What constitutes a medium, and why do artists have an emotional reaction to their differences? Johns Hughes braves the topic in the following guest blog post.

The Battle of the Art Media

What constitutes a medium, and why is there occasionally such an emotional reaction to their differences by a few artists? This is an age old question which began long before you and I were born, and will most likely rage on after we are gone.

I really don’t know where it all got started, possibly with the introduction of watercolors, but this question of what constitutes an acceptable medium, or even to be called an art “medium” in art is one which deserves some scrutiny.

I think the battle gained new life sometime in the 1800s when photography came onto the scene and threatened some of the artistic notions of the time. There were those who said it would replace oil painting and render it obsolete, while others took a more measured approach and didn’t let the controversy get them all in a dither.

Well, as history will attest, oil painting didn’t go away and neither did photography. Each has their place in the continuum, ready for those willing to explore their creative possibilities. Each has a place at the table, and each can add valuable contributions to the way we humans express artistic ideas, not to mention the pleasure derived from the way these works of art are viewed by others.

I suppose the real issues involved with the acceptance of certain types of media has gotten heightened hostility whenever the subject of artistic competition has come up. This controversy can sometimes be seen in art shows where different media are judged alongside each other. Talk about emotional reactions, whoa, Hell hath no fury! Luckily for most of our artistic nervous systems, this particular battleground has been rendered fairly neutral by the introduction of various categories, for competition’s sake.

I was recently reminded of this war, if you will, when I stumbled across a raging controversy on Facebook. It was one of the many art groups out there which specializes in areas of interest, like landscape, still life, plein air, watercolor portraits … the list goes on and on. This one happened to be a plein air group, where some artist had the “unmitigated audacity” to display a work of art which was created on the Procreate App, on an iPad!

Well, as might be expected, someone objected and off it went, with all kinds of comments, which were overwhelmingly positive by the way, but the subject of whether or not the digitally created piece should be considered a type of fine art media, came up in the discussion. My reaction was the same as most; if someone wants to express themselves in a digital format, why not?

Digital landscape painting by Don Hahn
Digital landscape painting by Don Hahn

I was especially entertained by one comment in the form of a meme which said, “Art must be painful and difficult to be art. (Brought to you by the anti-digital art society…produced digitally.)” Ha!!! That was just what I needed to wake up that morning and put a smile on my face!

This all begs the question, what is an art medium? The short answer is, an art medium is a means of expression, plain and simple. There are traditional means as well as new ways for artists to express themselves, due to the fact that we have new advances in technology. Should this upset us and cause us to lose sleep? I would think not.

Hey really, let’s try to put this in perspective; any new medium that comes along, if it serves the purpose of satisfying an artistic need to create and express, on the part of different artists, should have the courtesy of being accepted as a “medium” by the rest of us, no? Why should that be a problem? It’s a means of expression, which comes with its own set of advantages, as well as its own set of challenges.

One of the challenges is the question of permanence. But this is something the individual artist who works in this particular medium has to grapple with. How about a sidewalk chalk artist, or an artist who produces beautiful expressions in ice or sand? These are media, not traditional by any stretch, and certainly not permanent, except for the fact that they can be photographed for more people to admire them.

One could also make the case that spray cans, which are used to create art on the side of railroad cars is a “medium,” although a very controversial one at that. It’s still a medium, which comes with its own set of rewards and punishments, if you will; especially if it’s not legal – but that’s the subject for another day.

Now what about the question of what to display where; how does this all fit into the broader question of the definition of an art “medium”? First of all, I think the remedy for any of us who wrestle with the idea of what is acceptable to display on various social platforms, is to know what the specific criteria of the various groups are, and judge acceptability according to that. The possibility that one type of artistic approach might not be a good fit for a particular platform, with a specific range of criteria, should in no way negate its broader acceptance as “art” or as a bona fide medium.

Think about it this way, if I try to enter an oil painting into a watercolor show and some members rightfully object, does that cancel out my painting as being art, or belonging to a category of media? Of course not, no one would ever think that, and neither should that preclude a digital means of expression from being considered an art form, or of being considered a medium.

It is merely a means of expression, and therefore it is a medium. The question of whether or not it is pleasing, appropriate, in the right category, legal or beautiful has no bearing here; as they say, it is what it is.

Share your thoughts on this in the comments section below.

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  1. Watercolor is a medium that 15th thru 18th century Dutch and Flemish genre painters took with them as they spent their summers in Scandinavia working on studies that would sustain them in the winter months of their careers. It’s ease of portability as a paint medium is well known. It has been argued that water based pigments were among the first of mediums to be used on the walls of caves and hand markings on rock walls. Thus one could argue, that of the paint mediums, watercolor is the oldest. As for placing that ahead of other paint mediums in some sort of hierarchy, I’m sure it’s still in the mind and heart of the individual artist As for me, i like being conversant in oil and watercolor. They both have their qualities. Digital, yah, I’ve dabbled in that cult as well.

  2. The better word may be ‘media’, not mediums. Media is the broader term, mediums often refers to the different materials in which pigments are ground/ suspended or further diluted when applied.
    I expected a discussion on painting mediums: natural resin- oil – solvent mixtures, synthetic resin- solvent, wax- oil- solvent, or just oil – solvent mixtures. The venetian mediums also had glass spheres ( not fumed silica, the flattening agent) to aid in the transparency of their glaze mediums, I have heard.

  3. I have been told my artwork, a painting of a rose in oil on canvas wasn’t real art because it was “photorealistic and therefore, not really art.” I have heard others say Abstract art wasn’t really art either “because any five year old could do it”. I think art is one of those subjects that people feel free to express their various opinions on because it is so subjective. Jackson Pollock and his art friends at that time discussed what they thought was true art and decided among themselves that anything they created and felt was art, was indeed art. I don’t worry too much about what other people decide is true art since I paint because I must. I paint because I love to paint. I strive to paint better because I can’t help but want to and while sometimes it is difficult and a struggle, because I want it to be great, I love it.


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