Being familiar with the terminology is the key to any successful study. Here I bring you a complete list of terms you may want to learn to progress successfully in your art study.

The vocabulary is regularly updated but in case you didn’t find what you’re looking for please leave a comment down below and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.



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Acid Free – refers to pH value of watercolor paper, acid free being either pH neutral or alkaline. This means the paper won’t degrade over time. This is achieved by certain manufacturing processes and additives that counteract the effects of acidic pollutants. Lightfastness of applied watercolor paint is thus assured.

Analogous Colors – refers to any group of three colors positioned on the color wheel next to each other. E.g. Red, Red Violet, Violet. Using such three colors in a painting guarantees harmonious color scheme.

Aerial Perspective – this term describes the phenomenon of landscape being weaker in color, value and intensity as it recedes into the distance. Popular use of the phenomenon can be found in the paintings of the Impressionists.


Backrun – also called Blossom, Bloom or Cauliflower, is caused by the addition of water or water/paint mixture into already painted and still damp area. This textural effect of water spread on the surface is what is often also called a “happy accident”.

Binder/Vehicle – it is a transparent liquid in which pigment is dispersed. This vehicle binds the paint to the paper and prevents the pigment from getting sucked into the paper fibers. In today’s composition of paint gum arabic is used as a binder.

Brush – the tool with which paint is applied onto the watercolor paper. Brushes have different shapes and hairs. There are round and flat brushes, wash brushes, riggers or liners, fan brushes and other specialty brushes. Hair of the brush can be synthetic, natural or a combination of the two. The brush consists of handle (usually lacquered wood), ferrule which connects the handle with the head of the brush, holding the brush hair in place.


Calligraphy – in the context of painting refers to directly made mark with a brush. Calligraphic strokes enliven dull passages of painting and suggest edge, direction or texture. These marks may be direct or indirect in that they may describe texture or define subject by outline. Calligraphy is also a separate field related to writing and can be described as ornamental handwriting.

Cast Shadow – if an object blocks a source of light, it casts a shadow away from that source. The shadow is in perspective.

Chiaroscuro – a way of rendering form, chiaroscuro is concerned with the description of light. Chiaroscuro painter uses light to describe the form and volume of an object. Often painters using Chiaroscuro to render their subjects are called “painters of light”. They render light which in turn describes their subject.

Cold Press – is one of the finishes of watercolor paper. It has subdued texture (tooth), it’s versatile and easy to use. It can withstand moderate corrections and lifts and is usually less absorbent than Rough papers. Possibly most widely used finish.

Color/Hue – color of an object or pigment regardless of value. Color is one of the elements of design. Another word for color is hue. Paint and color are not interchangeable. Color and hue for the most part are.

Color Temperature – colors can be either warm or cool. Yellow, Orange and Red are generally considered warm, Green, Blue and Violet are considered cool. There are also neutral colors that are the result of intermixing of the warms and cools. Color temperature is not absolute unless two colors are placed next to each other.

Color Triad – any three colors with equal distance from each other on the color wheel are called a “color triad”. There is a primary triad (Yellow, Red, Blue), secondary triad (Orange, Green, Violet) and tertiary triad (Russet, Slate, Citron).

Color Wheel – is a circular diagram of color hues illustrating the relationships between pigment colors and their mixing properties. Colors of the color wheel are: Yellow, Yellow Green, Green, Blue Green, Blue, Blue Violet, Violet, Red Violet, Red, Red Orange, Orange, Yellow Orange. Bright/high intensity colors are focused on the outside circle, the neutrals are on the inside.

Complementary Colors – any two colors positioned exactly opposite of each other on the color wheel, e.g. Yellow and Violet. Such colors are the two most contrasting of all other combinations both in hue and temperature.

Contrast – one can only show how warm a color is by putting a cool color next to it. There is contrast of warm/cool, light/dark, large/small, rough/smooth, etc. It is only by using contrast that we can correctly explain the world around us within the limited space of the painting surface.


Direction – one of the art elements, direction can be vertical, horizontal and oblique.

Dry Brush – a technique of applying paint onto the paper with a brush in such a manner that the resulting stroke is broken and not completely covered with paint, creating a textural effect. This is achieved by controlling the paint to water ratio in the brush. For dry brush technique less water in brush is necessary.


Earth Color Family – a group of paints manufactured from variety of Iron Oxides with similar color characteristics. Some of the most well-known paint names are: Yellow Ochre, Raw and Burnt Sienna, Raw and Burnt Umber.

Edge quality – there are three kinds of edges: rough, hard and soft. Each of them is necessary, none of them is bad or good. These when used properly open or close passages of painting according to painter’s will. Hard edges are sharp and indicate things “in-focus”. Rough edges convey texture. Soft edges express softness and open a passages in a painting.

Elements of Design – the building blocks of any painting, an alphabet of a painter: Shape, Size, Line, Value, Color, Texture and Direction.


Ferrule – a part of a brush that encloses the hair. Ferrule is usually made of nickel-plated metal or nickel.

Filler – an additive in watercolor paint that alters the characteristics of the paint. It’s used for several valid reasons. The most common filler used today is dextrin.

Finish/Grain – there are three basic kinds of paper surface structure and they are Hot Press – smooth texture, Cold Press – medium structure and Rough has the most pronounced texture.

Flat Wash – an area of single color and value painted as a continuous shape resulting in a flat layer of color with no or very little gradation. By creating a bead on the bottom of each stroke the wash can be taken as far as is desired.

Foreground – the area that is the closest to the viewer, foreground is usually used for leading the eye into the painting from side or bottom of the picture plane.

Fugitive Paints (or Colors) – paints with unsatisfactory characteristic that will degrade over time. The most common drawbacks of fugitive paints are the lack of lightfastness and gradual color change as the paint ages.

Furnish – is a term for the ingredients watercolor paper is made of. Paper is manufactured using cellulose which is extracted from cotton, linen or wood pulp. Traditional Asian papers use cellulose extracted from jute, kozo, salago or mitsumata.


Giclee – Giclee reproductions, the most lightfast and archival method of artwork reproduction. Giclees are printed on high quality cotton (or cotton rag) paper using pigmented inks with excellent lightfastness rating.

Glaze – is a layer/wash painted over previously painted area. The purpose of glaze is to alter the value, hue or intensity of the wash underneath. The glaze should not be recognized as a glaze when applied correctly.

Graded Wash – an area of painted surface that is graded in color, value or intenstity. The change within the wash is smooth, not abrupt.

Grain/Finish – there are three basic kinds of paper surface structure and they are Hot Press – smooth texture, Cold Press – medium structure and Rough has the most pronounced texture.

Granulation – certain paints contain larger pigment particles than others. These settle in the indentations of the paper and become visible as a sediment or granulation. Most striking examples are genuine Manganese blue or French Ultramarine.

Gum Arabic – is made from the sap of acacia trees. In paint it is used as a binder or vehicle in a form of transparent liquid in which pigment is dispersed. This vehicle binds the paint to the paper and prevents the pigment from getting sucked into the paper fibers. It basically turns the pigment powder into paint, achieving workable consistency.


Highlight – a bright point of an object where the reflection of light is visible in high intensity.

Hot Press – is one of the finishes of watercolor paper. It is the smoothest of the three (Hot Press, Cold Press and Rough). Hot Press paper shows color more brightly because the paper is not as absorbent. This non-absorbent surface creates a problem for painting larger washes that tend to dry very unevenly and blotchy. It is, however, a popular choice for illustrators who create detailed drawings and then color them with watercolor or guache.

Hue/Color – is a color property of a paint or object. In other terms, it describes what color is any particular color! Confusing? Not really. Hue and color can be used interchangeably, though they are not exactly the same thing. Let’s use red as an example. Red is a color. The hue of red color is red. The value of red color is (let’s say) middle value. The temperature of red color is warm. Etc. etc. Another example would be a red barn. The hue of the red barn is red. The value of the red barn is middle. The color temperature of the red barn is warm.


Intensity – another property of color which refers to the strength or “colorfulness” of a color. An example of high and low intensity colors may be Aureolin Yellow – high intensity yellow and Raw Sienna – low intensity yellow.



Key – there are high key, low key or middle key paintings. This is a term used for a simple description of general lightness or darkness of a painting as a whole. Low key paintings are predominantly consisted from dark values. High key paintings are on the other hand consisted from light values. Middle key paintings use the mid-value range, these paintings are limited in value contrast.


Lightfastness – durability of the paint when exposed to sunlight/UV rays. This is one of the most important considerations for a painter as it can significantly limit longevity of a painting. High lightfastness rating of paints assures that the painting won’t fade and its colors won’t change hue.

Line – one of the elements of design, line is a contour or edge of a shape. Line can, however, be used as an expressive mark for the mark’s sake, creating texture instead of describing shape’s contour. Line can be either curved or straight.

Local Color – actual color of an object not influenced by light and shadow, e.g. local color of red apple is red regardless of the amount and color of light, depth of shadows or any reflected light.


Masking Fluid/Liquid Frisket – a latex gum fluid that is used to mask (cover) passages of painting that are required to stay white after application of a wash as it creates a film that protects the surface underneath. The gum can be removed after the wash and reveals completely untouched white of the paper.

Masstone/Toptone – is a thick application of paint onto the painting surface. It shows the paint in full strength.

Media – watercolor, oil, acrylic, pencil, etc. Media is a term that refers to the technique used to create a work of art.

Medium – is a liquid of some sort that is mixed with the paint and alters the characteristics of the paint considerably, e.g. slows down drying time, etc. Most common use of mediums is found in oil painting but they are also used in watercolor. Examples include Gum Arabic and Granulating medium.

Modeling – or rendering, it is a way of describing form without reliance on light and shade. It describes the plane change as it happens in an object. The two major painting approaches are 1. Chiaroscuro and 2. Modeling.

Monochrome – strictly speaking monochrome painting is done with a single color. Monochrome paintings, however, can be also made with subtle neutrals where more than one color is involved.

Motif – a subject.


Negative Shape – or negative space is the space around the object, it is the shape surrounding the positive shape. It is a key element of composition and should be designed with same care as positive shape.


Opacity – opacity of watercolor paint can vary from opaque to transparent. Opaque paints have higher covering capabilities, true opaque paint being able to cover previous layer completely. However, none of the watercolor paints is a true opaque since adding the water considerably dilutes the paint and lower its covering strength.

Optical Color – color mixed by the eye, not a physically mixed paint with another paint. Watercolor is a prime example of optical mixing as the paints are transparent. Thus optical color is the resulting color of two superimposed layers, wet layer applied over a previously dried one, e.g. blue and red applied separately over each other result in a violet optical color.


(Watercolor) Paint – is a mixture of pigment powder (in some cases a durable dye) and vehicle (Gum Arabic) in which the pigment is dispersed. There may be other additives which alter the performance of paints but that differs across manufacturers. The highest quality paint contain more pigment to vehicle ratio than inexpensive low quality paints usually do. Watercolor painting uses water as a solvent.

Palette – is either a selection of colors a painter uses in any particular painting or a tool artists use for storing and mixing their paints when painting. There are several kinds of physical palettes, the two main groups are large palettes with wells around the borders and large mixing area in the middle or a paint boxes or folding palettes that store paints in slightly smaller compartments and can be closed when not in use.

Perspective – it is a theory explaining the principles of transferring 3-dimensions onto 2-dimensional surface. Perspective is a mechanical treatment of space, not a creative one.

Pigment – is the raw material used in paint-making. It is ground to a powder and once mixed with vehicle such as gum arabic it becomes paint.

Plein Air – a practice of painting out in the nature directly from the subject. From a French expression which means “in the open air”.

Positive Shape – a shape or silhouette of an object.

Pouring – a technique of applying washes by pouring a water/paint solution on the page creating smooth wash. Benefits are: seamless washes of smoothly graded colors and luminosity of colors as result of not overmixing an area with a physical tool – brush.

Preserved Whites – areas of saved white – unpainted surface. They can be produced by painting around, masked with a masking fluid or a wax crayon can be used to resist water. In watercolor the only true white is the white of the paper so the painter has to plan ahead to be able to keep the whites.

Primary Colors – the three colors from which one can in theory mix any other color. These are yellow, red and blue. None of these three color can be mixed from any other colors.

Principles of Design – ideas with which we activate the elements of design. These are Unity, Contrast, Dominance, Repetition, Harmony, Balance and Gradation.



Rough – finish of watercolor paper with the largest amount of texture/structure, getting more pronounced with increasing weights. Rough paper is the most absorbent and expands and buckles most of all finishes when wet. The surface is suitable for dry brush technique as the brush loaded with paint and small amount of water only catches the so-called “peaks” of the paper leaving the “valleys” untouched and white.


Secondary Colors – are Green, Orange and Violet. Secondary colors are mixed with the three primaries: Yellow + Blue = Green, Yellow + Red = Orange, Red + Blue = Violet. Mixing primary with secondary color or mixing two secondaries results in tertiary colors.

Shade – a term that refers to a dark value of any hue. The opposite of shade is tint.

Shape – the basic and most important element of design, shape is what paintings are made of. It is the translation of reality.

Size – one of the elements of design, sizes of positive and negative shapes should vary. Size induces scale. Scale explains how large or small are shapes in relation to each other.

Staining Paints/Colors – there are watercolor paints containing pigment or dye. Pigmented paints tend to stain less than dyes. When a paint has strong staining properties, it penetrates the fibers of the paper and cannot be lifted. No watercolor paint can generally be lifted completely.

Still-life – a composition of inanimate objects.

Support – a painting surface on which paint is applied, e.g. paper for watercolor, canvas for oil painting, etc.


(Color) Temperature – colors can be either warm or cool. Yellow, Orange and Red are generally considered warm, Green, Blue and Violet are considered cool. There are also neutral colors that are the result of intermixing of the warms and cools.

Tertiary Colors – are mixed from two primaries or one primary and one secondary color. Each of these colors contain part of each primary color, resulting in overall harmonious color scheme.

Texture – one of the elements of design, texture conveys the smoothness or roughness, the textural quality of any part of the painting.

Tint – a term that refers to a light value of any hue. The opposite of Tint is Shade.

Tinting Strength – is the ability of paint’s color to retain its identity when mixed with other colors.

Tone/Tonal Value/Value – one of the art elements, value is the lightness or darkness of an object. Human eye can see very large number of values but in any painting usually no more than 10 values is used.

Toptone/Masstone – is a thick application of paint onto the painting surface.

Transparency – all watercolor paint is transparent. Some of the paints are more transparent (these are generally dye paints) and some are more opaque. Thickness of application further reduces transparency.


Underpainting – in watercolor it’s often used as a first wash to tint the paper and eliminate everything except the white of the paper.

Undertone – undertone of paint is revealed when paint is mixed with water (watercolors), white paint or applied in a very thin layer with a knife.


Value/Tonal Value/Tone – one of the art elements, value is the lightness or darkness of an object. Human eye can see very large number of values but in any painting usually no more than 10 values is used.

Value Study – is a sketch of the finished painting that is usually painted in single color (monochrome). This study is focused only on value relationships and construction of the shapes in a painting.

Variegated Wash – is a single wash where several colors are applied next to each other wet in wet, meaning that the colors are blended slightly.

Vehicle/Binder – it is a transparent liquid in which pigment is dispersed. This vehicle binds the paint to the paper and prevents the pigment from getting sucked into the paper fibres. In today’s composition of paint “gum arabic” is used as a binder.

Vignette – is a painting where a shape that sits in the middle of the painting surface is surrounded by white untouched paper. The shape touches borders of the paper usually 1 – 3 times.


Wash – a continuous layer of transparent paint applied on paper with a brush or pour.

Watercolor –  a medium using water as a solvent – hence the name. The paint composes of pigment (in some cases durable dye) and binder (gum arabic) and it’s water-soluble. It’s applied in thin transparent washes. It is applied on a watercolor paper which is specifically treated to accept water and paint. The most sought-after brushes for watercolor painting are those with natural hair. Sable brushes are being the most luxurious and expensive ones, they are also the most responsive.

Wet-in-wet – a technique of applying paint into pre-wetted area of painting surface. The desired effects of this approach are diffusion, blending and soft edges.



Yupo – a sheet of plastic material, it resembles paper in its appearance. Yupo is not paper however and it resists water, therefore watercolor on Yupo requires different approach than painting on actual watercolor paper and allow for unexpected textural effects.


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