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“Artists use mediums to create their artworks” - heard that before! But what does Medium mean in Art? Confusingly, Medium can be either the oil which is mixed with pigments, a human body in a performance or even printing.

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What does ‘Medium’ mean in Art? Although this word is probably over-used when talking about art, it can mean several things for various artists, art styles or schools of thought. It can be seen in extremely different ways and completely depends on the context.

Here, we will look at the distinct understandings of ‘Medium’: as a mode of expression, as raw material, the definition of ‘medium-specificity’ and ‘post-medium’ and the medium’s multisensory and multidimensional qualities.

The ‘Medium’ as a Mode of Expression

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, from an artistic point of view ‘Medium’ refers to “any raw material or mode of expression used in an artistic or creative activity”. Generally speaking, it is the ‘mode of expression’ used to create an artwork. Whether we are talking about painting, drawing, sculpting, printing or writing – the means the artist employs is the ‘Medium’. 

Artists choose a mode of expression to create their artworks, and their original use of the medium is what allows them to express ideas or feelings though art. Indeed, in one medium the unique language, possible patterns and elements are put together to create new combinations and contrasts. “The ‘medium’ mediates”. It translates artists’ ideas, messages or impulses thanks to their skill and sensibility. It is a vehicle for art.

Distinguishing different media can help us classify the arts according to their different codes, languages and characteristics. This is probably the most common way of understanding the arts although it can be seen as superficial. Opposed to grouping according to the purpose or effect, the technique and materials the artists employ define them and their works. Traditionally an artist specialises in one of these – their preferred medium. Usually, this specific medium is used for the great part, if not all of their career.

 

n.d., Girl working with clay, n.d., Courtesy of liveabout.com ©Hero Images / Getty Images.

 

According to this understanding, the different media in the arts are independent categories, ‘separate boxes’ in which artists and artworks are placed. This understanding sees the ‘Medium’ as either Visual, Visual-tactile, Auditory, Verbal or Mixed – each with their own characteristics.

The Visual Arts, such as painting, photography or drawing, are usually bi-dimensional. The visual aspects of these pieces, the brushstrokes, signs, smudges or tints are fundamental and central to their appreciation. Visual-tactile media, including sculpting, moulding or architecture, are largely tri-dimensional. The shape, texture, fingerprints, shadows and colours of these are meant to be touched and seen.

Auditory Art is everything which focuses on sound – like music of course, and even sound art recordings. The digital recording or music sheet is the code of this type of art, but the work itself is the reproduction or performance which gives life to the piece. It is the tone of the notes and rhythm vibrating in the air which characterises an auditory piece. On the other hand, Verbal Art encompasses literature and poetry – everything which uses a language. The meanings, combined with the rhythm and sound of the words, are central. The written word exists in its meaning, not only as letters printed or scribbled on a page.

Lastly, Mixed Arts are those which bring together different media. For example, Film, Drama, Dance, Opera or Performance Art. These are mixed because they combine the literary with movement, or visual features with sculptural ones. They all develop in time and are usually accompanied and characterised by sound. 

This classification and interpretation of the ‘Medium’ is too simple for art today. The materiality and feelings a viewer or an artist have are not as pre-set as it suggests. All artistic media have multiple qualities and by just considering a few aspects we forget how art involves all our different senses. But this idea has emerged slowly as artists have gradually realised the possibilities and limitations of the techniques and materials, and new tools have been developed.

 

Gustave Courbet, The Painter’s Studio, 1855, Courtesy of artchive.com ©Scala Group / Art Resource, New York.

 

The ‘Medium’ as Raw Material

Going back to the definition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the ‘Medium’ in Art can also be understood as ‘raw material’. This introduces a slightly different meaning. As explained in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “creation is the re-formation of these pre-existing materials”. The ‘medium’ is the material with which the artwork is made – the essential tool necessary for artistic creation.

In the Visual Arts – paint, ink, crayons, charcoal, watercolours… In Sculpture – chalk, wood, bronze, marble… In performance arts – the body of the performer; in writing – the pen or writing software; in internet art – the programming tools... There are endless possibilities. Virtually anything can be used by artists in infinite combinations.

 

Liz Ligon, Alison Knowles’s performance ‘Make a Salad’ (1962) at the High Line in 2012, 2012, Courtesy of Friends of the High Line.

 

If we consider this understanding of ‘medium’ as the substance with which an artwork is created, there is another more technical meaning we must cover. In painting, the ‘medium’ is a specific component of the paint. It is the liquid part which is combined with pigments.

The ‘medium’ is chosen according to its use and effects. Tempera, Oil, Fresco… Painters would choose the medium according to how they prefer to work and the results they want to achieve. It determines drying times, durability, and even the glossy or opaque aspect of the end result. The artist can use a certain ‘medium’ to achieve a certain effect or highlight a certain aspect.

Artists must be skilful and know about the characteristics of the materials they use. A Tempera medium is emulsion traditionally egg yolk, and water. The most common alternative is an oil medium such as walnut or linseed oil. The main difference is that an oil medium takes much longer to dry than tempera, but even the transparency and the way it is applied to the canvas changes. Other options include gum, wax or alkyd resins like liquin. All of these have different opacities, properties and drying times. Impasto is commonly used to make the paint thicker, but these can also be diluted thanks to turpentine or other spirits.

The way tools and techniques are used is extremely personal. So much changes according to which materials are used. Artists can prefer specific ones in isolation, or combine them to achieve different effects or textures. Some artists prefer methods they are familiar with due to their training and education. For other artists the choice is symbolic as they pick materials which are connected to memories or traditions. The materials can even represent something or be connected to the meaning of the work. Many artists even go to the extent of developing their own mediums adapting them to their own needs, or because they see it to be an essential part of the artistic process.

Nowadays it is extremely common to use mixed media in the Arts. In fact, artists have been experimenting by combining and blending different techniques and tools to achieve new effects. Especially in the Visual Arts, different processes have blurred the boundaries of the materials used in visual media. With collage, textiles, ceramics or plastics, certain artists use a combination of different media. This is their signature, and the overlapping of different tools is central to their art.

The flexibility of using different mediums and different techniques is not as obvious as it may seem. In art history, up until the end of the 19thcentury artists would use the traditional methods, taught and loved in the Academy. Even though there were experimentations beforehand these focused on achieving a perfect imitation or illusion of reality. The real novelty came with a break with this tradition, as the mixing, overlapping and blurring of the ‘Medium’ began to be a widespread and accepted phenomenon in the Arts.

Over the years, the experimentation and exploration of the ‘Medium’ has transformed its understanding. The overlapping and mixing of varied materials and tools did not only revolutionise artistic practice from a practical point of view, it also changed the understanding of the concept of ‘Medium’ from a theoretical perspective. 

 

n.d., VR technology in a museum, n.d., Courtesy of jasoren.com.

 

Medium-specificity and Post-medium

Art produced from the end of the 19thto mid-20thcentury significantly changed the relation to the medium. Artists started to produce pieces which highlighted the intrinsic qualities of the technique, tools and materials. A painting, instead of presenting a perfect perspective illusion, sfumato and incredible detail, started to appear flat and imprecise with the brushstrokes clearly visible. The medium was used to underline its materiality and sensorial quality.

American art critic Clement Greenberg associated the purity of the medium with Modernism. It was the specificity which he saw in modern artworks. In other words, the aesthetic quality of pictorial art lay in this flatness. According to Greenberg, this is both its limit and its greatest quality. This flatness is crucial in a modern painting as it defines and distinguishes this medium from others. 

The idea that anything can be used to create art emerged with the turn of the 20thcentury, when new objects and materials were used by Avant-garde artists. Art Nouveau artists started to use industrial materials to achieve sinuous decorative works. The Dadaists presented common objects as artworks, so called ‘ready-mades’. So, although previously the idea of the ‘medium’ was a simple ‘pure’ one, gradually the boundaries between different media started to merge and overlap as materials and techniques changed.

This was just the first step, as it became more and more common for artists to use different tools according to their work and aim. In the 60s and 70s, the term ‘Intermedia’ was coined, moving even further away from the strict traditional categorisation. It emerged in association with the international group Fluxus. The term was used for happenings and inter-disciplinary activities which combined different media. New names were invented to describe some of these new categories, such as Visual Poetry or Performance Art. 

Crossing the boundaries of one medium, artists like Dick Higgins, John Cage, Yoko Ono and Alison Knowles created new innovative pieces which startled and involved the public. In the age of internet and global connections, the response art has is at the centre. This is the medium, which gives importance to the human dimension: life. These innovative artistic projects use photograms, specific rules, or steps to move outside the limits imposed by conventional media. 

 

Maysles Brothers, Yoko Ono performing ‘Cut Piece’(1964) in 1965, 1965 Courtesy of Yoko Ono ©1965 Yoko Ono.

 

American art critic Rosalind Krauss, calling Greenberg’s idea of ‘medium-specificity’ old-fashioned, talks about the ‘post-medium condition’. The ‘post-medium’ of Conceptual Art, Installation or Performance art – and even the virtual or digital forms of art – give new meaning to these works. By leaving the purity of the medium behind, artists break free from the conventional media to introduce new technical supports.

The shift from a hidden medium to a confining category, and then to the overlapping of different media shows a continual development. It demonstrates how one idea of medium is not enough for art – it must continually redefine itself by exploring the qualities and possibilities of new tools.

 

n.d., Paintbrushes and palette, n.d., Courtesy of acrylicartworld.com.

 

The Multisensory and Multidimensional Nature of the ‘Medium’

All artists create a bond with the materials, tools and techniques they use. It is by experimenting, testing and developing their own sensibility that they choose their path, following their senses and their ideas while they do this. Art is produced and perceived through sight, sound, touch, smell, taste and intuition. The image, the texture, the shadows, the light, the sound of the brushstrokes or the feeling of the chords of a musical instrument: all of these aspects make a medium unique.

This is the limit of categorising the Arts according to their medium. It reduces the piece to just a few characteristics, by forcing the artist’s work into pre-established categories. But what about everything which does not fit in these ‘boxes’?  We should rather see the ‘Medium’ as the refined and varied tool kit which every artist creates and matures over time. 

There are many aspects which are not considered by these ‘boxes’. The materials or new tools which form an artist’s medium are complex. Paint is tri-dimensional, the auditory evokes the visual for some and literature can sometimes be more about sounds than the meanings of the words. It is the multisensory and multidimensional nature which actually communicate something when we admire and engage with an artwork. 

The digital art, virtual reality pieces or NFT artworks (read more about NFT’s in the Art Market on Kooness), are not even considered in this old understanding of the medium. They are not only verbal or auditory and cannot be described as spatial. They exist in the virtual. The archaic classification is limited for these ground-breaking new genres. Like Intermedia Art, they do not fit in these categories. Today artists can mix technological, traditional and performative aspects without limits.

The ‘Medium’ is every ‘mode of expression’ or ‘raw material’ an artist wishes to use, in all its richness. And artists will always question and push boundaries.

 

Beeple, Everydays: The First 5000 Days, 2007-2021, Courtesy of artforum.com ©Beeple / Christie’s.

 

Read more about New frontiers in the art market: Christie’s and crypto art

 

Cover image: n.d., Francis Bacon studio, n.d., Courtesy of graphictide.com

Written by Zoë Rivas Zanello

Stay Tuned on Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the artworld.

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