Play Hard

The language of art – part one

Knowledge is power, so arm yourself with the vocabulary to decipher a dealer and get the art you really want

Written by Becky Hardy
Published 29.05.2021

In Partnership with Hancock Gallery

In the same way that there’s a song out there for all of us, a book that won’t let each of us put it down or a film we could watch again and again, there’s a piece of art for everyone.

And yes, we get it – sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. Art can be expensive. Sometimes, hella expensive. Galleries can feel elitist or foreboding. The language surrounding art can seem undecipherable. But put all that to one side and a work of art is, in its essence, entirely about emotion. It’s about how it makes us feel when we engage with it – whether we’re a multi-millionaire looking to add our 300th piece to our collection, or it’s our first time in an art gallery.

Having a piece of art in your home can be liberating. It’s emotional and expressive; it can remind you of special people or places, or inspire you to dream about them; it’s a way of communicating your own sense of style to yourself as much as it is to others. And that can feel incredible.


Of course, if you want it to be, buying art can be a huge investment of our hard-earned cash. However, it can also be a thrilling and rewarding experience. And actually, with the right guidance, a very easy one too. Take a step back and, really, it’s not all that dissimilar from splashing out on a car, a special piece of jewellery or even a swanky hotel! Because, when buying art through a reputable gallery, you’ll usually get what you pay for. They’re all luxuries. There are various options, sizes, models and price-points available for each. And there are even finance options for art, just like there are from certain car dealerships or jewellers. The important thing when investing in any? Knowing exactly what it is you’re committing your money to.

Luckily for you, that’s where we come in. Well, kinda. See, we recently dropped by one of Newcastle’s newest and most exciting fine art galleries – Hancock Gallery – to check out their latest exhibitions and catch up with Gallery Manager Chris Morgan ahead of their reopening. And, honestly? We were blown away.

Nestled on the borders of where Jesmond meets Newcastle’s city centre, within a gorgeously atmospheric, four-storey Georgian townhouse, Hancock Gallery brings together local and international artists within its walls. Combined, their work offers an examination of everything we experience in our everyday lives: from pop culture, consumerism and politics, to how we’ve struggled and coped with the unprecedented pressures of the pandemic. And while we’d hardly call ourselves experts, we found ourselves enthralled with it all… with a little help from Chris.

After inundating him with questions all afternoon (all of which he deftly answered, without making us feel stupid), we realised that understanding and navigating the language of art can be really quite an empowering experience. So, as we were leaving the gallery, we asked him one last question: can you help us put all this down in words? And that’s what we’ve tried to do here.

We’ve worked closely with Chris to come up with (what we hope) will prove a handy guide for any of you lovely readers the next time you find yourself in one of the North East’s incredible art galleries. So without further ado, here’s everything we need to know about original art.

Psssst… this is only one of two articles in our Language Of Art mini-series – stay tuned for the next instalment, which will be all about prints.



Let’s start at the very beginning, (which, we’ve heard, is a very good place to start). What does a dealer mean when they say that a piece of art is an ‘original’?

‘This relates mainly to how it’s produced,’ explains Chris. ‘For example, a print (or reproduction) may look identical to an original painting, but the image produced by printing can be identically reproduced as many times as is needed. An original oil painting can never be reproduced identically again. This is why the value of an original painting is usually higher than that of a print of the same image.’


Ok, so paintings are always going to be original then. But when it comes to the paint itself, what’s what and what’s best?

‘Oil paint is made up of pigment suspended in an oil,’ Chris says. ‘It can be used raw out of the tube or diluted with different types of spirits, but not water. It produces very rich tones, and different thicknesses can allow an artist to use the paint in different ways. Due to the oil component, it can take a long time to dry. However, because of that slower drying time, oil paint can be reworked over a longer duration.

‘Watercolour is a water-based medium made from finely-ground pigment, usually suspended in gum arabic,’ Chris continues. ‘It can be diluted by water to create an extremely thin medium that can give paintings a bright, transparent and almost shining quality.

Acrylic paint is another water-based paint made from finely-ground pigments, but this time suspended in a plasticising emulsion which dries to a very solid state in a short space of time. Acrylic paint can be diluted with water but, once dried, it becomes water resistant. Because of that, it’s very difficult to rework.’

So does that mean artwork made using acrylic paint is essentially the most valuable – because it’s the most challenging to work with?

‘Actually it’s usually work in oil that’s most sought after, due to the time it takes to produce a painting – i.e. its drying time,’ says Chris. ‘Oil paint is far more expensive too, and it has that historical element to it – all the “Old Masters” painted using oil, whereas acrylic is quite a new invention. There’s no real ‘difference’, though – it all just comes down to perception.’


And are all original artworks straight-up paintings?

‘No, a lot of original artwork can come in the form of a collage, too,’ says Chris. ‘Collage comes from the French word “coller”, which literally means “to glue”. So in art, the term collage refers both to the technique the artist has used and the resulting work of art – in which fragments of different materials are arranged and glued (or otherwise fixed) to a supporting surface.’

We’ve heard the word ‘medium’ a lot – does that refer to the size of a piece of art

‘No, the medium refers to the material used to create the piece of artwork,’ Chris explains. ‘Oil paint, for example, or charcoal – they’re two different mediums.’



See, that all made a lot of sense. But we’ve got a sneaky feeling we’re going to need to read over these next terms a few times before we fully get to grips with them.

Chris, take it away…

Diptych and Triptych – ‘These are terms which refer to a work of art consisting of either two (di) or three (tri) sections or panels that are displayed together, creating one complete artwork.’

Impasto – ‘This is a technique used in painting, where paint is laid on an area in very thick layers – usually thick enough that the brush or painting-knife strokes are visible.’


Chiaroscuro – ‘From the Italian terms “chiaro” – which means “light” – and “scuro”, meaning “dark”. This term refers to how an artist creates form and volume through a bold contrast of light and shade.’

Assemblage  ‘A 3D work of art, made from combinations of materials including found objects or non-traditional art materials.’

Batik – ‘A wax-resist dyeing technique that is often used to make highly patterned cloth.’

To find out more about the language of art, to see what exhibitions are coming up at Hancock Gallery or to plan your visit, their website, Facebook page or Instagram

 Or pop in and see Chris, grab a coffee and check out the incredible artwork that’s sitting right on our doorstep at: 2 Jesmond Road West, Newcastle NE2 4PQ



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