“Oil on canvas”, “mixed media”, “tempera” — these are just a few of the terms you might have come across while walking through an art gallery or museum. Probably, you were too embarrassed to ask your guide the real meaning of these words. We get you.
Here, we discuss an important but a lesser-known aspect of art – medium. Depending on the context, it may mean several things — a mode of expression or even the raw material with which an artwork is produced. Also, depending on the type of art, a medium can be oil mixed with pigments as well as the human body, as it is the case in performance art. Here, we look at the various meanings associated with medium in art, as well as the types of media in art that are commonly used.
Medium as Type of Artwork
Broadly speaking, the term medium may be used to define the practice that creates a work of art – painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking, etc. Essentially every category of art is its own medium. In a gallery, since the type of artwork that is displayed is often self-evident, this information is not always listed. Instead, many artists and galleries choose to spell out the raw materials used to create a work of art. A display card would typically read the materials needed to create the artwork (oil on canvas, mixed media, acrylic on canvas, etc.) followed by the date of creation, the dimensions, and the price.
This brings us to the other definition – the idea of medium as an artistic material.
Medium as an Artistic Material
This is perhaps the most common sense in which artists use the term medium in art. Artists use it to describe the specific materials they use to create a work of art, as well as the support on which an artwork (such as a painting) is created. As such, it is very common to see the following terms on display cards: oil on canvas, watercolour on paper, tempera on board, etc. The combination of medium and the support can be almost endless. The use of the word also extends to other types of artworks such as sculpture and printmaking. A sculptor might use metal, bronze, copper, or marble as their medium. Similarly, a printmaker might also use a variety of mediums, such as wood cut, etching, engraving, etc.
The choice of medium depends on the personal preference of the artist as well as the nature of the composition. When an artist chooses to incorporate multiple materials in a single art piece, then the artwork is called mixed media. While oils, tempera, gouache, and watercolours are common types of media in art, some artists might choose an unconventional material like coffee stains or recycled materials. With the coming of digital technology, many artists are now incorporating digital printmaking in their art. In fact, with the popularity of NFT sales, digital art may slowly overtake traditional art forms and media.
Thinking beyond Medium
In the second half of the twentieth century, art critics and theorists began to think of art beyond the material limitations posed by the medium. American critic and scholar Rosalind Krauss has spoken of a state in which the very idea of artistic medium has been rendered useless, especially because artists today are experimenting with a wide variety of media to creatively express themselves. Conceptual art and video art are particularly two forms where the primacy of the traditional media is no longer relevant.
It would certainly be fruitful to rethink the idea of medium in art in the context of NFT-based digital art. However, that’s a topic for another discussion. You can learn all about artistic traditions, styles and principles from Terrain.art’s free resources and blogs pages.