What is Mixed Media?

When browsing through the beautiful paintings and drawings featured in our online gallery, you may have noticed that some original artwork is described as created using 'mixed media', but what does this actually mean?

Mixed media visual art is essentially the combining of two or more media or materials, and can take numerous forms, but can be broadly categorised into five types:

1. wet & dry media: the juxtaposition of inherently differing media types; dry (pastels and pencils etc) and wet (inks and paints etc) to create a finished piece.
2. collage: the layering and combining of differing and unconventional materials or other existing art such as newspaper, fabric, photographs etc to create new artwork.
3. assemblage: a 3-dimensional variation of collage using materials, objects, and sculpture.
4. found objects: objects which are adopted or incorporated into another piece of art for their perceived artistic value.
5. altered books: the modification of a book or its parts, or its incorporation into another piece of artwork.

The use of mixed media can be seen in artwork dating back as far as the Byzantine Empire (around 350 to 1450 AD), when gold leaf was often used to gild mosaics and to embellish frescos, illuminated manuscripts, and paintings; purportedly to brighten and draw attention to certain elements within the piece.
During the early Renaissance period, tempera painting became the prominent medium, which mixed ground colour pigments with egg yolk. This would be applied to a wooden, usually poplar, board coated with gesso (a white paint preparation mixture), and was favoured over oil paints at the time, because it's lower pigmentation and transparency allowed the light to penetrate it and
reflect the white gesso surface below, creating a desirable luminosity.

In relation to our use of the term, 'mixed media' simply means that the artist has used more than one medium and/or materials to create their artwork.
For example, Scottish landscape artist Heather M Nisbet sketches her work in charcoal before using acrylic paints, oil sticks and pastels to produce her discernible colourful and layered effect.

She says, “I like the results you get when you smudge a charcoal line and apply dilute paint to it; some of the charcoal flows into the colour, which can add texture and a bit more interest to the image”. A great example of this effect can be seen in her limited edition print ‘Patchwork Fields’, where bright blocks of colour are given pleasing depth and interest.

German contemporary abstract artist Ilse Michielsen mixes traditional paint on canvas with natural materials, like mineral pigments and sand, then layers them with gold and silver leaf, glass and even pieces of animal skin, to convey energy and emotion through a bold and rich presentation. Her choice of materials varies from piece to piece and is influenced by the atmosphere and elements of the countries through which she has travelled. A close look at her
original painting ‘Composition IV’ reveals a rough and undulating surface formed from a mixture of paint and sand, punctuated by bright mineral pigments, metallic elements and even snake skin.

Popular narrative artist Sam Toft, creator of the famed ‘Mr and Mrs Mustard’ and their ever-growing menagerie, creates softly textured pieces in rich autumnal colours and faded pastel hues to convey a range of heartfelt emotions from silliness and joy to heartbreak and loss. She first sketches her piece with pencil, then builds layer upon layer of oil pastel to generate her
colourful background and give life to her characters, before pouring over coloured inks, which are blotted, blended, smudged, and scratched using a range of materials including tissue, brushes, fingers and thumbs, and the 'wrong' end of a brush! Take a look at her in action on her videos page.

As we have seen so far, selecting and combining a particular range of materials is often made in order to generate a particular effect, or to reflect a mood or place which is integral to the piece.

However, the choice can also be made for very different reasons, from declining health, and scarcity of materials, to global tragedies, cultural movements, or socioeconomic influences.

In 1918, following World War I, artwork by German artist Kurt Schwitters is said to have been directly and dramatically influenced by his country's military collapse, and the subsequent economic and political implications. He famously said “In the war, things were in terrible turmoil. What I had learned at the academy was of no use to me and the useful new ideas were still unready...Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of the fragments”.

He called his movement 'Merz', and made collage and assemblage pieces from fragments, objects, and scraps which he scavenged from the streets of his hometown of Hanover. The term Merz was itself created by fragmenting the German word Kommerz (meaning commerce) and aimed to create connections between everything in the world. "I could not in fact see the reason why old tickets...buttons and old rubbish found in attics and rubbish dumps should not be as suitable a material for painting as the paints made in factories”.

In 1941, French Fauvist artist Henri Matisse miraculously overcame life-threatening intestinal cancer, but was left confined to a wheelchair. His decline in mobility meant that he could no longer paint in the way that he had done previously, so he developed a new art form; his decoupage style 'cut-out' technique. He would use gouache to paint large blocks of colour onto
paper, cut shapes from the paper using scissors, then layer and paste the shapes onto canvas, boards, or walls to create colourful large-scale collages.

Between 2011 and 2013 a collection of anonymously created book sculptures were hidden in locations around Scotland and appeared inspired to make a political statement against funding cuts in the arts sector, as well as to profess the artist's love of the written word. They created beautifully intricate sculptures by cutting and arranging old books and accompanied each with gift labels which condemned library and arts funding cuts whilst extolling their own love of literacy.

As well as providing artists with an infinite and expansive range of ways with which to express their ideas and communicate their message, mixed media art is a practice which also affords those without fine art skills the ability to create meaningful and appealing artwork, by removing traditional restrictions and allowing the creator to find their own style using unconventional materials or a mixture of materials used in unconventional ways.

This is great news, indeed, this National Drawing Day (May 16th), as it means that by taking a mixed media approach, the mood-boosting and stress-relieving effects of crafting are available to all, and those who don't feel they have a natural talent for 'creating' may be able to find a suitable technique for their artistic output and may even master a new artform.

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