What’s the deal with medium?

Here’s something you can help me with.

I’ve been filling in a lot of exhibition application forms lately (the NZ Art Show, next year’s Raglan Arts Weekend, the Cliftons Art Prize…) Right after the artist’s name and title of the piece, before any mention of description or inspiration or any other information about the artist, the form asks for “medium”.

This has me stumped.

My entry into the Cliftons Art Prize.
My entry into the Cliftons Art Prize.

What do you want to read for an artist’s or artwork’s “medium”?

Painters don’t just write “paint”. They specify “oil” or “acrylic” or “watercolour”. They might even go a bit further and say what they painted on: “oil on canvas”.

Photographers can get away with the simple “photograph” although some get more precise with “digital photograph” or even “archival print of digital photograph”.

So when you read the medium, what are you looking for?

Some of my pieces are digitally painted on the computer using a pen and tablet. But if you read “digital painting” beside my work and you don’t know what that means, that doesn’t really help you.

On the other hand, it seems to me that a longer, more precise description is just a chance to show off. For my latest work, I could say “archival print of digital composited photograph”. That makes what I do sound so tricky and technical (feel free to be in awe of my process!) But if you don’t know what that means, it still doesn’t help you.

Is medium that important?

You’re on an arts trail, looking at the guide. Is the fact that the artist paints in acrylics that’s interesting? Or that they create colourful paintings of the local landscapes?

You’re in a gallery. Do you approach a piece of art on the wall, read the medium and think “Oh, shame. It’s acrylic. I only like oil paintings so I don’t like this any more”?

For my art, I want you to be drawn into the scene, wonder about it, and see where the story takes you. I want your first response to be an emotional one. Then you can wonder how the piece was created.

So what should I write for my artworks?

My latest series is all original artworks created on the computer that I print and frame. If I used the brush tool Photoshop to “paint” on the colour, then I call it “digital painting”. If it’s a variety of photographs pieced together, I call it a “photograph”. But is there something better I could write?

What do you think? What would you like to read beside an artwork?

Keep on shining bright,



  1. If artists can say “Oil on canvas”, equally you can say “Printer’s ink on paper” but that doesn’t sound at all like what you want to convey.

    So how about “Painting using graphic art software” and “Photography using graphic art software”.

    ‘Digital’ sounds too much like 0s and 1s to me. Sorry Ard. I know it’s the right word, but I like ‘art’ in there. It denotes creativity.

    1. Love it: “printer’s ink on paper”. Exactly!

      I like your idea H – more of a description of what’s used rather than the exact medium. I hadn’t really thought of the connotation of “digital”. Maybe it makes it sound like it’s automated and you can hit a few keys and presto!

  2. “Medium” is always for extra appreciation of the work, for me, never for distinguishing it. “That started as tub of yoghurt and an actual garden gnome? Cool” well after the initial emotional response you mentioned.

    I think “digital painting” is perfect for all-original works, and “composite photograph” for others. Wouldn’t omitting the “composite” suggest one exposure, though? (see Dali Atomicus)

    So I think more detail is good. Except for saying it’s a print: if it was born digital and is on the wall in front of us, we can tell it is a print!

    1. Hey Ard, thanks for stopping by! Yay, I’m glad you think the medium is for the “huh, that’s how it was made!” response.

      I agree, not specifying “composite” does suggest one exposure – but then I kinda like the impression that I just rocked up to those cliffs and took that photo of the fighter and statues coming to life. And of course, you also know what “composite” means – if that matters? Definitely don’t need to say “print”. 🙂

      I’d like to see the yoghurt, garden gnome artwork…

(If you'd like to leave me a message too, I'd love to hear from you! I've turned off comments on this post because it's older than a couple of weeks, but you can email me at ailene@oldmountainart.com)