This is a tough topic. The good news is that you only need a fairly limited range of art vocabulary. There is no need to learn the technical words, just the general words that an educated person should know. If you are a scientist, the idea is that you need to know the equivalent term for “internal combustion engine”, you don’t have to say how it works!
What is art?
This is a big, big question. Here are some basic distinctions you may want to consider.
The fine arts
The fine arts are what most people mean when they just say “art”. These include artistic disciplines such as painting and sculpture. Typically, they are objects created to be “beautiful”.
Arts and crafts
A craft is a similar, related concept and we do use the term arts and crafts. In arts and crafts, objects are created by hand. A good example would be tapestry.
The visual arts
These are the ones we look at and include paintings, drawings and photographs. Does cinema count? For some people, yes. Television?
The plastic arts
These are the ones we can touch. A sculpture and a piece of pottery are examples.
This is when you see someone performing and what they do/produce is a piece of art. Theatre can be called a form of performance art, perhaps a better example is juggling. We normally use this term for art that is “different”. There is also a relatively new phenomenon of the street artist.
There are many types of pictures. If it is picture of somebody, it is generally a portrait. if it is a picture of a place, it is generally a landscape. While a picture of an object by itself is a still life.
Three genres of picture possibly worth knowing are a watercolour which is painted onto paper, an oil painting which is normally painted onto canvas (a tent like material) and a sketch which is normally a preparatory drawing.
Philosophies of art
Art has changed greatly over the ages. You certainly don’t need to be able to talk about the differences between Renaissance art, Mannerism, the Baroque, the Pre-Raphaelites, Impressionism and Cubism – if you did, you would probably scare your IELTS examiner. It might help to have this much knowledge though:
figurative/representational art: this is where the painting/object looks like something from life
abstract art: this is where you see squares, circles and other shapes and you cannot (immediately) tell what the painting is about
contemporary art: this is the art of now. It’s dangerous to use the word “modern” because “modernism” in art actually happened quite a long time ago (the 1930s was probably its heyday).
Where do you see art?
You normally find art in an art gallery. You walk around and admire the exhibits in an exhibition, while discussing whether the curator has got the lighting right and whether that picture should really be hung next to that one.
Sometimes you might also find art in museums, but that is much less common. For example, the British Museum has artefacts from Britain’s past, while the National Gallery is a collection of art.
Would you buy it?
Art tends to be expensive. A masterpiece by Van Gogh could be said to be priceless – that’s so expensive that no one has the money to afford it. A lot of art forms part of a nation’s heritage and the government protects it from sale abroad.
People and art
Not everyone likes art. People who like to spend a lot of time admiring art are often termed culture vultures (a fairly idiomatic term), while the idiom for people who dislike art is philistines.
There is of course art and art. People who appreciate the more elitist forms of art may be said to have highbrow tastes, while those who prefer the less intellectual art forms may have lowbrow tastes.
What makes art special?
Another big question. Some people think that it is important for a work of art to be original or creative. Others would say that what matters is how it appeals to our imagination.
One or two idioms
Perspective shows the depth of a picture – how many dimensions you see. If you have/keep a sense of perspective, then you see a problem/issue for what it is – often meaning that it is not as serious as it seems.
If you describe someone as being no oil painting, be careful. This means that they are ugly.