Identifying the Differences between Art Painting Mediums | Fine Art Portfolio

Identifying the Differences between Art Mediums

Art mediums are the materials used by the artists to create a body of work. The application of layers of thick, lustrous oil paints onto canvas is an example of a single-medium that has endured for centuries.

The base material on which the pigment is applied is also considered an art medium. Canvas art, framed art and works on textiles, cardboard, wood, Perspex, paper, terracotta and a host of other materials are regularly used by contemporary artists and each base material has its own distinctive pros and cons.

Single-medium vs. mixed media in art

Oil paint, watercolour, acrylic paint and ink are popular media types, so too are a number of dry art mediums including pastel, charcoal, crayon and graphite. Each single-medium has its own characteristics that can create depth and texture and all have their own appeal and allure.

Since the 1970’s, however, there has been a contemporary shift to an exciting, often three dimensional, use of mixed media in South African art. By using different media types and techniques in a single work, it’s possible to create a unique conceptual experience.

South African artists, including Yoka Wright, Candice Dawn B, Frank Ross and Katherine Wood, use a fine combination of single media to produce bold, versatile, multi-layered mixed media works of art.

Popular art media - oil paintings

Oil paintings are probably the best known and certainly the most enduring examples of a single medium. The versatile paint can be applied in various ways, from thin, diluted glazes to thick layers, known as 'impasto’.

Small particles of pigment are suspended in a blend of linseed oil and other solvents and the mixture is applied to the base material. As oil paints dry extremely slowly, the artist is able to work on the painting over several sessions, applying layer after layer of paint, creating a rich, textured appearance.

The Old Masters used oils to create remarkable realism and the effect of light and colour, whereas the Impressionists defined the art style by using sweeping, textured brushstrokes and dramatic dabs of paint.

Oil paint is used across all art genres and remains universally popular with both artists and art enthusiasts, with South African artists, Mauro Chiarla and Errol Norbury, using oils most effectively in their landscapes and portraits.


Acrylic paint is a fast-drying, versatile medium which can resemble oils or watercolours depending on the amount of water used in the dilution process. It is less translucent than oils but is easier to blend. Additive gels can create texture usually associated with thick oil paint.

David Bucklow uses acrylic in his notable works of African wildlife, portraiture and landscapes, whereas Katherine Ambrose creates vibrant and colourful Township art using acrylic paint.


Watercolour painting is yet another popular medium, where pigments are suspended in a water soluble solution and are applied to a surface with a brush. It is a notoriously complex technique as water changes both the shape and absorbency of the paper as well as the appearance of the paint as it dries.

Artists, Wallace Hulley and Sue Dickinson have effectively mastered the technique in a fine collection of portraits of indigenous peoples and wild animals.

Dry mediums

Dry mediums include graphite, pastel and charcoal and are as versatile and visually attractive as all other art mediums. Selwyn Pekeur has created colourful, flamboyant works in pastel, whereas Bowen Boshier’s intricate works in pencil are remarkably detailed and realistic.

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