Painting, the expression of ideas and emotions, with the creation of certain aesthetic qualities, in a two-dimensional visual language. The elements of this language—its shapes, lines, colours, tones, and textures—are used in various ways to produce sensations of volume, space, movement, and light on a flat surface. These elements are combined into expressive patterns in order to represent real or supernatural phenomena, to interpret a narrative theme, or to create wholly abstract visual relationships. An artist’s decision to use a particular medium, such as tempera, fresco, oil, acrylic, watercolour or other water-based paints, ink, gouache, encaustic, or casein, as well as the choice of a particular form, such as mural, easel, panel, miniature, manuscript illumination, scroll, screen or fan, panorama, or any of a variety of modern forms, is based on the sensuous qualities and the expressive possibilities and limitations of those options. The choices of the medium and the form, as well as the artist’s own technique, combine to realize a unique visual image.
Earlier cultural traditions—of tribes, religions, guilds, royal courts, and states—largely controlled the craft, form, imagery, and subject matter of painting and determined its function, whether ritualistic, devotional, decorative, entertaining, or educational. Painters were employed more as skilled artisans than as creative artists. Later the notion of the “fine artist” developed in Asia and Renaissance Europe. Prominent painters were afforded the social status of scholars and courtiers; they signed their work, decided its design and often its subject and imagery, and established a more personal—if not always amicable—relationship with their patrons.
During the 19th century painters in Western societies began to lose their social position and secure patronage. Some artists countered the decline in patronage support by holding their own exhibitions and charging an entrance fee. Others earned an income through touring exhibitions of their work. The need to appeal to a marketplace had replaced the similar (if less impersonal) demands of patronage, and its effect on the art itself was probably similar as well. Generally, artists can now reach an audience only through commercial galleries and public museums, although their work may be occasionally reproduced in art periodicals. They may also be assisted by financial awards or commissions from industry and the state. They have, however, gained the freedom to invent their own visual language and to experiment with new forms and unconventional materials and techniques. For example, some painters have combined other media, such as sculpture, with painting to produce three-dimensional abstract designs. Other artists have attached real objects to the canvasin collage fashion or used electricity to operate coloured kinetic panels and boxes. Conceptual artists frequently express their ideas in the form of a proposal for an unrealizable project, while performance artists are an integral part of their own compositions. The restless endeavour to extend the boundaries of expression in Western art produces continuous international stylistic changes. The often bewildering succession of new movements in painting is further stimulated by the swift interchange of ideas by means of international art journals, traveling exhibitions, and art centres.