English Idioms: 25 Art Related Idioms with Examples

Hello everyone,

Art and language are intertwined in fascinating ways.

So many of the idioms and phrases we use every day are drawn from the world of art, painting, sculpture, and creative expression.

These colorful idioms add vibrant splashes to our conversations and writing.

Let’s take a look at 25 idioms about art and unpack the creative meaning behind each one:

1. A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

We’ve all heard this classic idiom before. It means that a single image can convey a complex idea more effectively than a long-winded explanation.

In other words, visuals have an unmatched ability to capture stories and emotions that might take pages of text to describe.

2. Back to the Drawing Board

When you have to start over from the very beginning on a project or plan, you’ve gone “back to the drawing board.”

This refers to the process of an artist scrapping their draft sketches and drawings to rework an idea from the initial brainstorming phase.

3. Palette

You might use this term outside of art to refer to a range or variety of available choices, options, or opportunities.

For example, “The restaurant offers a palette of international flavors.” This stems from the literal palette that artists use to blend colors.

4. Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining

The origins of this optimistic phrase can be traced back to poetry and literature describing the bright edges of dark clouds.

Today, it’s an idiom encouraging people to look for the potential benefit or upside in every difficult situation, just as sunlight makes the lining of stormy clouds appear silvery and bright.

5. Sketch

You might describe something as a “rough sketch” if it lacks detail and is a rudimentary or unpolished outline or overview of the complete idea.

This comes from the initial, loosely drawn sketches that artists make before a detailed drawing or painting.

6. The Landscape Is Changing

When circumstances, environments, or contexts are shifting rapidly, you could say “the landscape is changing.”

This compares the evolving situation to how the appearance of a scenic outdoor landscape can change over time due to human development, erosion, seasons, etc.

7. Paint a Picture

If you vividly describe something to someone, you might say you’re trying to “paint a picture” in their mind through your words, as visual imagery gives people a clear mental image.

8. Mixing Colors

In art, you can create a variety of hues by mixing paints or pigments of different colors.

In conversation, if you accuse someone of “mixing colors” or “mixing their colors,” it suggests they are being deceptive or dishonest by blending truth with lies or fiction.

9. Out of the Frame

You might call an idea or opinion “out of the frame” if it is unconventional, unorthodox, or fundamentally different from the mainstream.

The implication is that the concept lies outside of the accepted perspective or boundaries represented by a picture frame.

10. Coloring Outside the Lines

This refers to when children color outside of the boundaries provided for each segment of a drawing or coloring page.

Metaphorically, it means taking an unrestrained or nonconformist approach that disregards rules or conventions.

11. Illustrate

In language, the word “illustrate” can mean clarifying or making a concept plainer and easier to grasp, just as a visual illustration helps illuminate a point or explanation.

12. Turn a Blind Eye

If you “turn a blind eye” to something, you’re choosing to ignore or dismiss it, even if it’s clearly visible and apparent.

This comes from the idiom of an artist closing one eye and squinting with the other in order to view their subject in a different visual perspective.

13. The Art of…

You’ll often hear people refer to the “art of” a certain skill, like “the art of conversation” or “the art of diplomacy.”

They’re framing that activity as requiring practice, nuance, creativity, and finesse — characteristics typically associated with artistic talents and pursuits.

14. Renaissance

You might describe someone as a “Renaissance man/woman,” meaning they have talents and expertise across many diverse domains, just as great thinkers and creators during the European Renaissance excelled in art, science, philosophy, and more.

15. Still Life

Some people jokingly refer to an environment or place that seems inactive or static as a “still life,” making an analogy to this genre of art that portrays unmoving subjects like fruit, vases, books, etc.

16. Moving Picture

While today this term commonly refers to movies and cinema, it originally described scenes, images, and artwork that appeared to be in motion, shifting, or exhibiting a sense of animation.

17. The Writing Is on the Wall

This idiom suggests that the signs or future indications of something, like failure or trouble, are glaringly obvious, just like if a warning message were literally written on the wall for everyone to plainly see.

18. Avant Garde

In art, the avant garde refers to creative movements driven by highly experimental, radical, and boundary-pushing ideas and aesthetics. The phrase has come to describe any innovative or unconventional school of thought that defies tradition.

19. Abstract

You might label an idea as “overly abstract” if you find it too conceptual, theoretical, ambiguous, and difficult to firmly grasp.

This compares it to the intentional imprecision of abstract art that does not depict recognizable subject matter.

20. Off the Wall

Something described as “off the wall” is bizarre, eccentric, quirky, or just wildly different from what’s conventional or normal.

This relates to how certain avant garde artworks or installations may appear strange or nonsensical when displayed literally off of the gallery’s walls.

21. Draw a Blank

When you “draw a blank,” your mind is empty and you simply cannot retrieve the memory, fact, word, etc. that you are grasping for.

It refers to the experience of an artist starting with a blank canvas or drawing surface before putting any marks on it.

22. Set in Stone

If something is “set in stone,” it’s meant to be permanent, unalterable, and cannot be changed or revised — just as chiseling artwork into stone makes it an enduring, fixed creation.

23. The Bigger Picture

While focused on a specific detail or small part of something, you might be advised to consider “the bigger picture.”

In art, masterpieces reveal their deeper meaning and artistry when viewed as a whole rather than examining isolated portions.

24. Artistic License

When someone takes “artistic license,” they are intentionally deviating from fact or reality in the name of creative expression.

This provides leeway for artists to reinterpret, exaggerate, or alter subjects as their artistic visions dictate.

25. With a Stroke of…

You might hear phrases like “with a stroke of the pen” or “with a stroke of genius” to describe momentous achievements or significant outcomes arising from a single, simplified action or notion.

This stems from the modest “strokes” that bring artistic masterworks into existence.

These idioms serve as vivid linguistic paintings, drawing mindful connections between the realms of language and creativity.

By understanding their origins in the visual arts, we can appreciate the full depth and color of their figurative meanings.


Check out these awesome phrases & Idioms books I recommend:

Cambridge Idioms Dictionary

IDIOMS and PHRASES Anglo,Synonyms and Antonyms Anglo,One Word Substitution

Oxford Dictionary of Idioms

3000 Idioms and Phrases+ 3000 Proverbs 

Idioms for Kids

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