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painting, the expression of ideas and emotions, with the creation of certain aesthetic qualities, in a two-dimensional visual language. The elements of this language—its shapes, lines, colours, tones, and textures—are used in various ways to produce sensations of volume, space, movement, and light on a flat surface. These elements are combined into expressive patterns in order to represent real or supernatural phenomena, to interpret a narrative theme, or to create wholly abstract visual relationships. An artist’s decision to use a particular medium, such as tempera, fresco, oil, acrylic, watercolour or other water-based paints, ink, gouache, encaustic, or casein, as well as the choice of a particular form, such as mural, easel, panel, miniature, manuscript illumination, scroll, screen or fan, panorama, or any of a variety of modern forms, is based on the sensuous qualities and the expressive possibilities and limitations of those options. The choices of the medium and the form, as well as the artist’s own technique, combine to realize a unique visual image.
Earlier cultural traditions—of tribes, religions, guilds, royal courts, and states—largely controlled the craft, form, imagery, and subject matter of painting and determined its function, whether ritualistic, devotional, decorative, entertaining, or educational. Painters were employed more as skilled artisans than as creative artists. Later the notion of the “fine artist” developed in Asia and Renaissance Europe. Prominent painters were afforded the social status of scholars and courtiers; they signed their work, decided its design and often its subject and imagery, and established a more personal—if not always amicable—relationship with their patrons.
During the 19th century painters in Western societies began to lose their social position and secure patronage. Some artists countered the decline in patronage support by holding their own exhibitions and charging an entrance fee. Others earned an income through touring exhibitions of their work. The need to appeal to a marketplace had replaced the similar (if less impersonal) demands of patronage, and its effect on the art itself was probably similar as well. Generally, artists in the 20th century could reach an audience only through commercial galleries and public museums, although their work may have been occasionally reproduced in art periodicals. They may also have been assisted by financial awards or commissions from industry and the state. They had, however, gained the freedom to invent their own visual language and to experiment with new forms and unconventional materials and techniques. For example, some painters combined other media, such as sculpture, with painting to produce three-dimensional abstract designs. Other artists attached real objects to the canvas in collage fashion or used electricity to operate coloured kinetic panels and boxes. Conceptual artists frequently expressed their ideas in the form of a proposal for an unrealizable project, while performance artists were an integral part of their own compositions. The restless endeavour to extend the boundaries of expression in art produced continuous international stylistic changes. The often bewildering succession of new movements in painting was further stimulated by the swift interchange of ideas by means of international art journals, traveling exhibitions, and art centres. Such exchanges accelerated in the 21st century with the explosion of international art fairs and the advent of social media, the latter of which offered not only new means of expression but direct communication between artists and their followers. Although stylistic movements were hard to identify, some artists addressed common societal issues, including the broad themes of racism, LGBTQ rights, and climate change.
This article is concerned with the elements and principles of design in painting and with the various mediums, forms, imagery, subject matter, and symbolism employed or adopted or created by the painter. For the history of painting in ancient Egypt, see Egyptian art and architecture. The development of painting in different regions is treated in a number of articles: Western painting; African art; Central Asian arts; Chinese painting; Islamic arts; Japanese art; Korean art; Native American art; Oceanic art and architecture; South Asian arts; Southeast Asian arts. For the conservation and restoration of paintings, see art conservation and restoration. For a discussion of the forgery of works of art, see forgery. For a discussion of the role of painting and other arts in religion, as well as of the use of religious symbols in art, see religious symbolism and iconography. For information on other arts related to painting, see articles such as drawing; folk art; printmaking.
Elements and principles of design
The design of a painting is its visual format: the arrangement of its lines, shapes, colours, tones, and textures into an expressive pattern. It is the sense of inevitability in this formal organization that gives a great painting its self-sufficiency and presence.
The colours and placing of the principal images in a design may be sometimes largely decided by representational and symbolic considerations. Yet it is the formal interplay of colours and shapes that alone is capable of communicating a particular mood, producing optical sensations of space, volume, movement, and light and creating forces of both harmony and tension, even when a painting’s narrative symbolism is obscure.