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WPA Art Definitions

In order for the layman to understand what type of art was produced by the New Deal artists, I have included this page of definitions of common art terms.


  • Aquatint:
    An intaglio, etching, and tonal printing process in which a porous ground allows acid to penetrate to form a network of small dots in the plate, as well as the prints made by this process. Aquatints often resemble wash drawings. Any pure whites are stopped out entirely before etching begins, then the palest tints are bitten and stopped out, and so on as in etching. This process is repeated 20 to 30 times until the darkest tones (deepest recesses in the plate) are reached.
  • Bas-relief:
    A French term meaning “low-raised work.” This art, along with high relief, is known collectively as relief sculpture– meant to be seen primarily from one direction– as opposed to sculpture which is in the round or full round.
  • Casein paint:
    A paint much like opaque watercolor in which casein– a milk glue– is its binder. Casein is a white, tasteless, odorless protein precipitated from milk by rennin. Casein is the basis of cheese, and is used to make plastics, adhesives, and foods, as well as paint. Casein paint can be used on paper or board for light impasto, for underpainting, wall decoration, etc. Casein paint is too inflexible for use on canvas. It dries quickly with a waterproof surface, and may be varnished.
  • Cast:
    To form (molten metal, or liquid plaster or plastic, for example) into a three-dimensional shape by pouring into a mold; or something formed by this means. Also, an impression formed in a mold or matrix.
  • Dry Point Etching:
    An intaglio printing process in which burrs are left on the plate by the pointed needle (or “pencil”) that directly inscribes lines. A kind of etching which has a soft, fuzzy line because of the metal burrs. Its disadvantage is that because such plates wear out quickly, editions are usually limited to 50 or fewer prints.
  • Egg tempera:
    A watercolor medium used for permanent, fine works.
  • Enamel:
    A vitrious, either transparent or opaque, protective or decorative coating made from silica (a kind of glass) heated in a kiln or furnace, and fused onto metal (usually copper or gold), glass, or ceramic ware. It is often applied as a paste which solidify in firing as areas of color. Also, an object, usually very small, having such a coating, as in a piece of champlevé, cloisonné, bassetaille, or plique-a-jour.
  • Engraving:
    A method of cutting or incising a design into a material, usually metal, with a sharp tool called a graver. One of the intaglio methods of making prints, in engraving, a print can be made by inking such an incised (engraved) surface. It may also refer to a print produced in this way. Most contemporary engraving is done in the production of currency, certificates, etc.
  • Etching:
    An intaglio printing process in which an etching needle is used to draw into a wax ground applied over a metal plate. The plate is then submerged in a series of acid baths, each biting into the metal surface only where unprotected by the ground. The ground is removed, ink is forced into the etched depressions, the unetched surfaces wiped, and an impression is printed. Also, both the design etched on a plate and an impression made from an etched plate. Too often confused with engraving.
  • Fresco:
    A method of painting on plaster, either dry (dry fresco or fresco secco) or wet (wet or true fresco). In the latter method, pigments are applied to thin layers of wet plaster so that they will be absorbed and the painting becomes part of the wall.
  • Gouache:
    A heavy, opaque watercolor paint, sometimes called body color, producing a less wet-appearing and more strongly colored picture than ordinary watercolor. Also, any painting produced with gouache.
  • Granolithograph:
    In the graphic arts, a method of printing from a prepared flat stone, usually made from crushed granite.
  • Intaglio:
    The collective term for several graphic processes in which prints are made from ink trapped in the grooves in an incised metal plate. Etchings and engravings are the most typical examples.
  • Limited Edition:
    The issue of something collectible, such as prints, limited to certain number quantity of numbered copies. The first number indicates the number of the piece; the second number indicates the total quantity in the edition i.e. 123/200.
  • Linoleum cut, linocut, or lino-cut:
    A linoleum block or plate used for making relief prints. Linoleum is a durable, washable material formerly used more for flooring as vinyl flooring is used today. It is usually backed with burlap or canvas, and may be purchased adhered to a wooden block. The linoleum can be cut in much the same way woodcuts are produced, however its surface is softer and without grain. Also refers to a print made with this method.
  • Lithograph:
    A generic term used to designate a print made by a planographic process, such as an original lithograph done on a lithographic stone, or a commercial print made by a photomechanical process. (Drawing/painting with greasy crayons or ink on a limestone block, then moistened, then the print is pulled by pressing the paper against the inked drawing)
  • Oil paint:
    Slow drying paint made when pigments are mixed with an oil, linseed oil being most traditional. The oil dries with a hard film, and the brightness of the colors is protected. Oil paints are usually opaque and traditionally used on canvas.
  • Original:
    A piece of artwork created by the artist that is the artist’s idea and creation.
  • Paint:
    Pigment which is dispersed into a liquid, called a vehicle, which includes a binder to make it adhere both to itself and to the surface to which it is applied. Types of paint include tempera, watercolor, oil paint, gouache, enamel, encaustic, fresco, lacquer, Oriental lacquer, and secco.
  • Pochoir:
    A print made from stencils. It was often used for the reproduction of original color works. It was used in France by the most prominent artists and craftsmen to produce illustrated deluxe portfolios, books, limited-edition journals, and decorative and fine-art prints between 1895 and 1935.
  • Prints and printmaking:
    A print is a shape or mark made from a plate or block or other object that is covered with wet color (usually ink) and then pressed onto a flat surface, such as paper or textile. Most prints can be repeated over and over again by re-inking the printing block. Printmaking can be done in many ways, including using an engraved block or stone, transfer paper, or a film negative.
  • Relief:
    A type of sculpture in which form project from a background. There are three degrees or types of relief: high, low, and sunken. In high relief, the forms stand far out from the background. In low relief (best known as bas-relief), they are shallow. In sunken relief, also called hollow or intaglio; the backgrounds are not cut back and the points in highest relief are level with the original surface of the material being carved.
  • Rowlux:
    Commercially produced, Rowlux is a kind of plastic that has a multi-lensed effect which gives an impression of motion and dimension from thousands of minute parabolic lenses molded into the surface. These lenses create shimmering patterns that can be remarkably three dimensional. Roy Lichtenstein created collages using Rowlux.
  • Serigraph:
    A method of printing using hand cut or photographically prepared stencil attached to silk or polyester fabric through which color is forced. Also referred to as silkscreen or screen print.
  • Sculpture:
    A three-dimensional work of art, or the art of making it. Such works may be carved, modeled, constructed, or cast. Sculptures can also be described as assemblage, in the round, and relief, and made in a huge variety of media.
  • Tempera and temper:
    A paint and process involving an emulsion of oil and water. It was in use before the invention of oil paints. Traditionally it involves an egg emulsion; thus the term egg tempera. The pigments or colors are mixed with an emulsion of egg yolks (removed from their sacs) or of size, rather than oil, and can be thinned and solved with water. Also known as egg tempera and temper. A varnish for tempera paints, called glair may be prepared by mixing egg whites with a little water, then beating them, and applying once the bubbles are gone. Because some of its ingredients are organic, tempera may spoil, and get very smelly. Claims have been made that when any one of the following substances are added, it reverses the growth of bacteria in tempera: benzoate of soda, bath salts, table salt, soap or cleanser such as 409, alcohol or bleach (one capful per gallon of tempera).
  • Watercolor or watercolour:
    Any paint that uses water as a medium. Paintings done with this medium are known as watercolors. When made opaque with white, watercolor is generally called gouache or bodycolor. Tempera is another exception. Watercolor is the American spelling. Watercolour is the British spelling.
  • Wood engraving:
    A print similar to a woodcut (woodblock print) in that it is made by cutting (engraving) a design into a block of wood. However unlike a woodcut, the artist cuts the design on the end grain of hardwood rather than the side grain of soft wood. The print’s design can therefore be more intricate than the typical woodcut.