Changing Medium

Changing Medium

Change is good, it tests our repertoire of skills, challenges our sense of comfort and may offer information for insight about how we handle impasse. When we change mediums as visual artists, it may be overwhelming. How will we manage to do our old “tricks,” and maintain our style with a new medium? Any daunting change can be re-framed as an opportunity for discovery and experimentation. This makes the concept of change feel safer. After all, it is our choice to go back to the familiar after a journey into the novel.


There are several practical reasons why we may choose to change medium. Becoming a mother often warrants a concern for exposure to harmful substances such as solvents. It may come to our attention that we are exhibiting physical responses to a chemical in our studio or workspace. Many of us, particularly before the invention of water-based oil paints, needed to shift to acrylic painting due to the fumes from turpentine. Often, we decide to move from acrylic to oil paint because acrylics limit our range of expression from the rather flat, plastic color surface. Oil paint offers richer color surface and depth. Choices we make about our preferred medium are often deeply personal and reflect our style, our values, our life. Our chosen medium and techniques may represent a tedious journey, laden with vignettes which are intrinsic to our identity as an artist.


Medium choice can also derive from marketing realities. It is a fact that different galleries are “attracted” to different  prefer certain mediums. As we become more familiar with our community art world, the best gallery-fit for our pieces becomes clearer. There are strong cultural mores surrounding the desirability of different art styles and surrounding different mediums. For instance, northeasterners seem less drawn to sculptural pieces, because space is much tighter here than in other parts of the country.


Marketing our voice, our style, is another deeply important factor which could initiate a switch from one medium to another. Watercolorists who feel there is an unforgiving quality with their medium might be drawn to encaustic painting or mixed-media work. Perhaps their expressive voice is far better enhanced by switching to a looser substance. By “loose”, I mean that inherent in the medium is an element of unplanned outcome. For instance, a potter finds as she pulls her raku pot from the pit-firing that a twig has landed on her piece, leaving a permanent outline in its surface. It was an accident, unplanned and out of her control, but beautiful. Try as she may to re-create the event by laying twigs on her next creations, the original effect cannot be re-created. There was a powerful co-artist here called happenstance. Certain mediums offer this element more readily than others. It is important to ponder this notion: can the medium’s character enhance our style or impede it? Other watercolorists find that the water adds an exciting overlay of chance. The pigment is moved by the water in unpredictable ways. This could be the deciding factor in their love for watercolor work.

A painter friend of mine sees in Technicolor. Her work is brilliant and big. She paints on huge canvases and she sometimes uses color right out of the tube. The element of unplanned happenstance is an attractive factor for her. and sShe is able to point out that a disappointment I may be expressing about one of my pieces is actually a “wonderful mistake!” “But Sarah, look at what it adds, look at how much more rhythmic the over-all work is,” she’ll exclaim. Often, I agree with her although I may not want my more exacting painter friends to hear. This element of “wonderful mistakes” can make us feel ashamed, as though we’ve gotten away with something without due work or effort. In actuality, my friend is right. When a medium or technique informs our work, our style, then the fit is right. We are able to produce pieces that inspire.

Making a medium shift often begins with a sense of unrest or dissatisfaction. Sometimes the sense of unrest might be unconscious. As if by chance, we are drawn to a new brush, a size or sort we have never painted with before. Its dimensions allow us to create new lines. We are suddenly riveted by our novel strokes and forms, we feel ignited.


Workshops can offer wonderful opportunities for us to try different mediums. We can “taste,” and still go back to our usual medium. Consider the possibilities of changing subject matter, technique, format, or medium, and then using our new-found techniques to enliven our work. If my friend were to try a printmaking technique such as dry-point or etching, the plate preparation alone might feel frustrating for her. On the other hand, her new set of skills could very well enrich her bold paintings. Artists are by nature intuitive beasts. We sense, intuit, feel in ways that other professionals may envy. When a change or shift in medium presents itself as an important consideration, we owe it to ourselves to risk the familiar and the safe. The impasse might well be an opportunity for discovery and insight.