What Does "Medium" Mean in Art?

A Common Word With Multiple Meanings

In art, "medium" refers to the substance the artist uses to create a piece of artwork. For example, the medium Michelangelo used to create "David"(1501-1504) was marble, Alexander Calder's stabiles employ painted steel plates, and Marcel Duchamp's infamous "Fountain" (1917) was made with a porcelain medium.

The word medium can be used in other contexts within the art world as well. Let's explore this simple word and it's sometimes confusing array of meanings.

"Medium" as a Type of Art

A broad use of the word medium is used to describe a specific type of art. For instance, painting is a medium, printmaking is a medium, and sculpture is a medium. Essentially, every category of artwork is its own medium.

The plural of medium in this sense is media.

"Medium" as an Artistic Material

Building off the type of art, medium can also be used to describe a particular artistic material. This is how artists describe the specific materials that they work with to create a piece of art. 

Painting is a perfect example of how this is distinguished. It is very common to see descriptions of the type of paint used as well as the support it was painted on.

For example, you'll see notations following the titles of paintings that read along the lines of:

The possible combinations of paint and support are endless, so you will see many variations of this.

Artists choose the materials they enjoy working with or those that work best for a particular piece of work.

This use of the word medium applies to all types of artwork as well. Sculptors, for instance, may use metal, wood, clay, bronze, or marble for their medium. Printmakers may use words like woodcut, linocut, etching, engraving, and lithography to describe their medium.

Artists who use multiple media in a single piece of art typically call it "mixed media," which is common for techniques like a collage.

The plural for medium in this sense is media.

A Medium Can Be Anything

While those examples are common forms of media, many artists choose to work with or incorporate less traditional materials into their work. There are no limits and the more you learn about the art world, the more oddities you will discover.

Any other physical material—from used chewing gum to dog hair—is fair game as an artistic medium. At times, artists can become extremely creative about this whole media business and you may run across things in art that defy belief. You will find artists who even incorporate the human body or things derived from it as their medium. It's quite interesting and can also be rather shocking.

Though you might be tempted to point, sputter, and laugh when you come across these, it is often best to gauge the mood of the company you're in. Think about where you and who is around you. Even if you think the art ridiculous or otherwise unusual, you can often avoid many faux pas by keeping those to yourself in some situations. Keep in mind that art is subjective and you will not enjoy everything.

"Medium" as a Pigment Additive

The word medium is also used when referring to the substance which binds a pigment to create a paint. In this case, the plural of medium is mediums.

The actual medium used is dependent on the type of paint. For instance, linseed oil is a common medium for oil paints and egg yolks are a common medium for tempera paints.

At the same time, artists can use a medium to manipulate the paint. A gel medium, for example, will thicken a paint so the artist can apply it in textural techniques like impasto. Other mediums are available that will thin paints and make them more workable.