Types of Art

We categorize art for the sake of understanding and interpretation: It is easiest to compare and make connections between works that are similar in fundamental ways. Painting, sculpture, and architecture are the arts most commonly discussed in textbooks as “the fine arts,” and they are sometimes grouped together with music and poetry. The wording fine arts, however, suggests that these art forms in some way rank higher than other art forms generally categorized as decorative arts or crafts. There are various justifications for this distinction: The fine arts use the human figure as their subject (although this is a difficult rationale when applied to architecture); they can convey ideas or moral values; they are interpreted or discussed in theoretical writings; and they can be appreciated for their own sake, without regard to their usefulness. The idea of fine arts traces back to the French Academy of Fine Arts of the 17th century, however, and since then artists have on many occasions actively worked to tear down this division.

We might instead think of painting, sculpture, and architecture as corresponding roughly to two-dimensional art, three-dimensional art, and arts that enclose or define space. Some of the newer art forms that add motion - for example, film and video art - are sometimes referred to as time-based media. Decorative arts, such as jewelry and textiles, and crafts, such as woodworking and basketry, are defined primarily by their practical use: for example, in fashion, furniture, or household items.


Painting involves applying a pigment (coloring substance, often a mineral) on a surface. The pigment is suspended in a medium such as oil, water, or egg yolk, which helps the pigment adhere to the surface or gives it other qualities such as transparency or sheen. Among the most common types of painting are fresco painting, in which a water-soluble paint is applied to wet plaster; oil painting, in which pigment is suspended in slow-drying oil; tempera painting, in which pigment is suspended in egg yolk; and watercolor, in which pigment is suspended in water. The surface on which the paint is applied is called the ground; some commonly used grounds include wood panels, plaster, canvas, and paper.

Other two-dimensional media include vase painting, mosaics, stained glass, illuminated manuscripts, sand painting, ink painting, and all forms of drawing and printmaking. These other media share visual qualities with painting - for example, color arrangements, light and dark contrasts, or the illusion of space - and so are often compared to each other in art textbooks.

Drawing and printmaking are often grouped together as the graphic arts; they are generally done on paper, and line is usually used to create form in each of them. Since the 1960s, however, the term graphic art has been more often applied to art made for commercial purposes, such as advertising. Today, graphic artists use photography and digital media (images transformed or altered by computer) as often as drawing.


Sculpture, a broad category, comprises three-dimensional objects, whether freestanding (without other structures for support) or attached to a background and called relief sculpture. Sculptors can make their objects by modeling a soft material such as clay or wax; by carving hard materials, such as stone or wood; or by assembling different sorts of materials. Works modeled in a soft material are often cast in a more durable material such as plaster or bronze. Traditionally, we have thought of sculpture as objects without movement that are isolated from the viewer on a pedestal. Since the mid-20th century, however, sculptors have created objects that move, that share space with the viewer, or that create whole environments in which people can move.


Architecture is the art of creating structures in which we can live, work, worship, and play. Architects, more than painters and sculptors, are concerned with the function of their buildings as well as with the visual appearance, structural solidity, and way in which a building fits into the landscape. Landscape architecture and garden design use plants and the land itself as materials to create outdoor spaces and interesting visual effects. Urban planners use architecture and landscape design at a larger scale, to shape the communities in which we live. A designer - someone who imagines and works with the ideas - is common to all of these fields. Although many people with specialized skills work to make the projects a reality, the person considered the artist is the one who creates the design.


Photography, video art, film, and digital art all use sophisticated technology to create images, which then can usually be reproduced in multiple copies. Photography may most closely resemble painting and the graphic arts because most photographs are stable, two-dimensional objects. The photographer’s role, however, is different from the painter’s. Photographers select their subject matter, but light, rather than the artist’s hand, makes the image. Photographers make many creative decisions about film development, printing, or digital adjustments, and they can even add drawing or color by hand. However, the primary process is mechanical and chemical.

Video artists and filmmakers also use photography to record images, and they often combine visual effects with dramatic action, narrative, and music. Some video artists, such as Korean-born Nam June Paik, incorporate their work into sculptures or environments, blurring the line between new and traditional media. Digital art, another new artistic medium, uses the computer to create works of art. Digital art can use video, photography, or traditional methods of drawing. The works may be printed out and displayed like other drawings or photographs, or they may exist only in virtual form, to be viewed on computer screens.


Decorative arts furnish or embellish the spaces in which we live, or adorn our bodies. Among the decorative arts are textile and furniture design, metalwork, glass, ceramics, and fashion design. The categories of decorative arts and crafts overlap a great deal, although we generally think of crafts as handmade objects of simple materials, such as clay ceramics or woven cloth. Generally decorative arts and crafts are useful and lack narrative or symbolic content. But the separation between the decorative and fine arts is not always clear. Painters can make works that avoid subject matter entirely, and architects often design the furnishings for their buildings. In many non-Western cultures, household items, such as painted Chinese screens and African carved doors, can have highly symbolic subject matter.

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