In artistic terms until recently ‘medium’ was something that defined an artist’s practice (for example, photography as a medium, printmaking as a medium or painting as a medium), but in the 1980’s Jon Thompson, who led the Art Department at Goldsmiths College, changed this attitude and the term “critical concerns” replaced the word ‘medium’.
Today ‘mediums’ is a generic term used by painters to describe the different substances that we can mix with paint to modify its behaviour and appearance. For example, Refined Linseed Oil when using oil paint, Acrylic Matt Medium when working with acrylic paints or Gum Arabic with watercolours. Solvents, such as Distilled Turpentine, are often placed into this category but strictly speaking ‘mediums’ are substances that contain binding properties which are similar in composition to the binder the paint is made from, hence turpentine or water are solvents, and if used in excessive amounts, will ‘under-bind’ the paint they are mixed with.
Solvents (and additives) can be used in combination with mediums, or on their own, to further manipulate paint from the tube, jar or watercolour pan, to create the array of effects and techniques particular to a painter’s style. Without mediums there would be fewer textural variations, for example, glazes would be almost impossible to achieve or the contrasts between gloss and matt surfaces and in particular varnishes – sometimes described as part of the range of ‘mediums’ – would not be available to protect the painting and turn up the contrast between tones.
The prestige and perceived historical medium superiority accredited to oil painting owes much to the mastery artists have had to gain over this discipline and its many painting mediums. In particular, control over the drying (or setting times) of different layers, whilst avoiding paint from cracking or drying irregularly through what is called the ‘fat over lean’ painting method. Refined Linseed Oil is the most common and widely used oil medium but many others such as Safflower Oil, Poppy Oil, Stand Oil or Cold Pressed Linseed Oil, will vary in viscosity, colour and drying rates. Artists like Willem De Kooning pushed the capability of mediums to an extreme reputedly adding mayonnaise to his oil paints to create a more creamy texture (do not try this at home).
Less commonly known is the availability of watercolour mediums such as Ox Gall, Granulation Medium, Blending and Iridescent Medium to name a few, which can be used in addition to water opening up many other stylistic options. Acrylic paints are perhaps where mediums have made the greatest impact with a vast assortment of mediums which can increase the viscosity, fluidity, mattness and glossiness of acrylic paints. Acrylic paints’ fast drying rate can be slowed down through
mediums such as Slow-Dri Blending Medium and additives such as Slow-Dri Fluid Retarder (using a few drops at a time) and even Flow Improver can be added to water to improve flow.
The entire repertoire of acrylic mediums runs from start to finish of a painting, each medium giving more personalised options. These include Gessos for surface preparation, mediums for altering the texture of paint such as Resin Sand, mediums that will make the paint more fluid, additives that alter the chemistry of paint, and all the way through to varnishing options. Liquitex’s multitude of interminable gels, pastes and fluid mediums offer an infinite number of effects. The pouring medium needs no introduction. Due to its easy-to-use nature, it is one of the most enjoyable mediums to experiment with making it somewhat of social-media phenomena (#pouringmedium). Airbrush medium would suggest its only use is with airbrush work, but it is in fact an innovative medium enabling the dilution of acrylic to a near-water-like consistency, whilst maintaining its binding properties, making this a more robust and permanent alternative for underpainting in acrylics than mixing with water alone.