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Painting, in its most basic form, can be defined as "the process, art, or occupation of coating surfaces with paint for a utilitarian or artistic effect." [1] For some artists it is the act of applying colored substance to a surface or creating a picture with colored oils or pastels; consequently an artistic composition made by applying paints to a surface is also "a painting."

Painters have the freedom to invent their own visual language and to experiment with light and new forms, materials and techniques. In some cases, the distinction between painting and other forms of art may be blurred; for example, some artists have covered natural landscape areas such as parks or island beaches with fabric (see Christo).

Madame Récamier painted in 1800 by Jacques Louis David.


See also: Prehistoric art

We know from textual and archaeological sources that painting was practiced in China from very early times and in a variety of media. Wall paintings were produced in great numbers in the early period of China's history.[2]

Chinese painting
Egyptian wall painting c. 1300–1250 B.C. depicting Queen Nefertari Merytmut

Essentially, painting has changed very little since these times: the surfaces have evolved through rock faces, the walls of buildings, silk, paper, wood, cloth and canvas, while the range of pigments used have encompassed earths and minerals, plant extracts and modern synthetic colours. The earliest example of silk painting was excavated from the Mawangdui Tomb in central China of the Warring States Period (476-221 B.C.)[3] The pigments have also been mixed with water and gums to make paint,[4] and the earliest known examples of oil paints were used in Afghanistan in the seventh century, derived possibly from walnuts or the poppies which grew in the area.[5] Oil paints were eventually introduced in Europe in the fifteenth century using linseed oil. The flexibility and durability of this new medium "played a major part in the explosion of creativity in Western painting during and after the Renaissance."[6]

For more information see: History of painting.

Cultural styles

The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew by Duccio di Buoninsegna, (1308-1311).

See: National Painting for painting in several countries.

From the fourth century onwards the early civilizations of the Mediterranean region and Europe began to produce paintings of sufficiently consistent artistic style that art historians and archaeologists are able to distinguish which works belonged to which cultures. Egyptian artwork is highly detailed, their figures are still and appear rigid.
Hagia Sophia, Christ mosaic, XII c.

Minoan art [2800 B.C. onwards], on the other hand, is extraordinary for its sense of movement and its emphasis on the living world. [7]

Few examples of Greek painting (c. 600-100 B.C.) have survived, originally painted on wood which has rotted away or buildings which have been destroyed. Its style was very influential however on the Roman style of paintings, which spread throughout the Roman Empire into the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.

Christianity brought further change to the Roman style, particularly as the "illustration of the Gospels was... necessary in order to spread the beliefs to the new converts, most of whom were illiterate. After the Roman Empire collapsed, Europe's greatest inheritance was the Roman-Christian tradition, which was heavily infused with classical ideas and Christian artistic styles. Despite some scholarly belief that the Middle Ages was a period of artistic decline, the existence of beautiful painted manuscripts and glowing altars from that period (Middle Ages Painting) suggests otherwise."[8] Renaissance artists broke decisively from their medieval predecessors by looking to nature as their guide in the art of painting.[9]

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...[10]

More history information could be found in following Schools.

Movements and Schools

The movement or School that an artist is associated with is usually reflected in the style of the painting.

Movements include:

The Flood by Michelangelo (detail from the Sistine Chapel).
Rubens, Peace And War.
Oil Spill by Lisa Kellner; installation art or sculptural painting?
Some adhere to a rigid definition of "art", such as paintings, sculpture and other traditional genres, while others believe that art should not be strictly defined, and thus believe that anything progressive may be labeled as such.


Detail of a Roman fresco ca. 70 A.D. discovered at Pompeii

Different types of painting are usually identified by the "medium" that carries the pigment. This affects the viscosity, miscibility, solubility, durability, flexibility and the appearance of the applied pigment. Common media include:[11]

Paintings are not always executed using a single medium: Henry Moore, for example, used oil pastels and watercolours together, knowing that they would not mix. He would use oil pastel for the main features and then cover the paper with a watercolour wash, creating a bolder impression of the initial drawing.

Composition and design

The execution and design of a painting can be subdivided as:

Paul Signac, Saint Tropez, L'orage.

Formal Elements:

  • Color - Color is more than a filling in of space, as it may have a structural role to play in the composition. The painter may use it to connect areas of the painting through similarity or create contrast by difference. It can also create spatial depth, harmony and mood.

Leonardo da Vinci describes color contrast, in particular the simultaneous contrast of complementary colors, as follows: “Of different colors equally perfect, that will appear most excellent which is seen near its direct contrary blue near yellow, green near red: because each color is more distinctly seen when opposed to its contrary than to any other similar to it.”

An example of a wall painting
  • Space - Painters describe different kinds of space, such as primitive ("flat") space; illusionistic, ("Renaissance") space; modern space (developed from Cezanne's union of flat and illusionistic space); and all-over space, such as that used by Jackson Pollock in his drip paintings. There is also "positive" space (occupied by a form or figure) and "negative" space (loosely, the background).
  • Composition - When deciding the composition of the painting, the painter will be influenced by the subject (e.g. landscape, portrait, still life) and then how the forms within the subject relate to the borders of the painting. How the viewer's eye is meant to be drawn over the whole and to certain areas will also determine the composition.

Pictorial Elements:

  • Line
  • Shape
  • Color
  • Texture
  • Space

The elements of design (i.e., line, color, 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. [13]

Hierarchy of the genres

Li Kan, Bamboo and Rocks, ca. 1320.

According to European academies of fine art.

Charles Willson Peale, Self Portrait, 1822.
Clara Peeters, Breakfast Still life with Bread, Cheese and Cherries.

See also

Christ and Apostles, mosaic at Ravenna.

External links


  1. Painting. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Fourth Edition. (Houghton Mifflin Company; 2000).
  2. Chinese Painting
  3. Chinese Painting. 14 May 2008
  4. Painting. The Tate Collection. op cit.
  5. Dowd, Vincent. Oil painting originated in East. BBC News. 22 April 2008. 14 May 2008
  6. Painting. The Tate Collection. op cit.
  7. Painting before 1300. op cit.
  8. Painting before 1300. op cit.
  9. Painting History 1450-1789.
  10. Painting Columbia Encyclopedia.
  11. Media. Westgate Gallery. 14 May 2008
  12. Using Color Contrasts throughout the Ages
  13. Britannica Concise Encyclopedia.