia:  A brown pigment made from the inky fluid secreted by cuttle fish.  Principally sepia is used to color ink and watercolor.  Moderately lightfast sepia tends to fade in bright sunlight, so keep from prolonged direct sunlight.  Today it is a pigment that is dark brown to black.  Today pigments and dyes have replaced acidic natural sepia ink.



A printing process utilizing screens to print colors onto a paper surface or various substrates.  A separate screen is made and used to apply each color.  Each tonal nuance of color requires a separate screen application.  The number of colors can range from one black ink application to numerous applications of up to 150 colors (more colors become cost prohibitive for publishing).


There are a number of methods of creating the original screens.  One method is to coat the screen (which is stretched over a wooden frame) with a chemical block-out which will not allow the inks to pass through the screen.  The artist or chromiste then gently cuts an opening with a blade creating a design to allow ink to pass through the screen to the paper or substrate.  Ink is put onto the screen and it is squeegeed (with a board with a protruding rubber edge) across the screen, forcing the inks through the openings in the screen onto the paper or substrate.


Another method is to apply a chemical dissolvent with a brush, like "painting" the desired image onto the screen that is already blocked-out.   Where ever the dissolvent touches, the screen is open for the ink to pass through to the substrate or surface material to be printed. 


Signed Edition

The edition signed by the artist and numbered or designated “AP,” “EA,” “HC,” “PP.” or other designations.  The number on the front of the print, i.e. 8/150 is the 8th print from the numbered edition of 150 impressions.  This may not be the total printed edition.  It is best to check the edition “triage” for the exact number in the printing.



Society of Artists



Any additions or deletions of lines made to a printing plate after printing process begins.  Each printing after the changes are executed constitutes a state. 


Rembrandt van Rijn often made changes to his printing etching plates to refine, develop and improve the image.  He made up to 10 states of some of his etching plates.



Technical skill.  The mechanical mastery of materials and techniques.



A term to describe the “complexion” of a work of art; e.g. the subdued tone of a Rembrandt etching, the bright tone of Impressionism.


Transfer Paper: 

Paper used by the artist to draw on that is then transferred onto the plate or stone for printing lithographs.  The printed image is not printed in reverse, but the image is printed as the artist intended.


Trial Proof: 

A proof in the beginning of the printing process pulled by the artist or by the printer before the artist proofs the final B.A.T. prior to printing the edition.  The proof is a printing prior to the final printing of the edition and may vary from the final edition printing.  These printings are normally retained by the artist or the printer and are not designated at all.



(Imprimatura) A colored under-tint, frequently laid over a drawn outline.


Vanishing Point: 

In Perspective, the point on the horizon line at which parallel lines lead to and appear to vanish.



A mark that papermakers put onto papers in the paper making process.  The mold is built up with wire or other materials to create the unique design identifying the paper maker and may also help to date the paper.   The watermark may be seen when the paper is held to the light.  The mark is more translucent the rest of the paper.



A method of taking a print from the surface of a wood block or plate.  The portion of the artwork not to be printed is cut away.  Albrecht Dürer drew his image onto a piece of hard wood and his apprentice would then cut away the wood that was not drawn by the artist hand.  The surface or plateau was inked and wet paper was placed upon the surface and run through a printing press.  The ink is then transferred from the block of wood to the paper with the pressure of the printing press.



Works in Private and/or Public Collections


Zinc Plates/ Metal Plates: 

First used during the 19th Century to replace the use of Bavarian Limestone to print lithographs.  Used for both lithography and intaglio printing.





What Determines Value?
• Etching vs. Drypoint
• Wood Engravings
• What Makes a Master Artist?
• Esthetics in Art






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