An Introduction to
Mixed Media

Mixed media is a broad and often slightly perplexing category into which works of art can be classified. It can easily be confused with the term ‘multimedia’, which is distinct and generally means artworks that incorporate elements such as sound, video or performance into their work. Simply put, the term ‘mixed media’ refers to any work of art in which more than one medium has been used.

However, the range of art that falls within this label can range from paintings which use a combination of acrylics and oils (the combination of which may be hardly noticeable to the untrained eye), through to works which have found objects and radically different matter incorporated into them, stretching even to large works of sculpture or installation art that are composed of many disparate elements. How long then, have artists been using ‘mixed media’ and how can one find the art one is looking for within such a diverse pool?

Mixed Media in Context

Although artists have in the past incorporated various media into their works, this practice was neither widespread nor particularly notable until the twentieth century. The turn of the twentieth century was a time of innovation for artistic media, with the range of colors rapidly expanding and the development of new media such as acrylics and oil pastels giving artists access to new possibilities and techniques. It is then that mixed media as a genre exploded onto the art scene. Radical art movements like the Cubists added collage to their canvases, seeking to break up the lines of their compositions. Cuttings from papers and scraps of textured card were used, transforming their works.  The Dadaists went even further. Searching for expression through absurdism, artists like Marcel Duchamp stuck found objects onto canvases, painted directly onto them and transformed everyday objects into non-functional oddities. John Heartfield created elaborate and subversive collages from advertisements and propaganda of the time. The Surrealists, Abstract Expressionists, Pop artists and Brit artists all carried the torch – and the effect of mixed media was to expand massively the vocabulary of art from the early twentieth century onwards.

The main result of this is that using multiple and even highly unusual media is now a staple of the art world, employed by artists ranging from the conservative to the highly radical. Its normalcy has opened avenues for traditional artists to experiment in ways previously impossible.

How to Choose

Mixed media works can be very exciting, and often a work that is labelled under the category of mixed media will, by its very nature, be extremely innovative in its mixture of different forms and textures. However, when looking to buy art it can be hard to determine what an artwork is composed of, if the only piece of information given is that it is simply ‘mixed media’. Add to this the complications of searching for art online or in a catalogue, which are often caused because when asked to enter information about their artwork, an artist who is given a simple list of media to choose from will often use the term ‘mixed media’ as a default ‘other’ or ‘none of the above’ label.
In many ways this can be an advantage. Searching through ‘mixed media’ works instantly gives you a varied and eclectic mix of art that is not confined to one genre. This leaves you free to choose from a wide range of artworks, picking the ones that stand out and that you really love.

Know What You’re Buying

Many artists will list the different materials they use under the ‘mixed media’ label, but if there is no further information then it is a good idea to enquire into the nature of the different media used. Depending on the materials, your chosen artwork may or may not be appropriate for the space you have to hang it: a canvas that is heavily layered with gesso or plaster may be too heavy to hang on a partition wall; a work made with high gloss or enamel paints may be rendered unviewable when opposite a window due to glare; pieces that incorporate organic materials such as hair, leaves, branches, dried butterflies, may be highly sensitive and not immune from deteriorating over the years. However, once you have made your decision, your carefully considered choice will bring you years of enjoyment.

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This article was written for ARTmine by Tilla Crowne.

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