The Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh at work The Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh at work Painting is the art of applying coloured paint to a surface to create a picture. Painting materials may include oils, acrylics, pastels, watercolours, inks or other substances. They are often applied with a brush, but other tools, such as knives or sponges, can also be used. The surface can be anything: wall, paper, canvas, copper, glass, and so on. The finished picture can be a realistic, lifelike representation of a person, group of people, landscape or still life. It can also be an abstract painting in which there are no recognizable features or images. A good painting can tell a story or be full of meaning and convey great depth of emotion. It can be colourful or subdued, and vary in size from the very small to the vast.

Cave painters in Lascaux 17,000 years agoCave painters in Lascaux 17,000 years ago

Cave paintings

Among the first paintings in the world are to be found on the walls of Chauvet cave in southwestern France. They date from around 32,000 years ago. The paintings of horses, other wild animals and human handprints were made using with red and black pigments applied directly to the cave walls. The cave paintings are often very realistic and depict mainly large wild animals, such as bison, horses, woolly mammoths, deer and lions. It is still not clear what the meaning of these paintings is. They may have been offerings to the gods, urging them to bring success to the huntsmen. Similar work has been found in caves elsewhere in France and Spain as well as in China, Africa and Australia.

Ancient Egypt

Decorating the walls of a pharaoh's tombDecorating the walls of a pharaoh's tombFrom about 3000 BC onwards, Egyptian artists decorated the walls of tombs and temples with images of their gods and pharaohs. The Egyptians had no word for art. Their paintings were designed purely for purposes of worshipping their gods and to secure their own safe passage into the Afterlife when they died. The paintings of people were always in profile (sideways on). The artists did not use three-dimensional perspective, so events were shown in sequence, much like a modern comic strip.

Maestà (1280–85) by CimabueMaestà (1280–85) by Cimabue

Middle Ages

European art in the Middle Ages was almost entirely religious in subject. Monks illustrated pages of the Bibles and other religious works with beautiful and intricate decoration, most notably in the Book of Kells, illustrated in Britain or Ireland around AD 800. Craftsmen produced beautiful stained glass, altarpieces, statues and shrines for churches. The first paintings in a style we would recognize today were created in Italy after 1250. Works by Cimabue (1240–1302), Giotto (c.1270–1337) and others show scenes from the Bible. In contrast to other artists of the time, Giotto gave his subjects expression and so is considered the first great painter of the Italian Renaissance.

Lorenzo de’ Medici visiting an artist's schoolLorenzo de’ Medici visiting an artist's school

Italian Renaissance

The Renaissance was a period of artistic rebirth that started in Italy during the 1400s. Artists such as Piero della Francesca (1415–92) and Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510) mastered the art of perspective, portraying three-dimensional space and depth in a two-dimensional (flat) form, to produce lifelike paintings. Renaissance art reached its height in the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Michelangelo (1475–1564) and Raphael (1483–1520). By now, artists were painting portraits and scenes from Greek mythology and history as well as religious scenes.

Young Hare (1502) by Albrecht DürerYoung Hare (1502) by Albrecht Dürer

Northern Renaissance

The Renaissance soon spread north from Italy to Germany and the Low Countries. When these countries became Protestant during the Reformation, their artists abandoned religious scenes and began to paint portraits and scenes from nature. Jan van Eyck (c.1390–1441) perfected the art of building up layers of transparent paint to create deep colours and minute details. Hieronymus Bosch (1450–1516) painted weird and wonderful creatures, while Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525–1569) depicted vivid scenes from everyday life. One of the greatest Northern Renaissance artists was Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), who produced woodcuts, oil paintings and watercolours of exquisite detail.



In the late 1500s the Catholic Church responded to the rise of Protestantism by supporting a richly colourful and showy style of art and architecture known as the Baroque. Many paintings were originally intended to be hung in church and tell religious stories, but artists also worked for private individuals, producing portraits of kings and queens and scenes from daily life.

Detail from Las Meninas (1656–57) by VelasquezDetail from Las Meninas (1656–57) by VelasquezCaravaggio (1571–1610) produced dramatic scenes characterized by their great contrast in light and shade, while Velasquez (1599–1660) painted formal portraits of members of the Spanish royal court. Dutch Baroque painters of the 1600s, notably Frans Hals (c.1582–1666) and Rembrandt (1606–1669), painted portraits of people from all backgrounds. Rembrandt's dramatic and lively self-portraits were among the greatest ever painted. Vermeer (1632–75) concentrated on domestic scenes, landscapes and still lives. In the 1700s, Baroque gave way to the new Rococo style: less grand, lighter in mood, more graceful, and favouring pastel colours.

Liberty Leading the People (1830) by DelacroixLiberty Leading the People (1830) by Delacroix

Neoclassicist and romantic styles

During the late 1700s, painters returned to themes and styles from the classical world. Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) painted heroic scenes from the ancient history and from the French Revolution, notably a famous portrait of Napoleon on his horse. Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres (1780–1867) painted classical nudes and finely detailed portraits.   

This new style soon gave way to a romantic style that was more emotional in its subject matter, often taking on political themes. Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) painted a group of French revolutionaries running into battle in Liberty Leading the People (1830) while the Spaniard Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) painted anti-war scenes. In England, J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) painted atmospheric landscapes, brilliantly creating the effect of light through the use of colour.

Flood at Port-Marly (1876) by Alfred SisleyFlood at Port-Marly (1876) by Alfred Sisley


In 1863, the French artist Edouard Manet (1832–83) submitted a painting to the Salon, the exhibition of the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris, an institution that dominated French art at the time. Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Lunch on the Grass) showed two young men having a picnic with a naked woman. The Salon rejected it, but a number of younger artists supported Manet, and they decided to present a series of eight exhibitions of their work that became known as Impressionism.

The Impressionists were never a single school of painters with one style, but they did favour painting outdoors in order to capture the changing light and weather. Among the greatest Impressionists were Claude Monet (1840–1926), who painted water lilies among other subjects, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), a fine painter of people in everyday scenes.

Self-portrait (1887–88) by Vincent Van GoghSelf-portrait (1887–88) by Vincent Van Gogh


From around 1880 onwards, French artists developed their own individual style of painting that is known as Post-impressionism. George Seurat (1859–1891) applied small dots of colour to the canvas in a style known as divisionism or pointillism, most famously in his vast work A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1886). Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) began to break up his landscapes into slabs of colour and form, while Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) painted the landscape and natives of the South Seas in unusual colours. The most famous artist of this group is Vincent van Gogh (1853–90), whose bright colours and swirls of paint are immediately recognizable.

Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II) by KandinskyImprovisation 27 (Garden of Love II) by Kandinsky

Modern art

The development of modern art after the 1860s led to an explosion of different styles and groups of painters. This exciting period of art has lasted until the present day, although art since the 1970s is now usually called contemporary art. Cubist painters such as Georges Braque (1882–1963) and Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) broke down their subjects and rearranged them in an abstract way to show every angle and surface, as if you could see the subject from several viewpoints at once. Henri Matisse (1869–1954) explored the use of contrasting colours.

Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) was the first artist to paint entirely abstract rather than representational images, basing his paintings on colours, lines and shapes. In the 1930s Salvador Dali (1904–89) and other surrealist painters used dreams and the imagination as subject matter. A great change in modern art came after 1945. American painters began to paint vast canvasses in a style known as Abstract Expressionism. Mark Rothko (1903–70) painted large expanses of single or complementary colours, while Jackson Pollock (1912–56) dripped and splashed paint straight from the tin or brush on to a canvas placed flat on the floor. Pop artists such as Andy Warhol (1928–87) used everyday images from the commercial world and advertising in their work.

An artist at work in his studioAn artist at work in his studio

Painting techniques

An oil painting is usually created on a woven fabric canvas stretched across a backing frame. Paintings can also be produced on paper, wood, metal, glass, ceramic or plaster. A painting that is taller than it is wide has what is known as a portrait format, while a wide painting has a landscape format. Paint is applied with a brush or a palette knife. Once the painting is finished, it is often covered in glass and placed inside an ornamental frame to protect it, and make it easier to display.

Consultant: Philip Wilkinson

Painting terms

  • Acrylic
    Quick-drying paint made from pigment, chemicals and emulsions
  • Collage
    An image made up by assembling items—sometimes including pieces of newspaper, photographs and other printed items—on to a flat surface
  • Composition
    The placing and arrangement of images to create a satisfactory painting
  • Egg tempera
    Paint made of pigment, egg yolks and water; after 1500 it was replaced by oil paint
  • Figure painting
    Painting of a human figure, sometimes in the nude
  • Fresco
    A technique in which paint is applied directly to wet plaster on a wall or ceiling and dries with it to form the finished painting
  • Ink
    Liquid containing pigment or dye used for drawing and writing
  • Landscape
    A painting of natural scenery, such as fields or mountains
  • Mixed media
    A painting made by using more than one technique or by using different types of paint or drawing media together; a collage is an example of mixed media
  • Mural
    Painting created directly on a wall or ceiling
  • Oil paint
    Paint made from vegetable oil, usually linseed oil, to which pigment is added; oil paint is easy to use and creates strong colours
  • Palette
    Either the board used to mix paints together, or the range of colours used by an artist
  • Pastel
    A stick of colour bound with resin or gum that is used to draw and shade
  • Pigment
    Powdered colour that is suspended in a liquid to form paint
  • Portrait
    Painting of a person, often just of their face and upper body
  • Still life
    An arrangement of everyday objects such as flowers or books
  • Subject
    The theme of the painting, such as a scene from history or a portrait
  • Varnish
    A clear mixture of oil and resin that is applied to a finished painting to protect the surface
  • Watercolour
    Water-based paint

See also in History

See also in Prehistoric

Vincent Van Gogh made around 900 paintings, but sold only one in his lifetime.

The position of the hands of Mona Lisa, one of Leonardo da Vinci's most famous paintings, with her right hand over her left, is said to be a coded message to show that the subject, Lisa Gherardini, was faithful to her husband.

The four main characters in the cartoon series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are named after great Italian Renaissance artists: Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael.

The world’s biggest painting by a single artist is called Mother Earth. It covers 8000 sq m (86,000 sq ft) and is about the size of a football pitch. It was painted by Swedish artist David Aberg inside an aircraft hangar using 100 tons of paint, and took 2½ years to complete.

Indian yellow paint is made with pigment taken from the urine of cows that have been fed only on mango leaves.

Oil paints are usually touch-dry after about two weeks, but it can take many years for an oil painting to dry fully.

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