Art Term Tuesday: Medium

Kaitlin Binkley, Marketing Coordinator

An artist walks into a coffee shop and asks for “One medium, please!” The barista gives them a bucket of paint. Not what you expected? We’ve touched on this term in previous posts, like Art Term Tuesday: Acrylic Paint and briefly in Reality Check: Judgement Calls. Let’s take a minute to delve into what medium means in an art context.

Medium means the size between large and small, right? Yes, in one sense! It also means the type of artwork, the liquid that pigments are suspended in to create paint, and/or the material that makes up an artwork. Whew! One word meaning many things can get confusing, but context helps to determine which meaning is intended. One more thing, the plural of medium is “media” when talking about art, just to add another element of confusion!

Medium means what an artist creates – a painting, sculpture, drawing, or print – as well as the material the artwork is made of, like oil paint, stone, graphite, or a lithograph. What an artist chooses to make can depend on their access to materials, the material’s properties, or the artists intended message. A student artist might only have access to polymer clay to create a sculpture rather than a 17’ block of marble. A painter might stick to a type of paint because the paints vibrancy lasts without fading. A photographer could use digital methods to better convey their message when darkroom methods might struggle to capture their vision. The material helps determine the type of artwork being made. The artwork to be made can also determine the material.

Think of a popular piece of art, one everyone knows. How would it look or what impact would the art have if it was made of a different medium? What would Michelangelo’s David look like if it was made of wood? How would the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile feel in a print? They would be different technically and probably would “feel” different. A pristine white, cold marble sets a different mood than a rough, natural wood texture; just as a realistically rendered oil painting has a different tone to a flat, one color print.  The natural wood wouldn’t convey the tension carved into David’s neck and hands the same way the marble does, would have taken different skills to carve then marble, and may not have been preserved as well in the hundreds of years since its creation. The Mona Lisa’s soft smile would not be the same in black and white ink rather than the oil on poplar wood as the depth couldn’t be captured the same way. Choosing the medium to create your artwork out of is just as important as what kind of media you create.

Every year we ask artists to reimagine a work of art in a different medium in our annual FWMoA Chalk Walk. One of the categories we use to inspire people is recreating a work from our collection in chalk on the street. This past year, artist Trista Bonnett recreated the oil on canvas painting The Hermitage by John Ottis Adams in chalk pastels on a public street. See picture below: chalked image is on the left, oil painting on the right.This medium change creates a different feeling and requires different skills to make. The painting is 18×24” while the chalk squares can be 4×4’ to 8×8’ in scale, another difference in the addition to the medium.

Why does medium matter to an artist or to you as a viewer? Medium is a tool used by artists to express to you, the viewer, their message. A medium is also manipulated in various ways to convey meaning. If you take a look at our ongoing Contemporary Glass display, you can see clear evidence of how people can do many different things with the same base material and how their choices affect the end product! Knowing how important this decision is to the artist, you as the viewer can begin to find more value in the artwork. In “Reality Check” Amanda used her knowledge of the media the artists chose to inform her judgements of the artwork. So next time you visit, take a moment to notice the medium and not just the large scale or small detail, because it was the artists choice of medium that brought those characteristics to life.

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