The Wonderstrange Glossary of Art Terms

These are not technical definitions with art-school degrees; these are practical definitions for hobbyists or those (re)discovering the wonders of art through Artist Trading Cards, an art class, or a Vulcan mind meld with a retired art teacher.


Acrylic paint: Paint in which pigment is suspended an acrylic resin, or put another way, a kind of liquid plastic.  Dries quickly.  Can be mixed with water.  Typically comes in craft, student, and artist grades, although some makers use different categories, like “academic, artist, and professional.”


Artist- / Professional-grade acrylic paint:  High-quality acrylic paint with lots of pigment.  Colors are cleaner, brighter, and more intense.  Glides on smoothly.  Dries slightly glossy.  Drinks expensive wine.   Never has to wait in line at the club.


Cold press watercolor paper: The “press” refers to the manner of drying the paper, of which there are three: Rough, cold press, and hot press, which is the smoothest (you can remember by thinking of “hot press” paper as having been ironed).  Cold press paper is popular because it retains some texture, isn’t slippery, and still allows the artist to paint details.   If you’re using cold press watercolor paper with acrylics, be sure you get the 300lb. variety.


Complementary colors:  Red and green, purple and yellow, blue and orange.  Combining complementary colors is a great way to achieve “realistic” shadows.  If you are shading a yellow umbrella, for example, you should use purple, not gray, which makes the yellow look sort of dirty and nasty.  And you don’t want that, because umbrellas are really very wholesome creatures.


Craft-grade acrylic paint:  Cheap acrylic paint with little pigment.   Dries flat, like the wall paint in your first apartment.  Drinks PBR.  Will bond with just about anything.  Below, you can see craft-grade paint on the left and artist-grade paint on the right:



Distressing:  The cost of really good art supplies.  Also, any technique used for simulating age, wear, and/or abuse, including sanding, scraping, denting, insulting the object’s maternal lineage, etc.


Drawing paper:  Drawing paper is a heavier weight than sketch paper.  If you want something cheap and good for practicing and doodling at the dentist’s office, choose sketch paper or even newsprint.  (Newsprint has a high acidic content, though, so don’t accidentally sketch the best work of your life and expect it to pass it on to your great grandchildren.)


Dry brushing: Painting with very little paint on a dry brush.  On a surface with texture, only the highest planes get the paint.  The look is scratchy, spare, and cool.


Ephemera: Think “ephemeral,” or not lasting.  Refers to written and printed materials such as old letters or a movie ticket that may be incorporated into collage or mixed media works.


Gel medium: Costly white glop that makes an excellent glue and sealer for collage.  Reportedly also good for image transfer.


Gesso:  Pronounced with a soft g, like giraffe.  Works like a primer so that your surface doesn’t soak up all your paint.  Also creates a “tooth” so that paint will stick to your surface.  Comes in white and black but can be tinted with acrylic paint.


Gouache:  Opaque watercolor.  Pronounced guh-WASH.  Better yet, not pronounced.  This term obviously has too many vowels for everyday use.


Giclee:  Fine art print created on an Iris machine that sprays ink for a smooth, continuous appearance.  Pronounced juh-CLAY.  When you are bored, visit here, and listen to the nice man say juh-CLAY, over and over.


Hot Press Watercolor Paper: The smoothest watercolor paper.  May even seem slippery and tricksy.  Good for situations when you want even color or very fine details.


Hue: Pure color with no white or black.  For example, red is a hue; pink is not.


Image transfer:  Moving an image from one location – for example, a magazine – to another, which is usually your art.  The transfer process ideally leaves the image transparent, which can help to create beautiful layering effects in collage and mixed media art.  There are many methods, from packing tape to gel medium.  For more info, look up “image transfer tutorial” online.


Mixed media art: An artwork created with more than one medium.  A medium could be paint, colored pencil, India ink, melted wax, paper, etc.


Primary colors: The parents of other colors, also known as red, yellow, and blue.


Rough watercolor paper: Hung dry, rough watercolor paper is the most textured.  Water pools in the low places.  Not the best choice for painting small details.


Secondary colors: The children of primary colors, also known as violet (red + blue), orange (red + yellow), and green (blue + yellow).


Shade: Color plus black.


Sketch paper:  Sketch paper is a little more than double the weight of typical copier or printer paper.  It’s cheap and good for drawing people at Starbucks or practicing the proper angle of Stephen Colbert’s raised eyebrow.  It’s not good for creating works of art that you want to survive the zombie apocalypse.


Student-grade acrylics: A mid-range acrylic paint in terms of both price and quality.  Some are better than others.  Cindy recommends Blick student-grade acrylics.  (No one is paying her to say that, although someone is welcome to start.)


Tint: Color plus white.


wonderstrange: The very best place to find eclectic, amazing gifts and original, affordable artwork on the entire interwebz.  Also, the chemical reaction between a Cindy, a Sarah, and an Ann.


Stay tuned next week for the conclusion of our art tutorials with Sarah’s suggestions on varying line widths.  Woo!



  1. Cheryl

    I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE how you gave the terms personalities that everyone can relate to!!!! I may have to share these with a few of my former students!!!! Thanks so much!

  2. Deb

    Hmmm…do you think hot-press watercolor paper might be good to use with markers? The smooth surface tempts me.

    Also, thank you for the pronunciation lessons. I have been calling "gouache" [gohsh] and giclee [gick-lee]. Fortunately, I live in an isolated area, so no one knows any better.

  3. Thanks for the art lesson! It's been at least plenty-nine years since I've been in school, so I appreciate gaining these continuing education credits whenever possible!

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