Art Term


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

Lubaina Himid, ‘Between the Two my Heart is Balanced’ 1991
Lubaina Himid
Between the Two my Heart is Balanced 1991
© Lubaina Himid

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).

Selected artists who paint

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Tate Papers

On Painting: Art & Language

Michael Baldwin , Charles Harrison and Mel Ramsden

This paper was presented by members of Art & Language (Michael Baldwin, Charles Harrison and Mel Ramsden) at Tate Modern ...


Contemporary Painting and History Symposium

How can artists find inspiration from modernist history and the more recent past? In what ways is contemporary painting negotiating ...
Tate Etc

Layers and players: Painting Now: Five Contemporary Artists at Tate Britain

Andrew Wilson

What does it mean to be a painter today? Five artists who work with paint in varying ways and for ...


How to spin the colour wheel, by Turner, Malevich and more

We take a quick skip through colour theory, and how some of modern art's giants have put it into ...

Painting conservation


Restoring Rothko

Filmed over 18 months, the story behind the restoration of Mark Rothko's Black on Maroon.


How it's Made: Millais

In the second of our series on artists' techniques and processes, Susan Breen explains how the paintings conservation team breathed ...


The Rediscovery of John Hayls’s A Portrait of a Lady and a Boy with Pan 1655–9

The Rediscovery of John Hayls’s A Portrait of a Lady and a Boy with Pan 1655–9

Salvador Dalí’s Forgotten Horizon

A technical examination of Salvador Dalí’s Forgotten Horizon 1936 at Tate’s paintings conservation studio.

Related materials

Related techniques

Related groups and movements

Painting at Tate