Unit A6 - Medium and support

Unit A6 - Medium and suppport: Introduction

This short unit considers some of the material elements which make up a painting: the type of paint used (medium) and the type of material onto which the paint has been applied (the support).

It is useful to remember at this stage that paint consists of two principal materials: the pigment, which gives it colour; and the medium, the material in which the pigment is suspended, and which binds the pigment to the wood, canvas, paper or other material onto which the paint will be applied. Different types of medium produce different effects; this unit will examine some of the ways in which the use of a particular medium can change the visual impact of a painting. The unit has two sections.

In section a, we shall consider the effects of different types of medium, including tempera, oil, acrylic and watercolour; and introduce terms associated with brushwork.

In section b we shall go on to consider the effects of different types of support.

Unit A6a - Medium and support: Brushwork and types of medium

Before we begin thinking about types of medium, we need to introduce a few terms. These refer to the way in which the movement of the brush is visible.

  • Broad and fluid brushwork refers to work where larger strokes are apparent. Tight brushwork can only be seen from very close up.
  • Related to these terms is the notion of impasto: implies the texture created in a paint surface by the movement of the brush. Impasto implies heavy brushwork: by using impasto, artists can manipulate the properties of a medium to imply the textures: in other words, there's a tactile element, and the three-dimensionality of the artwork itself (as opposed to that of the objects it might be depicting) is emphasised.
  • Another term you might find useful is painterly: this refers to brushwork which is highly finished, smooth and hard-edged.

Types of medium

Tempera refers to a paint where pigment is dissolved in water, and mixed (or tempered) with organic gum, glue, or egg yoke. Egg tempera is associated with the early Italian Renaissance, but it also revived in the nineteenth century. Egg tempera paintings are done with many repeated brushstrokes, which are only visible from close up . The texture of tempera paintings tends to be smooth and matt.

See, for instance, Masaccio, Brancacci Chapel frescoes (1424-28): click here (external link)

Oil began to be used as a medium for paint in the 1460s, and rapidly became the dominant medium. Unlike egg tempera, it dries slowly, so that it can be worked and blended by the artist. It is transparent, which means that colour can be added layer by layer; and its thickness can be varied. This makes it a very flexible medium. 

See, for instance, Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Apples (1877): click here (external link)

Watercolour refers to any paint with a water-soluble medium. The term usually refers to translucent pigment, suspended in a solution of gum Arabic and water on a white ground. To create the lightest parts of the painting, the paint can be thinned with water, so that the ground shows through. See, for instance, John Constable, Dedham Church and Valley (1800): click here (external link)

Acrylic  can mean a variety of synthetic materials. Acrylic paints dry very quickly; they became popular in art in the twentieth century. Like oil, it is thick and lustrous; it can also be thinned easily to create different degrees of transparency.

See, for instance, David Hockney, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970): click here (external link)

Unit A6b - Medium and support: The importance of support

The material on which paint is applied - the support - can produce particular effects. For instance:

Canvas - any fabric used as a support - can often be seen through the paint, to produce a particular texture.

Panel - which usually refers to wood - can be shaped or curved.

Paper can be allowed to show through, for instance in watercolour paintings.

Unit A6 - Medium and Support: Summary

This unit looked briefly at some of the types of medium and support used by artists.

  • Which medium has been used?
  • How has the artist used the materials? How has he or she handled the medium?
  • Does the artwork appear finished or unfinished? Are there parts of the support which remain exposed?
  • Is the brushwork "tight" or "broad and fluid"?
  • Is the artwork highly finished ("painterly"), or is it rough?


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This resource was created with the help of a University of Leeds Faculty of Arts Enterprise Knowledge Transfer Grant.

© Matthew Treherne, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT.