What Is a Medium in Art?

By Brian Connolly ; Updated September 15, 2017
A variety of painting supplies on an outdoor table.

If you’ve been to an art museum, chances are you’ve noticed the words “watercolor,” “canvas” or “mixed media.” These terms are used to explain each medium the artist used to create her work. In art, a medium represents not only the surface you’re working with but any material you paint, attach or otherwise apply to it.

Common Types

Simply put, a medium is the material from which your artwork is formed. This includes everything you can see and touch, and may include everything from canvas to points of light on a projector screen. Common media in painting and drawing include watercolor, acrylic and oil paints along with chalk, paper, pencil, ink, crayon, card stock, glaze and enamel. A sculptor might use a wide range of media such as sand, glass, metal, fabric, plaster, wood, ceramics, ivory, marble, stone, cement, bone, beads and several other materials. Many art forms are defined by the media they use; for example, a textile artist primarily works with textiles made from yarns of spun wool, flax or cotton.

Texture and Tension

Choosing the right medium isn’t just about finding a flat surface to paint on or a malleable consistency with which to sculpt. Each material carries its own character traits, which are carried into your artwork. The emotional response to a person’s portrait painted on canvas, for instance, is considerably different to that same face engraved in wood or metal. The best medium not only supplements the effect of a work of art but adds an extra dimension in the form of texture, solidity and tension.

Mixed Media

Sometimes an artist creates work that blends different media for a specific effect. This type of mixed-media art may vary in complexity from a simple charcoal sketch that uses colored-pencil highlights to a painting done on a canvas covered in burlap, wood or glass. One common application of mixed media is the collage, where several images, texts and found objects are combined into a single artwork, according to the Own Art website.

New Media and Installation Art

Advances in technology allows artists the chance to apply new ways of expressing themselves. What the invention of oil painting meant for Renaissance artists of the 15th century, computers and digital projectors means for artists working with new media. This type of art can range from video projections to multimedia installations that combine digital video and audio productions with elements of sculpture, painting and even dance. Some artists even suggest the people who pass through a room containing an art installation become media themselves, according to the University of Chicago.

About the Author

Based in the Appalachian Mountains, Brian Connolly is a certified nutritionist and has been writing professionally since 2000. He is a licensed yoga and martial arts instructor whose work regularly appears in “Metabolism,” “Verve” and publications throughout the East Coast. Connolly holds advanced degrees from the University of North Carolina, Asheville and the University of Virginia.