Vocabulary List—Critical and Prehistoric terms

This post describes and explains the most common words and phrases used in discussions and descriptions of Prehistoric art and Critical Examination terms.


absolute dating: a method of assigning a precise historical date to periods and objects based on known and recorded events in the region as well as technically extracted physical evidence.
abstract, abstraction: any art that does not represent observable aspects of nature or transforms visible forms into a pattern resembling the original model; also the formal qualities of this process.
additive sculpture: the artist builds up the forms by adding more material as s/he works; for example, sculptures made of clay or bronze.
henge: a circular area enclosed by stones or wood posts set up by Neolithic peoples, usually bounded by a ditch and raised embankment.
medium: the material from which an artwork is made.
memory image: an image that relies on the generic shapes and relationships that readily spring to mind at the mention of an object.


menhir: a megalithic stone block placed in an upright position.
monolith: a single, large stone.
post-and-lintel construction: an architectural system of construction with tow or more vertical elements (posts) supporting a horizontal element (lintel).
radiometric dating: a method of dating prehistoric works of art made from organic materials, based on the rate of degeneration of radiocarbons in these materials.
relative chronology (or relative dating): a practice of dating objects in relation to each other when the absolute dating of those objects cannot be or has not been established.
stylization, stylized: A manner of representation that conforms to an intellectual or artistic idea rather than to naturalistic appearance.
subtractive sculpture: a block of material is cute or abraded to create the final form; for example, a carving of marble or wood.

Critical terms to discuss form and style:
aesthetics: the philosophy of beauty.
color: the sensation produced on the eye by light rays. The seven main rays that make up the visible spectrum are subdivided into three primary colors or hues—red, yellow and blue—each of which has a complementary color composed of the other two. Color values are determined by the amount of light different hues reflect; saturation refers to the dominance of hue in the color or the “purity” of the color, determined by its
placement on the color wheel.
content: when discussing a work of art, the term can include all of the following: its subject matter; the ideas contained in the work; the artist’s intention; its meaning for the beholder.
foreshortening: the illusion created on a flat surface in which figures and objects appear to recede or project sharply into space.
form: in speaking of a work of art or architecture, the term refers to purely visual components: line, color, shape, texture, mass, spatial qualities, and composition—all of these are called formal elements.
idealization: a process in art through which artists strive to make their forms and figures attain perfection, based on pervading cultural values or their own mental image of beauty.
line: the trace of a moving point, for example that of a pencil. It may create a silhouette or define a contour to represent mass or volume.
mass: the three-dimensional bulk of an object, as distinct from the two-dimensional area it covers or the single plane of its surface.
modeling: in sculpture, the process of fashioning such soft materials as clay or wax; in drawing, painting or printing, the indication of solid form by shading. naturalism, naturalistic: a style of depiction in which the physical appearance of the rendered image in nature is the primary inspiration. A naturalistic work appears to record the visible world.
perspective: a system for representing three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. Atmospheric perspective renders the effect of spatial distance by subtle variations in color and clarity of representation; one-point and multiple-point perspective create the illusion of three-dimensional space by delineating a horizon line and multiple orthogonal lines which recede to meet at one or more points on the horizon (vanishing points), giving the appearance of spatial depth. picture plane: the theoretical spatial place corresponding with the actual surface of a painting.
provenance: the history of ownership of a work of art from the time of its creation to the present.
representational: any art that attempts to depict an aspect of the external, natural world in a visually understandable way.
tone: the overall degree of brightness or darkness in an artwork; also the saturation, intensity or value of color and its effect.
value: the darkness or lightness of a color (hue).
volume: space enclosed by mass, for example the interior of a building.
volumetric: a term indicating the concern for rendering the impression of three-dimensional volumes in painting, usually achieved through modeling and the manipulation of light and shadow.

Works Referenced:
Honour, Hugh and John Fleming. The Visual Arts: A History. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, Prentice Hall, Inc., 2005.
Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Upper Saddle River, Prentice Hall, Inc., 2002.
Art: A Brief History. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, Prentice Hall, Inc., 2007.