What Is a Medium in Art: Definition & Terms

Explore one of the fundamental ideas in art that affects the creation, design, and reception of every work of art. Test your knowledge about artistic production and art history.
What’s in a Work of Art?
In art, a medium is the material that artists use to create their art. It’s that simple. Whatever a piece of art is made out of is its medium. The plural of medium is media. So, one piece of art can be made of one medium or several media. If you’ve ever been to an art museum or gallery, you’ve probably seen those little signs next to each piece that look something like this:
‘Oil on Canvas’
‘Tempera on Wood’
‘Ink on Silk’
All of these items are media. They describe each item the artist used to make the art. Therefore, oil and canvas are both media used to describe that particular work. Sometimes this can be a very important part of how the piece of art is interpreted. Different materials carry different significance. For example, if a certain wood is considered sacred, then using it indicates that this piece of art is very special. Or if an artist uses an uncommon medium, say garbage, it helps that artist make a statement.
This Chinese bowl uses ceramics and glaze as media
Chinese bowl
Common Media
Oil painting is the process of painting with pigments that are held together with a type of oil that dries when exposed to air, called drying oil. When the oil is mixed with a powdered pigment, it creates a color of paint. Different pigments create different colors. Since prehistoric times, natural pigments, such as minerals and shells, were used. After the industrial revolution, people were able to create new colors using machines that could create synthetic pigments.
The first artists to use oil as a base for their paints were Indian and Chinese Buddhists, working in Afghanistan as early as the fifth century. By the 15th century, painters in the Netherlands began using oils for their paintings, and this soon took off as the most popular medium in Europe during the Italian Renaissance. Since then, oil paints have been the most common media in Western art. Oil paints are almost always used to paint canvas, a woven fabric.
Tempera is another common medium. Before oil painting became popular, most painting was done with tempera paints. Rather than oil, the pigments are held together with a sticky material, most commonly egg yolk. Egg yolk holds the pigments together, but it dries very fast and can sometimes give the paint a slightly yellow color. Nevertheless, it was a very common way to make paint before oils came around and is still used by many artists who enjoy working with fast-drying paints to create certain effects. Tempera is often used to paint wood, another common medium before the Italian Renaissance.
In sculpture, marble is one of the most common media. Marble is a soft stone that is easy for sculptors to carve, chip, and polish into smooth and beautiful works of art. Small impurities in the white marble can give the sculpture unique color and shine. The Italian artist Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was one of the most famous sculptors of all time and famous for saying that he could see an image in a block of marble and that it was his job to remove the excess.
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