Art Term Tuesday: Collage v. Mixed Media

Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager

Collage and mixed media are basically the same thing, right? Well, not exactly. Not only are they separate techniques, but neither one was regularly utilized until the early twentieth century! Let’s explore these similar but discrete processes.

We’ll address collage first. Collage describes both the technique, and the resulting work of art, in which pieces of paper, photographs, fabric, and other ephemera, be they found or created, are arranged and stuck down onto a supporting surface. It derives from the French term papiers collés, or, découpage, which is the technique of pasting paper cutouts onto various surfaces. Essentially, it’s adding elements onto a flat background that supports those elements.

Now, mixed media. This term describes artworks composed from a combination of different media, or materials, but does not require support from a surface. This is essentially the only difference between collage and mixed media – the additional elements aren’t on a single, flat surface. As a result, many true mixed media works of art tend to be sculptural in nature.

As briefly mentioned earlier, the two techniques came into use regularly around 1912 with the Cubist collages and constructions (mixed media sculptures) of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Cubists were pushing the boundaries of what art looked like, arguing that it didn’t need to be representational (of something real); and, with their collages and constructions, they were questioning what art should be made of. As the twentieth century rolled on and became the twenty-first, more and more artists began adopting the two techniques – art could be made of any combination of objects or techniques.

Now that we’ve established the (minor) differences between collage and mixed media, the easiest way to differentiate the two is to compare works of art. Take Steven Sorman, one of FWMoA’s Special Collections and Archives artists, whose work uses both techniques. First, we’ll look at from, one of his pieces from his Each (Other) series, from 1983. In this work, he’s combined the techniques of lithograph, monotype, and collage on paper. He’s layered both technique and paper, adhering them to a single, flat substrate to create a run-of-the-mill collage.

Steven Sorman, American, b. 1948. from, from the Each (Other) series. Lithograph, monotype, and collage on paper, 1983. Gift of Steven Sorman in memory of David Shapiro, 2014.122.4. Photo courtesy of FMWoA.

Second, we have from away, a 1988 work of art that combines woodcut, lithography, screenprinting, collage, and hand coloring. Now, this description doesn’t sound too different from the media present in from, but note its appearance. While the artistic elements are themselves on flat surfaces, these surfaces are on an upright, stackable structure, creating a moveable, reversible sculpture. That’s right, this sculpture has a front and a back! The front is energetic and colorful, with dynamic lines moving from the top set of stairs to the bottom, while the back is much more calm and subdued; there are still active, curved lines, but they’re simply silvery on top of various shades of soothing blue.

As we’ve seen, there’s little difference between collage and mixed media; and they can easily get mistaken for the other, especially when looking at finished works as images. However, since their “creation” in 1912, it’s clear that they have helped artists explore and reach new visual boundaries.

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