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Taking your first steps into higher education
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3.3 Medium

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

Does the medium (or 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. Oil paint, for example, 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.

Is the medium used unconventionally or is the medium itself unconventional? If so, does this contribute to the effects of the artwork?

Sometimes the medium used in an artwork can contribute to its emotional effect and its possible meaning: for example, when an artist uses an unconventional medium. The use of a familiar found object, such as sweet wrappers, newspaper cuttings and bus tickets, can make an artwork feel very accessible to the spectator, and relevant to their own life. However, 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.

An artist might also use a traditional medium in an unconventional way. Grayson Perry’s ceramics work, his pots (see Resource booklet [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   Plates 5a–b and 6) for example, feature a very traditional medium being used to depict contemporary issues such as child abuse, consumerism, class divisions and transvestitism.

Does the medium used suggest a particular mood?

The medium used in an artwork can also help to convey mood. For example, heavily applied oil or acrylic paint can suggest a more dramatic mood than the smooth finish of watercolour, which is often associated with the calm scenes of landscape painting

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

If an artwork 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 (Resource booklet Plate 7), 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.

You will look more at the use of unconventional media later. For now, though, you should record in the appropriate section of your Notebook the medium-related details that are given in the captions for No Woman No Cry (Resource booklet Plate 4), and Barbaric Splendour (Resource booklet Plates 5a–b).

In the next activity, you will be given the chance to build an interpretation from scratch when you use a video recording to explore the relationship between techniques, effects and meaning in Tracey Emin’s installation The Perfect Place to Grow (Resource booklet Plate 9).