Art

Glossary: Different Types of Paint and Painting Materials

Learn all about the most popular tools and types of paint

If you’re about to start painting for the first time, you might be feeling slightly overwhelmed by all the different materials you can choose from. Or, maybe you simply want to learn a little more about the tools you already use. Whichever category you fall under, this glossary of basic painting terms will serve you well.

Acrylics

Acrylics were developed during the first half of the 20th century due to a need for a type of paint that would stay vibrant outdoors. It is made by mixing pigment with acrylic resin. Being water-soluble, acrylic paint dries quickly (drying occurs when water evaporates). If you want to slow down the drying process, you can add a retarder.

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Acrylics
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Cenotes. Lucila Domínguez. Acrylics.

Binder

A binder is a substance that, when mixed with pigment, creates paint. It is what holds the pigment particles together. Binder can be of animal, vegetable, or synthetic origin. Oil and glue are the most popular.

Brushes

Brushes are made of synthetic and natural materials and come in various shapes and sizes for different finishes. A beginner should start with flat and round brushes (in small, medium, and large sizes); and a fan brush for shading. Synthetic brushes are best for acrylics.

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Brushes

Canvas

Wood was the first support medium used for painting. As it wasn’t a very absorbent material, canvases were developed, originally made of linen cloth, which was stretched by a frame. Nowadays, we use linen as well as different types of cotton.

Conté crayon

Drawing instrument composed of graphite powder, charcoal, and wax or clay. These crayons are commonly made in black, gray, and sepia or reddish tones. They are used for sketching on paper or canvas.

Charcoal

The material used for sketching or drawing. It is usually made from twigs of willow (or linden wood) that have been carbonized.

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Charcoal
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Sketch. Homer Winslow (1883). Charcoal on paper.

Fixative

Transparent varnish that protects pencil and pastel drawings.

Gesso

A white paint mixture of plaster, pigment, and glue used to prepare a canvas or wood before painting onto it.

Gouache

Gouache or "body color" is, technically, a type of watercolor. However, unlike watercolor, it is opaque. It is made with larger particles of pigment. It has been used since the 9th century but became popular in the 18th century.

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Gouache
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The Green Donkey (1911). Marc Chagall. Gouache on board

Ink

Ink is available in different colors but is most often black. Inks can either be soluble or insoluble in water. They can be applied to paper using a brush or quill.

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Ink

Oil paint

One of the most popular mediums, oil paint was created around the 15th century by adding oil to tempera. It is made by mixing powdered pigment (organic or artificial) with oil. It is slow drying.

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Oil paint
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Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife (1434). Jan van Eyck. Oil paint on oak panel.

Oil pastel

A stick similar in color to pastel, whose pigment is mixed with a binder mixture made of non-drying oil and wax. It generates a much rougher finish compared to pastel. It emerged at the beginning of the 20th century.

Palette

A hard surface for mixing paints. It can be made of plastic or fine wood. A painter's palette usually has a hole so that the artist can insert their thumb and rest the base on their arm.

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German painter Sophie Wencke with her palette (1898)

Palette knife

Palette knives are usually made out of metal and have wooden handles. However, plastic and wooden palette knives are also available. They have a rounded or pointed tip and are used to mix paint. Many artists also use them as substitutes for brushes to achieve unique textures and color mixtures. They also remove excess paint.

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The Starry Night (1889). Vincent van Gogh. Oil on canvas.

Paper

Material manufactured in thin sheets from the pulp of wood or other fibrous substances, created in the first century. Ideal for watercolor. Paper comes in different thicknesses, textures, and colors. Paper grammage indicates the thickness of the paper, which is calculated by square meter. Paper changes depending on whether or not it is coated, which affects how it interacts with other substances. For example, couché paper has a layer of kaolin that makes it matte or glossy.

Pastel

Sticks of finely ground pigment that have been mixed with resin gum. They emerged during the Renaissance. They give a dusty effect, and most of them are opaque. They can either be hard or soft (the latter are usually very fragile and brittle). You will need to apply a fixative after completing your piece in order to protect it.

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Pastel
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Sleepy Baby. Mary Cassat (1910). Pastel on paper.

Pencil

A tool for drawing and sketching before painting. Pencils have different hardness levels, which indicate the amount of graphite they contain. It is best to have a range of hard and soft pencils. They are identified using a scale that has 16 degrees of hardness, going from 2 to 9, with letters H (Hard), B (Black), and HB (which falls in between H and B).

Pigment

An organic or inorganic (mineral or chemical) substance that produces color.

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Pigment

Retarder

A substance (usually a water-soluble gel) that slows down the drying process of acrylic paints.

Siccative or oil drying agent

A compound that accelerates the drying process of oil paints. It can accelerate both interior (light) or exterior (dark) drying.

Stretcher bar

A wooden framework support to which you fix your canvas.

Support

Any surface onto which you can draw or paint, for example, paper, cloth, or wood.

Tempera

An egg-based paint (either made using just yolk or whole eggs) made with very fine pigment particles. It reached its greatest level of popularity in the 15th century. If any mixture doesn’t end up being used, it has to be discarded–only fresh eggs can be used. Great care is required to prevent mold. It is difficult to find the pigments needed to prepare it, and they are also very expensive. Wood is the best support medium for tempera.

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Madonna with Child. Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1490). Tempera on panel.

Varnish

A blend of oils and resins that is applied to a painting to protect it from the passage of time, change of temperatures, and other external factors that can wear out or damage the paint.

Watercolor

Watercolor paints are powdered pigment mixed with gum arabic. They are usually presented in small tablets divided by color, to which water is added. They are also sold in tubes. These paints were first used to paint frescos and became popular in the 18th century. Their transparent quality allows us to appreciate the textures of the surface onto which they are being applied. Watercolor dries very fast. To achieve your desired results, it’s important to learn to control the amount of water you use.

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Watercolor
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Allex Hillkurtz. Watercolor on paper.

Sources: Visual Arts Cork / My Modern Met / Cómo dibujar y pintar. Quarto Publishing, Hermann Blume, Tursen / Miguel Franco.

English version by @eloise.edgington.

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