All images below © Sarmaya Arts Foundation
Have you ever stood before an artwork in a gallery and thought, ‘Huh’? Hoping for some enlightenment, maybe you peeked at the little note next to the piece or thumbed through the catalogue but somehow the accompanying literature only complicated things. This right here is the reason art is intimidating to most viewers. The language that surrounds it tends to be opaque and can sound pretentious. But like with any other specialised vocabulary, all you need to comprehend art-speak is a key. We’ve attempted something of the kind by putting together a list of terms commonly used in relation to modern and contemporary art. They’re accompanied by examples from our collection.
A term that is most commonly used to describe art that is non-representational or non-photorealistic in its appearance. This untitled 1966 painting by FN Souza, for instance, is a female nude. With her distorted face and unnatural contours, she looks nothing like any human woman you’ve ever seen but despite that her form and its position are unmistakable. Souza painted many such highly abstracted nudes, perhaps to create a sense of uninhibited abandon that perhaps a realistically painted human nude couldn’t achieve.
French for ‘advanced guard’, this term is used to describe an individual who is loosely part of a wider group of experimental, innovative and inventive artists. It could refer to either a bold technique or the exploration of a novel theme. In his 2017 work, Gathering on a Family Farm, Alexander Gorlizki uses elements from conventional Mughal miniatures in a modernised style. Just like the miniatures did, Gorlizki too creates a strong narrative through his paintings but with a quirkier angle. This re-imagining of traditional compositions in a contemporary style earns the artist the title of avant-garde.
This refers to the arrangement of the different elements within an artwork that forms a balanced whole. In other words, the composition is the layout of the art. It’s broken up into foreground, middle ground and background. A composition can also either vertically oriented (portrait) or horizontally (landscape). In this 2004 painting by Krishen Khanna, Untitled (Pieta sketch), the artist recreates the famous sculpture by Michelangelo. He compresses the action into a spare vertical composition with the cross looming over a distraught Mary with the limp body of Jesus on her lap. Her face is hidden by her hands, depicting a gesture of grief, while her feet seem to be firmly positioned on the ground to support the body of her dead son. Townscape (1991) by FN Souza, on the other hand, is a good example of a landscape composition with a definite horizon line and the starkly delineated figures of the trees sprawling out to the sides.
Art that focuses on an idea or theme rather than the actual finished artwork is described as conceptual. Artists tend to use these works to question the meaning of art or draw attention to the essence of certain artistic conventions. They might spark conversations on what classifies as art, how it is made accessible to audiences and how it might be displayed. In his 2014 series Ritual Drawings Manjunath Kamath tells the viewer vivid mini-stories through his paintings. His narratives contain a certain sense of fluidity, in terms of both the composition as well as the theme of the artwork. In this painting titled Ritual Desires, Kamath creates a web of hands around the main figure in the painting. Each of the arms is interlocked and portrays a different gesture or mudra based on the angle it is viewed from. The main figure is gazing directly at the viewer with a startled expression. Although the artwork is just a sketch, with minimal use of color and technique, the concept still grips the attention.
This is a style of painting in which the artist aims to highlight and express an emotional experience. Expressionists do not portray conventional ideas of beauty or life, but instead tend to distort, exaggerate and accentuate events of the inner world. An expressionist work of art is therefore primarily based on the artist’s feelings and mood at the time of creating the artwork. In her 2001 painting Untitled Arpita Singh highlights the importance of feminism and the women’s rights movement with the depiction of a strong dominant figure with pink skin, a voluptuous figure and five arms. Besides the feminist theme, the fighter-jet planes represent the artist’s preoccupation with war and its effects.
A figurative work of art will contain forms that are instantly recognisable and true to their real nature. In his painting Creation of Other, Pradeepkumar KP explores the relationship between the realistic figure at the centre of his canvas and their role in the world he has created around them. His art invites the viewer to stay a while in this landscape so as to understand its significance. Pradeepkumar’s work tends to revolve around humans and their interaction with certain native landscapes in a contemporary context.
Art compositions that have a particular set of similarities in terms of their style, form or subject matter are regarded as part of the same genre. Examples of genres in art include abstract, figurative, landscape, still life and religious. The Crimson Blossom, a 2018-19 painting by Paul Bhonsle is a good example of religious art as it is inspired by certain traditional Christian forms of painting. Bhosle’s paintings usually concern themselves with specific Biblical narratives and comprise of elements that are directly related to Christianity. In this work, the form and colours used to represent Jesus are typical of European Christian art. Other artists who have created prolifically in this genre include Vishwanath Nageshkar, Madhvi Parekh and AX Trindade. Meanwhile, KH Ara with this painting of fruits and flowers on a table enters the territory of still-life masters like Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne.
It refers to the visual cues, the symbols and motifs that add contextual meaning to an artwork. For instance, artist Manish Soni uses Mughal motifs generously in his series Issanama—the depiction of natural elements like trees, rocks and water-bodies are reminiscent of Mughal miniatures.
Medium in art-speak can refer to the specific form of art (e.g. painting, sculpture, photography), or it could point to the materials used to make up a specific artwork. Some common mediums in paintings include oil, acrylic, gouache, ink, graphite and tempera.
In BN Prabha’s landscape composition titled Houses with Palm Trees, 1959, it is visible from the texture and sheen on the surface of the canvas that the painting is made using oil paints. The thick, layered and almost sculptural application of paint is a characteristic quality of this medium. The viscosity of oil paint also allows for well-defined sections of light and shade within a composition.
In Madhvi Parekh’s painting titled The Cross, 2010, it is apparent that the surface-medium used to delineate this composition is acrylic paint on canvas. This is because acrylic paint characteristically results in a rather opaque and solid-colored composition as is visible in this painting. Although acrylic paint does allow for some shading nuances, it is usually not as well defined as is in oil paintings.
Jamini Roy’s Last Supper uses gouache paint on a paper surface. Gouache is a combination of colour pigment, a binder of some kind like gum arabica, water and white pigment like chalk to increase opacity. The resulting mixture gives the composition a rich and matte effect. In this composition, gouache paint is used to marvelous effect to highlight bold, flat and solid colours.
Badri Narayan’s landscape was created with watercolours on paper. Watercolour and ink are similar in their texture and consistency. They usually dry translucent, allowing for light to reflect off of their coloured surfaces, as they are both water-based mediums. Watercolours and ink typically have a clean, crisp and semi-transparent effect. To increase opacity, the artist may apply thicker or additional layers of the colour.
Graphite is the material used to make up the lead of pencil. This medium is used to create quick sketches or studies of a live subject. It doesn’t allow for as much detail to be explored as charcoal or pastels do and nor is it as malleable, however graphite can be used to create sections of light and shade, depending on the pressure applied to it. In this 2004 drawing by Dhruvi Acharya titled Woman lying in bed reading a book you will observe a single-line contour drawing of a woman on her bed, a thought bubble leaping out of her head. It is a simple, sharply contour sketch on paper.
Mixed-media refers to the use of two or more artistic mediums like pastel, oil paint, acrylic paint or ink, to name a few, that are used cohesively in a single artwork or composition. Mixed-media art involves the combination of a variety of crafting tools—paint, oils, ink, graphite—in order to create a single artwork. In his 1966 painting, Wall of a Small Hindu Temple, Bhupen Khakhar: This painting has a certain sculptural quality to it due to the variety of techniques and mediums used. Here, Khakhar has used paint for the base of the painting, collaged bits of paper have been added onto the surface, and even a piece of cloth has been stuck to a section of the painting. This use of various mediums classifies this composition as a mixed-media painting.
Jogen Chowdhury’s Christ was made using charcoal on paper. Charcoal as a medium is very malleable; its composition allows it to be easily blended, smudged, lightened and darkened, depending on the requirement. Charcoal is the ideal medium to use when trying to distinguish lightened areas from shaded ones. It can also be easily blended with other mediums to create varying effects.
Suhas Roy’s Radha 1 is a pastel drawing on paper. Pastels are crayon-like sticks of colour pigment and a binding material. It’s generally used to impart a rather soft, luminous effect to a painting. Like charcoal, it is also easily malleable and can be used to create defined sections of light and shade, while possessing more of an opaque and matte quality.
Jamini Roy’s Crucifixion was done using tempera on paper. This medium consists of colour mixed with a thick, glutinous base like egg yolk. Tempera is a traditional painting medium that was used in early Christian and Byzantinian art. Later it was adopted and used by several modern Indian artists, including Roy, for his Christian-themed compositions. Tempera is generally applied in thin and semi-opaque layers, and when dry it produces a smooth matte finish.
Zarina Hashmi’s woodcut print Delhi II is made using wooden blocks and ink on a paper surface. The artist makes customised wood blocks onto which an image is carved with a chisel and knife. The raised areas on the wooden surface are then inked and printed, while the flat, uninked areas appear as blank spaces.
Glaze on ceramic tiles
Badri Narayan’s Woman carrying a vase on her head was done on a ceramic tiled surface using different coloured glazes. A glaze is made by mixing colour with a binding agent that will remain stable through the firing of the tile in a kiln. The glaze is typically applied onto the tiled surface and then baked. As it solidifies, the paint acquires a glossy or matte effect depending on the formula of the glaze used.
Organic forms in art comprise of free flowing, asymmetrical and unpredictable shapes, resembling naturally occurring ones like the spread of moss or a trailing cloud. It’s not necessary but organic artworks often tend to mimic natural forms. Basant (Aandhi), a 2017 painting by Manisha Gera Baswani represents a tree during a storm. The tree is delineated in a rather detailed way so you can see a lot of texture in the leaves and the bark. The palette suggests this is later in the year, perhaps in autumn, when the leaves lose their vivid green and turn yellow and blue.
This refers to the physical and systematic process by which an artist uses tools including colours, pens and pencils, brushes and knives, as well craft processes in order to create texture or a particular effect in the finished artwork. Technique can further be classified into categories like collaging, stippling, sketching etc. In this work titled Hamsa Jataka, Badri Narayan has used ink on paper to create a seemingly simple sketch. This is a great example of pure technical skill and artistry; notice how the artist has created gradations even within a monochrome palette by crisscrossing lines around the figure of the man and the bird. This technique is known as cross-hatching.
When the medium or subject matter of an artwork indicates or explores the passage of time, it could be called temporal in nature. In some instances, the artwork is directly related to or physically denotes the concept of time. In her suite of five paintings, Gopa Trivedi explores the correlation between space and time through the use of the splattered brown liquid, which seems to percolate to a wider area in each subsequent painting. Trivedi is able to make the viewer experience the role of time through her art in a very subtle yet impactful way.
Artists balance opposing/contradicting elements within an artwork to create narrative tension in much the same way as a novelist might build suspense—the ensuing effect of something left unresolved makes the work unforgettable. On a canvas, opposing effects are controlled by another dramatic/impactful element within the same composition. Tension within a painting can be created with delineated forms, colour contrasts or even by situating it within a larger context. This work, Untitled (Jesus and devotee), by Krishen Khanna is a very carefully constructed gestural drawing. There is a lot of energy and tension in the frenzy of lines used in this tight composition, which seeks to convey the devotion people feel towards their god.
Abhiniti Ahuja is a Curatorial Assistant at Sarmaya