Painting is the practice of applying paint, pigment, color or other medium to a solid surface (called the “matrix” or “support”). The medium is commonly applied to the base with a brush, but other implements, such as knives, sponges, and airbrushes, can be used.
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.
The oldest known painting is approximately 40,000 years old, and early examples of painting by Neanderthal and prehistoric humans have been found all over the world. Painted using red ochre and black pigment, they usually depict common animals that were hunted, such as horses, rhinos and lions.
Iron oxide pigments were highly valued for their durability, and prehistoric mining trails around the famous Lascaux Cave in France suggest that, 25,000 years ago, painters traveled many miles for these materials.
Early artists mixed their pigments into paint using water, saliva, urine, or animal fats. They then applied them with fingers, brushes, or by blowing them through hollow bones, like today’s airbrushes.
The Egyptians continued the modern advancements, mixing paints with binding agents like egg and began painting on plaster.
Greeks and Romans expanded upon these techniques, to create a painting style not matched till the Renaissance—when Italian artists made paint with plant oils to create works of astonishing color and depth that still captivate viewers today.
Chinese painting is one of the oldest continuous artistic traditions in the world. The earliest paintings were not representational but ornamental – they consisted of patterns or designs rather than pictures. Early pottery was painted with spirals, zigzags, dots, or animals.
The rise of Christianity dominated the majority of art in the Middle Ages, which placed emphasis on traditional iconography and religious figures. Illuminated manuscripts were one of the most common styles and were often painstakingly hand painted with motifs and calligraphy.
The Renaissance is a period in European history marking the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity and covering the 15th and 16th centuries, characterized by an effort to revive and surpass ideas and achievements of classical antiquity. It occurred after the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages and was associated with great social change. In addition to the standard periodization, proponents of a “long Renaissance” may put its beginning in the 14th century and its end in the 17th century.
The Rococo style began in France in the 1730s as a reaction against the more formal and geometric Louis XIV style. It was known as the “style Rocaille”, or “Rocaille style”. It soon spread to other parts of Europe, particularly northern Italy, Austria, southern Germany, Central Europe and Russia. It also came to influence the other arts, particularly sculpture, furniture, silverware, glassware, painting, music, and theatre. Although originally a secular style primarily used for interiors of private residences,
the Rococo had a spiritual aspect to it which led to its widespread use in church interiors, particularly in Central Europe, Portugal, and South America.
The invention of photography had a major impact on painting. In the decades after the first photograph was produced in 1829, photographic processes improved and became more widely practiced, depriving painting of much of its historic purpose to provide an accurate record of the observable world. A series of art movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—notably Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, and Dadaism—challenged the Renaissance view of the world. Eastern and African painting, however, continued a long history of stylization and did not undergo an equivalent transformation at the same time.
In art, the term painting describes both the act and the result of the action (the final work is called “a painting”).