Making sense of art history
Making sense of art history

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Making sense of art history

6 Medium

The word ‘medium’ (plural ‘media’) refers to the substance used to make a particular art work. The range of media used in the art works featuring in this course is wide, including oil paint, animal carcasses, elephant dung, photographs, glitter and road signs. When analysing the relationship between techniques and effects in any painting you should note the medium from which it has been made. Ask yourself why the medium was chosen. Some helpful questions are:

  1. Does the medium impose any limitations on the way the artist works, or allow any particular effects?

  2. Is the medium used unconventionally or is the medium itself unconventional and, if so, does this contribute to the expressive effect of the art work?

  3. Does the medium used suggest a particular mood?

  4. Does the medium used prompt the spectator to read the work in a particular way?

In the following discussion, you'll explore each of these questions in more detail.

1 Does the medium/media used impose any limitations on the way the artist works or allow any particular effects?

An artist might choose to work with a particular medium for practical reasons. For example, oil paint takes much longer to dry than tempera and watercolour, and results in a glossy finish rather than a matte one. As it is slow drying, oil paint can be carefully blended to make the soft, seamless shadows necessary when ‘modelling’ three-dimensional forms in a painting. Oil paint is also very flexible and can be applied in both thick textured brushstrokes and thin fine detail. The oil in oil paint makes pigments translucent, allowing artists to apply paint in thin layers or glazes, generating rich, glowing colours. All these properties make it especially good for depicting the textures of different surfaces.

2 Is the medium used unconventionally or is the medium itself unconventional, and, if so, does this contribute to the effect of the art work?

Examples of media that have been used in Turner Prize-related paintings include oil paint, watercolour, oil pastel, pencil, tempera, photographs and ‘found’ objects (items that already exist, and are not made for artists). Sometimes the medium used in an art work can contribute to its emotional effect and its possible meaning, for example, when an artist uses an unconventional medium. The use of familiar found objects such as sweet wrappers, newspaper cuttings and bus tickets can make an art work feel very accessible to the spectator, and relevant to their own life. But this can also prompt the criticism that the artist has not demonstrated any artistic skill and has just borrowed existing objects rather than creating new ones.

3 Does the medium used suggest a particular mood?

Heavily applied oil or acrylic paint can suggest a more dramatic mood than the smooth finish of watercolour, which is often associated with landscape painting.

4 Does the medium used prompt the spectator to read the work in a particular way?

If an art work features a mixture of media, the spectator is often drawn to look at the areas featuring less conventional media first. In Chris Ofili's Afrodizzia, for example, where the media used include paper collage, oil paint, glitter, polyester resin, map pins and elephant dung on linen, the eye tends to be drawn to the small photographs appearing throughout the composition and also to the blobs of elephant dung.

Record the medium-related details that are given in the captions for The Maids (Plate 4) and No Woman No Cry (Plate 3).

Plate 3

Chris Ofili, No Woman No Cry, 1998, acrylic paint, oil paint, resin, pencil, paper collage, Letraset, glitter, map pins and elephant dung on linen with two dung supports, 244 × 183 × 5 cm. (© Chris Ofili. Courtesy of Chris Ofili – Afroco and Victoria Miro Gallery. Tate Photography.)

Plate 4

Paula Rego, The Maids, 1987, acrylic on canvas backed paper, 214 × 244 cm. (Courtesy The Saatchi Gallery.)
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