Painting is the practice of applying paint or other media to a surface, usually with a brush

Introduction to techniques and processes

Frank Auerbach, 'Small Head of E.O.W.' 1957-8

Auerbach painted over his original painting several times to create an almost sculptural quality with oil paint. Thick paint is given an independent reality of its own, as well as being used as a means of representing a physical object.

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Cy Twombly, 'Quattro Stagioni: Autunno' 1993-5

After pre-priming the canvases with cream-coloured gesso the artist pinned them to the wall and allowed the paint to dribble and smeared areas of paint with his finger tips.

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In art, the term painting describes both the act of painting, (using either a brush or other implement, such as palette knife, sponge, or airbrush to apply the paint); and the result of the action – the painting as an object.

The beginning of painting

What we call art in all its forms – painting, sculpture, drawing and engraving – appeared in human groups all over the world in the period known as the Upper Paleolithic, which is roughly from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. In Europe, sophisticated and powerful paintings from this period have been discovered in caves such as Lascaux in France. In 1994 possibly even more astonishing works were found in the Chauvet cave in the Ardèche Valley, also in France. Cave paintings consist of pigments such as coloured earths rubbed onto the rock. In some cases they appear to have been mixed into a paste first. The paintings mostly represent animals but there are some human images.

Since then painting has changed in essence very little. Supports evolved from rock faces, through the walls of buildings, to portable ones of paper, wood, and finally cloth, particularly canvas. The range of pigments expanded through a wide range of earths and minerals, to plant extracts and modern synthetic colours. Pigments have been mixed with water and gum to make a paint, but in the fifteenth century in Europe the innovation of using oil (linseed) produced a newly flexible and durable medium that played a major part in the explosion of creativity in Western painting at the Renaissance and after. At the same time subject matter expanded to embrace almost every aspect of life (genres).

The development of painting

Browse this slideshow of videos for an introduction to 500 years of British painting from Tate’s collection.

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  • Curator Tim Batchelor picks out key works from the 1540–1650 room which explore family dynasty and status in portraiture and still lifes, which had become more established in the late seventeenth century.

  • Curator Greg Sullivan discusses the significance of the 1760–1780 room through the foundation of Royal Academy and how society portraitists such as Joshua Reynolds referenced the Great Masters in his paintings.

  • Curator Alison Smith takes us through the Victorian era in the 1840–1890 room, a time was when reproductive media (engravings and later on, photography) first came into affect.

  • Curator Chris Stephens discusses the contrasting works in the 1940 room, which explore devastation and utopian idealism, all responses to WWII, including Francis Bacon's iconic triptych.

  • Curator Chris Stephen's explores the 1960 room which brought new forms of abstraction and focuses on Peter Blake's portrait of David Hockney.

  • Curator Helen Little looks at three painters from the 1990s room, including Chris Ofili who uses resin, elephant dung and collage in his paintings to portray contemporary culture.

  • Curator Helen Little talks about two painters who reference traditional painting techniques within a contemporary framework, from the 2000 room.

Explore the development of painting from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century through Tate artworks.

The history of painting

British Painting in the Eighteenth Century
This exhibition, which was on display at Tate Britain in 1957, looked at British masters of painting and its relation to European painting. Read the exhibition text and discover the key artists from this period.

Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity
This exhibition, which was on display at Tate Britain in 2005, brought together a selection of the greatest portraits by Reynolds, many of them depicting the most famous men and women of the eighteenth century. Read the room guide and see what works were on display.

Painting today

Painting Now: Five Contemporary Artists
This exhibition, which was on display at Tate Britain in 2013, focused on the recent work of five contemporary painters. Download the exhibition guide and see which works were on display.

Painting in focus

An in-focus look at the work of two very different painters and their approaches to materials, techniques and subject matter.

Kazimir Malevich: inventor of Suprematism

From 1910, Malevich abandoned his early style of painting Russian landscapes and religious scenes through a desire to stop depicting reality in favour of depicting form and shape, known as Suprematism. His Black Square opened unlimited possibilities for future generations of artists.

Kazimir Malevich Black Square 1913

Kazimir Malevich
Black Square 1913


© State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Malevich
This exhibition, which was on display at Tate Modern in 2014, was the first retrospective of Malevich’s work in the UK. Download the exhibition guide, watch the exhibition film and see which works were on display.

Five ways to look at Malevich’s Black Square
This article explores the background of Malevich’s most iconic work and the reaction to the work through time.

Five key works from Malevich
Achim Borchardt-Hume, curator of Malevich picks his five favourite paintings by Malevich and writes how significant these works were on modernist painting.

David Batchelor on Malevich
David Batchlor, an artist known for his monochrome paintings, discusses his various encounters with Malevich’s work in this Tate Etc. article.

Fiona Rae: playful, controlled and kitsch

Fiona Rae, who was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1991, creates paintings which appear both playful and accidental through expressive brushstrokes and kitsch imagery, yet on close inspection reveals a highly controlled handling of paint.

Fiona Rae invites TateShots to her London studio and talks about her enduring passion for paint, paintbrushes and giant palettes. She breakdowns her different painting styles from encrusted surfaces and brushy swathes to watery pools.

Modern Paint Podcast: Fiona Rae
Listen to Fiona Rae talk about her series of paintings entitled Night Vision, with Senior Conservation Scientist Tom Learner, where she talks about manipulating the quality of paint and refers to it like food materials such as ice-cream.

Fiona Rae: Tate Members’ artist commission
Watch our video which documents the journey from Fiona Rae’s studio to the designing of the Tate Members’ products packs for the Tate Members’ artist commission 2011–13.

Painting in context

Tate Debate: What’s next for painting?
In 2011 we asked the public what was next for painting in Tate Debate blog post. Read the background behind our question and the answers we were given.

Performance Art 101: Painting and Performance
Blogpost which looks at painting within the context of performance, including Niki de Saint Phalle’s Shooting Paintings 1962, where she shot paint-filled balloons with a rifle, or Janine Antoni’s Loving Care 1993, where the artist mopped the floor of the gallery with her dyed hair, making a feminist comment on male-dominated action painting.

A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance
This exhibition, which was on display at Tate Modern in 2012, looked at the dynamic relationship between performance and painting since 1950. Read the exhibition text and see which works were on display.

Conserving painting

Watch the 18-month story behind the restoration of Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon when it was damaged in 2012 when black ink was applied to the lower right corner.

The Rediscovery of John Hayls’s A Portrait of a Lady and a Boy with Pan 1655–9
Conservation also exposes fascinating historical discoveries. This project looked at A Portrait of a Lady and a Boy with Pan, and showed that Hayls painted over details from his original composition.

John Schaeffer Nevill Keating Conservation Project
This painstaking project improved the condition of six paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Johann Zoffany, a selection of Tate’s important collection of eighteenth-century paintings.

Richter’s paintings. How did he make them?
Curator Mark Godfrey takes to painting conservator Rachel Barker about what she has learnt from looking closer at abstract painter Richter’s works.

Painting in detail

Watch our lecture from our series Painting Present, which explores the complex relationship between painting and curatorial practice. The participants includes Alison Gingeras, curator of Cher Peintre (2002) at Centre Pompidou and curator of Painting at the Edge of the World (2001) at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Artist talk: Marlene Dumas
Watch this evening lecture with painter Marlene Dumas, where she talks about her work and her retrospective exhibition Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden.

On Painting
This paper argues that painting resists the Institutional Theory of art in as much as it does not depend on institutions for its status as art. In this respect, painting after conceptual art may be seen as just as critical of art institutions as conceptual art used to be.

Contemporary Painting and History Symposium
Listen to this symposium which looks at contemporary painting and how can artists find inspiration from modernist history and what is contemporary painting’s attitude to theory.

Related glossary terms

Types of paint and techniques:
Watercolour
, oil paint, acrylic paint, ink, gouache, bitumen, impasto, brushwork, gestural, grattage, airbrushing, fresco, fumage, matter painting

Groups and movements: seventeeth/eighteenth century:
History painting, iconography, picturesque, neoclassicism, sublime, grand manner, Rococo, fancy picture

Groups and movements: nineteenth century:
Realism, Pre-Raphaelite, naturalism, impressionism

Groups and movements: Twentieth century:
Action painters, expressionism, tachisme, suprematism, photorealism, futurism, abstract expressionism, colour field painting, orphism