Artistic Media

Different artistic media allow artists to work in different ways, and give different effects or qualities to their work. Today, artists can use an almost infinite range of media but in the past very few were available. In the Middle Ages, most paintings were done with egg tempura, which was a mixture of colour pigments and egg. In the 15th century, artists in the Netherlands mixed pigments with oil, to make what we now know as oil paint.

Oil paintings are usually on canvas and the paint dries very slowly. Oil paint is mixed with a chemical called turpentine (instead of water like other paints), and the brushes are cleaned with another chemical, called white spirit. It is not very easy to carry everything you need for oil painting up a mountain to paint the view! Oil paintings are usually done in an artist's studio. Artists might choose to use oil paint because of the rich colours it can create. Oil paint dries slowly because of the oil, and this means that artists can work in a very detailed way, that is not possible with other faster drying paints. Oil paint can be used with a brush to give a smooth flat surface or applied thickly using a pallet knife to give a lumpy, bumpy effect. Many artists use this quality of oil paint in their work.

Other kinds of paint, such as watercolour, gouache, or acrylic paint can be mixed with water, and brushes are cleaned with water as well. Watercolour and gouache paintings are usually on paper and dry quickly.

Watercolour paints are very light and easy to carry around. Watercolour paint is transparent. This means that you can see through it. If you paint blue over yellow in a watercolour painting, you will not see blue, but a shade of green. The yellow shows through the blue and makes a green colour in the same way that yellow and blue paint mixed together in a dish make green. Artists use the transparency of watercolour to achieve the effects they want but the fact that it is transparent also means that it is very difficult to cover up any mistakes! Artists often use watercolours to work quickly and capture a moment.

Acrylic paint was first used in the 1940s. It is not transparent and can be used in a similar way to oil paint.

Les Pommiers à Damiette by Jean Baptiste Armand Guillaumin The Blind Musicians by John Singer Sargent RA HRSA RWS


  1. To paint like an artist you need to understand how colours mix with each other to make other colours. Try mixing some different colours of paint together. Start with the primary colours, red, yellow and blue, and try mixing them together to make the secondary colours orange, green and violet. You can practise first by playing the 'Make the Colour Wheel' game.
  2. Look at the artistic media timeline. There are examples of different media including pastels, pencil, printing and gouache. Why do you think the artists have chosen the media that they have? What artistic media have you used? All sorts of things can be used as artistic media. Have you ever tried making a collage? This is making a picture from scraps or shapes cut out of paper or card.
  3. Look for watercolour and oil paintings in the timelines. Discover differences between them: think about the colours, amount of detail and the effects that the artists have created.