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The Mona Lisa is the most recognizable artistic painting in the Western world.
The Mona Lisa is the most recognizable artistic painting in the Western world.

Painting is the practice of applying pigment suspended in a carrier (or medium) and a binding agent (a glue) to a surface (support) such as paper, canvas or a wall. Artistic painting involves drawing, composition, and some expressive intention of the artist. Painting is also used upon objects like pottery, tiles, textile or even the human body itself within tribes who paint their bodies with decorative motifs for their rituals. This is done by a painter; this term is used especially if this is his or her profession. Evidence indicates that humans have been practicing painting six times as long as they have been using written language.

Colour is the matter of painting as sound is to music. Colour is highly subjective. Even more so than sound it can not precisely be explained by words or symbols. For example, the word " red" does not define the countless tones of red and the dubious description of "blood red" or "crimson red" as a tone is far from being as universal and precise as a C or C# in music.

Some painters, theoreticians, writers and scientists ( Goethe, Kandinsky, Newton) have written colour theory. However, painting cannot be reduced to colour in its physical phenomena or as pigment in a surface, just as music cannot be reduced to acoustics; it is an universal art form, present in most cultures throughout the history of mankind.

Painting seems innate to human existence; young children without training, given pigments and a brush, tend to express themselves through it, even if it is naive, rough or even incomprehensible. This form of art attracts immense popularity (so there is a huge crowd of amateur painters, most of them of very low quality) but it is often despised as a professional choice in today's society.

Collage is also used in painting. This practice began with Cubism and other modern art movements, it is not painting in strict sense but the artist uses it (photographs, pieces of printed paper, etc.) has a pictorial object in the composition. Some modern painters use non- pictorial materials in their paintings, like sand, cement, straw or wood for their texture value. Examples of this are the works of Jean Dubuffet or Anselm Kiefer and note that the depicting of texture is an important matter in painting.

Modern and contemporary art tend tends to despise the craft of painting and drawing (which are essentially linked) in favour of concept, this has lead some to say that painting, as an art, is dead. This little and narrow-minded concept, based on low discipline or in Duchamp's (or other radical artists) arguments and works, has been a problem to major public which often do not understand this academic approach (or do by fashion, social status or sole financial profit) and tend to see Painting as an art of the past, in which painters effectively knew how to draw and paint.

Drawing, by comparison, is the process of making marks on a surface by applying pressure from or moving a tool on the surface. In a wider definition drawing is a graphical representation of reality or ideas. Note that some painters did not have a graphical approach in their work and have not left drawings, like Caravaggio, Velázquez, Turner or Francis Bacon, which does not mean they were not able to. Drawing is implicit in painting, although is not a synonym.

History of painting



The oldest known paintings are at the Grotte Chauvet in France, claimed by some historians to be about 32,000 years old. They are engraved and painted using red ochre and black pigment and show horses, rhinoceros, lions, buffalo, mammoth or humans often hunting. There are examples of cave painting all over the world—in France, Spain, Portugal, China, Australia etc. Many theories have been written about these paintings with no objective conclusion. Some sustain that prehistoric men painted animals to "catch" their soul or spirit in order to hunt them more easily, others refer an animistic vision and homage to surrounding nature and others the basic need of expression that is innate to human being. Above this theories we can say that painting as well as all other forms of art are strongly connected with religious or spiritual consciousness, they seem to remind us of our spiritual essence and existence and the fact that prehistoric men have done it seems like an unarguable proof of it.

Egypt, Greece and Rome

Ancient Egypt, a civilization that is strongly connected to architecture and artistic forms, had many mural paintings in his temple and buildings. Often graphical, more symbolic than realistic, in which symmetry is a constant characteristic. Egyptian painting has close connection with his written language (see pictography) and painting had an essential role in their manuscripts ( papyrus). In fact painted symbols are amongst the first forms of written language.

Ancient Greece had its great painters like it had great sculptors and architects, unfortunately no example of their work lasted to our days. What remains are written descriptions of their contemporaries or Roman copies. However vase painting can be as a surviving example of what Greek painting was. Some famous Greek painters who are referred in texts are Apelles, Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis lived in 5-6 BC and was said to be the first to use sfumato. His paintings are described to be highly realistic so much that Pliny the Elder wrote that birds tried to eat the grapes of his works. Apelles is described to be the greatest painter of Antiquity for its perfect technique in drawing, brilliant colour and modeling.

Roman painting has no special character and has a resemblance of Greek painting and can be taken as a surviving example of what ancient Greece's painting was.

Middle Ages

Byzantine art flourished after the fall the of Constantinople in East Roman Empire in 5th century. The main form of painting in byzantine art is the icon, usually static religious figures in golden backgrounds. Byzantic painting has a particularly hieratic feeling and icons were and still are seen as a reflection of the divine. Cimabue and Giotto are considered to be the two great medieval masters in painting in western culture. Cimabue, within the byzantine tradition, gave a more realistic and dramatic approach to his art. He was also the master of Giotto that lead this innovations to a higher level and made the foundations to western painting tradition. An important form of painting in Middle Ages are illuminated manuscripts. This art was widely used until the invention of printing press and is now what is called illustration.

Renaissance and Mannerism

The Renaissance is said to be by many the golden age of painting. In Italy artists like Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Donatello, Sandro Botticelli, Paolo Uccello, Raphael, Titian took painting to a higher level with the use of perspective, the study of human anatomy and proportions and excellence in drawing and painting techniques. Flemish and German painters like Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, Matthias Grünewald, Van Eyck, Hieronymous Bosch or Pieter Brueghel played an essential role in Renassaince art and represent a different approach to it for their more realistic, less idealized and more influenced by Middle Age art ( illuminated manuscripts) than their Italian colleagues. Renaissance painting is strongly connected to the revolution of ideas and science (astronomy, geography) that occur in this period, that places human being (instead of God) in the center of thought, the Reformation, and the invention of printing press (Dürer is considered by many to be one of the greatest printmakers ever), and states that painters are not mere artisans but thinkers as well. In fact easel painting was "invented" in the Renaissance and that allowed painting to become independent from architecture and seen as an object with its own value. Also the first non religious paintings were made in this period, paintings that depict personal ideas or fantasies of the artist instead of religious imagery or biblical scenes only.

Baroque and Rococo

Baroque is considered to have three major painters; Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Vermeer. Caravaggio is an heir of the humanist painting of Renaissance, with his dramatic view of the world. His high contrast paintings along with a realistic and dramatic approach of human figure, that sometimes are rude in opposite to the idealized figures of Renaissance, shocked his contemporaries and opened a new chapter in the history of painting. Baroque painting tends to dramatize scenes based in light effects; this can be seen from Caravaggio to Rembrandt, Veermer, Le Nain or La Tour. Other great masters reveal that like Velázquez or Rubens along with theatrical compositions often highly dramatic. Rococo remains as a decadent sub-genre of Baroque, lighter, often frivol and erotic, demanding less technique. Fragonard or Jean Baptiste Boucher paintings can be seen as examples of that.

Romanticism and 19th century

After the decadence of Rococo and has a response to a poor imaginative neo-classicism that grew in late 18th century, a new generation of painters arose with Romanticism. This movement tend to previligiate landscape and nature instead of human figure and the supremacy of natural order above mankind's will. There is a pantheist philosophy (see Spinoza and Hegel) and ideals within this conception and opposes, somehow, Enlightenment ideals by seeing mankind's destiny in a more tragic or pessimistic view. The idea that human being is not above the forces of Nature is in contradiction to Ancient Greece and Renaissance ideals were mankind was above all things and owned his fate. This thinking also lead romantic artist to review Middle Ages not a a dark age but an age of coincidence between God and Mankind's will and many pictured cathedrals and churches to accent a religious tone. Romantic painters turned landscape painting into a major genre, considered until then as minor genre or as a decorative background for compositions in which human figure took the principal role. The major painters of this period are Turner, Caspar David Friedrich and John Constable, along with others like Camille Corot and Arnold Böcklin. Another major master of this period is Francisco Goya who's tragic view of the world is in tone with the Romantic feeling and perception. In the second half of 19th century Realism took place and one of his higher exponents was Courbet. In the end of century Impressionism and post-Impressionists like Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Paul Cezanne lead art to modern era. Impressionism can be taken as an heir of Romanticism, but instead it depicts common landscapes, people in daily or prosaic affairs and has no metaphysics within it. Monet was strongly influenced by Turner but without the philosophical depth of him.

Modern and Contemporary

The heritage of painters like Van Gogh, Cezanne and Gauguin was essential for the development of modern art. Picasso made his first cubist paintings based in the idea, created by Cezanne, that all depiction of nature can be reduced to three solids: cube, sphere and cone. After cubism several movements emerged; Futurism ( Balla), Abstract ( Kandinsky, Blaue Reiter, Mondrian), Suprematism ( Malevich), Constructivism ( Tatlin), Dadaism ( Duchamp, Arp) and Surrealism ( Dali, Ernst). Modern painting influenced all visual arts, from architecture to design and became an experimental laboratory in which artists stretched the limits of this medium to his extreme. Van Gogh's painting had great influence in Expressionism which can be seen in Die Brücke, a group lead by German painter Ernst Kirchner and in Edvard Munch or Egon Schiele's work.

Post-second world war painting renewed Abstract art with artists like Jackson Pollock and Vieira da Silva and as a response to this tendence Pop-Art emerged with names like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, trying to take popular and mass culture into fine art. Modern art tends to undermine or oppose the traditional painting techniques and subjects, however, in the 20th century important painters continued to practice a figurative, solid technique painting with contemporary subjects like Edward Hopper, Balthus, Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud. This painters cannot be attached to the movements described above and can be seen as outsiders.


The depticion of humans, animals or any another figurative subjects is forbidden within Islam to prevent believers from idolatry so there is no painting (or sculpture) tradition within Muslim culture. Pictorial activity is reduced to the painting of tiles, mainly abstract, with geometrical configuration and strongly connected to calligraphy and can be widely seen in mosques. In fact abstract art is not an invention of modern art but it is present in pre-classical, barbarian and non-western cultures many centuries before it and is essentially a decorative or applied art. Notable illustrator M.C. Escher was influenced by this geometrical and pattern based art. In present days, painting by art students or professional artists in arab countries follow the same tendencies of Western culture art.

Far east

China, Japan and Korea have a strong tradition in painting which is also highly attached to the art of calligraphy and printmaking (so much that it is commonly seen as painting). Far east traditional painting is characterized by water based techniques, less realism, "elegant" and stylized subjects, graphical approach to depiction, the importance of white space (or negative space) and a preference for landscape (instead of human figure) as a subject.

Late 19th century artists like the Impressionists, Van Gogh, James Ensor or Whistler admired traditional painters like Hokusai and Hiroshige and their work was influenced by it.



Fresco from Ajanta, c 200 BCE - 600 CE
Fresco from Ajanta, c 200 BCE - 600 CE

The earliest Indian paintings were the rock paintings of prehistoric times, the petroglyphs as found in places like Bhimbetka, and some of them are older than 5500 BC. Such works continued and after several millennia, in the 7th century, carved pillars of Ellora, Maharashtra state present a fine example of Indian paintings, and the colours, mostly various shades of red and orange, were derived from minerals. Thereafter, frescoes of Ajanta and Ellora caves appeared. India’s Buddhist literature is replete with examples of texts which describe that palaces of kings and aristocratic class were embellished with paintings, but they have not survived. But, it is believed that some form of art painting was practiced in that time.

Madhubani painting

Madhubani painting is a style of Indian painting, practiced in the Mithila region of Bihar state, India. The origins of Madhubani painting are shrouded in antiquity, and a tradition states that this style of painting originated at the time of the Ramayana, when King Janak commissioned artists to do paintings at the time of marriage of his daughter, Sita, with Hindu god Lord Ram.

Rajput painting
an 18th century Rajput painting.
an 18th century Rajput painting.

Rajput painting, a style of Indian painting, evolved and flourished, during the 18th century, in the royal courts of Rajputana, India. Each Rajput kingdom evolved a distinct style, but with certain common features. Rajput paintings depict a number of themes, events of epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Krishna’s life, beautiful landscapes, and humans. Miniatures were the preferred medium of Rajput painting, but several manuscripts also contain Rajput paintings, and paintings were even done on the walls of palaces, inner chambers of the forts, havelies, particularly, the havelis of Shekhawait.

The colours extracted from certain minerals, plant sources, conch shells, and were even derived by processing precious stones, gold and silver were used. The preparation of desired colours was a lengthy process, sometimes taking weeks. Brushes used were very fine.

Mughal painting
a 17th century Mughal painting.
a 17th century Mughal painting.

Mughal painting is a particular style of Indian painting, generally confined to illustrations on the book and done in miniatures, and which emerged, developed and took shape during the period of the Mughal Empire 16th - 19th centuries).

Tanjore painting
A Tanjore Painting depicting Goddess Saraswati
A Tanjore Painting depicting Goddess Saraswati

Tanjore painting is an important form of classical South Indian painting native to the town of Tanjore in Tamil Nadu. The art form dates back to the early 9th Century, a period dominated by the Chola rulers, who encouraged art and literature. These paintings are known for their elegance, rich colours, and attention to detail. The themes for most of these paintings are Hindu Gods and Goddesses and scenes from Hindu mythology. In modern times, these paintings have become a much sought after souvenir during festive occasions in South India.

The process of making a Tanjore painting involves many stages. The first stage involves the making of the preliminary sketch of the image on the base. The base consists of a cloth pasted over a wooden base. Then chalk powder or zinc oxide is mixed with water-soluble adhesive and applied on the base. To make the base smoother, a mild abrasive is sometimes used. After the drawing is made, decoration of the jewellery and the apparels in the image is done with semi-precious stones. Laces or threads are also used to decorate the jewellery. On top of this, the gold foils are pasted. Finally, dyes are used to add colours to the figures in the paintings.

Bengal school

The Bengal School of Art was an influential style of art that flourished in India during the British Raj in the early 20th century. It was associated with Indian nationalism, but was also promoted and supported by many British arts administrators.

The Bengal school arose as an avant garde and nationalist movement reacting against the academic art styles previously promoted in India, both by Indian artists such as Ravi Varma and in British art schools. Following the widespread influence of Indian spiritual ideas in the West, the British art teacher Ernest Binfield Havel attempted to reform the teaching methods at the Calcutta School of Art by encouraging students to imitate Mughal miniatures. This caused immense controversy, leading to a strike by students and complaints from the local press, including from nationalists who considered it to be a retrogressive move. Havel was supported by the artist Abanindranath Tagore, a nephew of the poet Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore painted a number of works influenced by Mughal art, a style that he and Havel believed to be expressive of India's distinct spiritual qualities, as opposed to the "materialism" of the West. Tagore's best-known painting, Bharat Mata (Mother India), depicted a young woman, portrayed with four arms in the manner of Hindu deities, holding objects symbolic of India's national aspirations. Tagore later attempted to develop links with Japanese artists as part of an aspiration to construct a pan-Asianist model of art.

The Bengal school's influence in India declined with the spread of modernist ideas in the 1920s.

Modern Indian painting


African traditional culture and tribes do not seem to had great interest in two-dimensional representations in favour of Sculpture. However, decorative painting in African culture is often abstract and geometrical. Another pictorial manifestation is body painting, present for example in Maasai culture in their ceremony rituals. Note that Pablo Picasso and other modern artists were influenced by African sculpture in their styles. Contemporary African artists follow western art movements and their paintings have little difference from occidental art works.

Aesthetics and theory of painting

Aesthetics tries to be the "science of beauty" and it was an important issue for 18th and 19th century philoshopers like Kant or Hegel. Classical philosophers like Plato and Aristotle also theorized about art and painting in particular; Plato disregarded painters (as well as sculptors) in his philosophical system, sustaining that a painting is a copy of reality (a shadow of the world of ideas so it cannot depict the truth) and is nothing but a craft, similar to shoemaking or iron casting. Leonardo Da Vinci, on the contrary, said that "Pittura est cousa mentale" (painting is an intellectual thing), which is more accurate in defining the art of Painting, although there is an essential role of craft in it. Kant identified Beauty with the Sublime, not referring particularly to painting, but this concept was taken by painters like Turner or Caspar David Friedrich. Hegel recognized the failure of attaining a universal concept of beauty and in his aesthetic essay wrote that Painting is one of the three "romantic" arts, along with Poetry and Music for its symbolic, highly intellectual purpose. Painters like Kandinsky or Paul Klee also wrote theory of painting. Kandinsky in its essay sustains that painting has a spiritual value also he attaches primary colours to essential feelings or concepts, something that writters like Goethe had already tried to.

Iconography has also something to say about painting. The creator of this discipline, Erwin Panofsky, tries to analyse visual symbols in their cultural, religious, social and philosophical depth to attain a better comprehension of mankind's symbolic activity.

However Beauty, a concept of which Painting is essentially linked, cannot be defined as an objective matter, purpose or idea. Much aesthetics and theory of art is connected with painting. In 1890, the Parisian painter Maurice Denis famously asserted: "Remember that a painting – before being a warhorse, a naked woman or some story or other – is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order." Thus many twentieth century developments in painting, such as Cubism, were reflections on the business of painting rather than on the external world, nature, which had previously been its core subject.

A recent contribution to thinking about painting was offered by Julian Bell, in his book What is Painting?. A painter himself, Bell discusses the development, through history, of the notion that paintings can express feelings and ideas. The text is witty and sometimes caustic in order to make his points ("Let us be brutal: expression is a joke. Your painting expresses – for you; but it does not communicate to me. You had something in mind, something you wanted to ‘bring out’; but looking at what you have done, I have no certainty that I know what it was...").

Painting media

There is a wide variety of artists' paints available for the professional or amateur artist.
There is a wide variety of artists' paints available for the professional or amateur artist.

Different types of paint are usually identified by the medium that the pigment is suspended or embedded in, which determines the general working characteristics of the paint, such as viscosity, miscibility, solubility, drying time, etc.

Examples include:

  • Acrylic
  • Encaustic (wax)
  • Fresco
  • Gouache
  • Ink
  • Oil
    • Heat-set oils
    • Water miscible oil paints
  • Pastel, including dry pastels, oil pastels, and pastel pencils
  • Spray paint ( Graffiti)
  • Tempera
  • Watercolor

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