How to Talk About Art in English

Darling, it was so evocative!

It’s easy to join in a conversation about art in English. Just be sure to call everyone darling, to have outrageous opinions that nobody really understands, and to wear at least one item of statement jewellery at all times.

Of course, these are stereotypes. The best way to feel confident discussing art in English is to learn the words and phrases commonly used in the art world – and that’s exactly what this article will help you to do.

outrageous very unusual and intended to shock people
statement jewellery large jewellery that is designed to attract attention
the art world the area of activity that involves making, buying, selling, displaying, promoting and writing about art

Going to a gallery

Most cities and large towns have a public gallery that is funded by the government. Public galleries generally have a permanent collection (which may be free) and also stage temporary exhibitions (which usually have an entrance fee). Large public galleries, such as the Tate Modern in London, hold at least one blockbuster exhibition each year. If you are a member of the gallery, you may be invited to attend an opening. You might also hear about new acquisitions before anyone else.

As well as public galleries, there are commercial galleries at which the artworks are on sale. Especially in small towns, they tend to show pieces by local artists.

permanent collection the works of art which are always on display in a gallery
temporary exhibition a group of artworks shown together for a fixed period
stage/hold an exhibition display a group of artworks to the public
blockbuster a very popular exhibition of work by a well-known artist or artists
opening an event at which people can see an exhibition for the first time
new acquisition a work of art that the gallery has bought recently
pieces works of art

Categorising works of art

Though lots of artists would like to believe their work defies categorisation, in reality we tend to discuss art based on the medium used. Well-known categories of artwork include drawing, painting, sculpture and photography, but today all kinds of novel forms can be found both inside and outside of galleries. These include video and new media pieces; performance pieces; conceptual pieces; and installations. Other popular media include textiles, ceramics and printmaking, while works in mixed media combine different materials and techniques.

defy categorisation be difficult to clearly describe as one thing or another
medium (plural: media) the material/technique used to create a work of art
new media materials/techniques that are modern and technological
performance the artist uses bodies, voices and/or movement to make the artwork
conceptual the idea is the most important thing about the artwork
installation the artist puts objects into an existing space, e.g. the room of a gallery
textiles materials such as cotton, silk and wool
ceramics clay objects which are made hard by baking at high temperatures
printmaking creating images by preparing a block of (e.g.) wood, applying ink to it, then printing onto (e.g.) paper

Special notes on drawing and painting

Drawing and painting are the oldest of the visual arts, so they have lots of specific vocabulary of their own.

Drawing is typically done in graphite (i.e. pencil), charcoal, pastel or ink. A quick drawing, especially one in which the artist tries to copy something in the real world, is known as a sketch; the art of sketching naked human models is called life drawing, while an artwork that shows a naked person is called a nude. Important skills for drawing include composition and perspective.

Paintings are commonly created with oil, watercolour or acrylic on a surface of paper or canvas. Traditional types of paintings include portrait, landscape and still life, though abstract works have also been popular since the 20th century.

composition the skill of arranging multiple elements in a pleasing way
oil thick, slow-drying paint that contains oil
watercolour thin, quick-drying paint that contains water
acrylic quick-drying paint that contains man-made ingredients
canvas strong cloth that is used to make tents and boat sails
still life a picture of a group of objects, such as flowers or food
abstract communicating with colour and shape instead of with realistic images

Working in the art world

As well as artists themselves, lots of different people keep the art world moving including agents, dealers and critics. Within a gallery setting, you might also expect to find a director who is in charge overall, curators, handlers and assistants (also called attendants).

agent someone who represents and promotes artists
dealer someone who buys and sells works of art
critic someone who writes about art, especially reviews of exhibitions
curator someone who selects and presents artworks for exhibitions
handler someone who carefully packs and unpacks works of art
gallery assistant someone who greets visitors and answers questions

Discussing works of art

If you fancy yourself as a critic, there are certain words and phrases that occur frequently in writing and discussions about art. A selection of them is given below, but the best way to develop this kind of vocabulary is to read reviews and art books as often as you can.

Positive descriptions

Her work . . .

  • is moving – it is effective at making people feel sadness or sympathy
  • is evocative – it brings strong images or memories to mind
  • is visionary – it considers the future in an intelligent way
  • really spoke to me – it connected with my own life experiences

Neutral descriptions

Their work . . .

  • is bold/delicate – it gives the impression of being physically strong/weak
  • is controversial – it divides public opinion
  • is Instagrammable  – people love to take photos of and with it
  • is a bit out there – it is weird and/or hard to understand, but not necessarily in a bad way

Negative descriptions

His work . . .

  • is disturbing – it is likely to cause someone to be offended or upset
  • is derivative – it seems to copy existing works of art
  • is amateurish – it does not show a high level of skill
  • left me cold – I had no emotional or intellectual response to it

Yes, but is it art . . . ?

Painting and sculpture are obvious examples of fine arts – but what about other visual forms such as architecture, graphic design, video games and graffiti? Does it make sense to separate the fine and applied arts? Who decides the meaning of art, anyway?

fine arts activity that produces objects with no practical function
graphic design combining images and texts to make (e.g.) magazines and adverts
applied arts activity that produces functional objects whose appearance is also important, such as furniture or jewellery

What a load of rubbish

Not everyone likes art, of course. Some people find modern art, in particular, inaccessible and pretentious. A number of clichés can often be heard in response to pieces of contemporary art – most of which would cause artists and art-lovers to roll their eyes.

  • My five-year-old could have done that! – it looks like a child made it
  • Look at the state of that! – it looks messy, as though no skill was needed to make it
  • Money for old rope! – there is nothing new, special or interesting about this
  • What a load of rubbish! – said in response to any art that the speaker does not like
inaccessible difficult for ordinary people to understand
pretentious trying to be more serious or important than it really is
cliché a phrase that is used often and shows a lack of original thought
roll your eyes move your eyeballs upwards or in a circle to show you think something is boring or annoying

The art world is a strange place, but the surest way to fit in – apart from wearing all-black outfits and rings as big as your hands – is to practice speaking like the arty types hanging around galleries. So ciao for now, darling, and see you at tomorrow’s opening!

arty types people who dress and/or behave in a way that shows a strong interest in the arts


1 thought on “How to Talk About Art in English”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top