What Is Mixed Media Painting?

Lori Spencer

In the visual arts, a mixed media painting is a work of art that employs more than one medium. An example of mixed media might be a collage that contains paint, seashells, and bird feathers. A fairly common technique for painters is mixing oil, watercolor and acrylic paints into a single painting. Practically any combination can be used, limited only by the artists' imagination and available materials.

Mixed media painting often employs the use of watercolors.
Mixed media painting often employs the use of watercolors.

The origins of mixed media painting are in the late Victorian years from approximately 1870 to 1914, known as "La Belle Epoque." Translated from the French, this literally means "the beautiful age," or "the gilded age." Rapid advances in science, technology and loosening social mores inspired artists of the time to explore uncharted waters of creative expression. As a result, the arts underwent a radical transformation. New, progressive styles such as Impressionism and Art Nouveau began to cross over from the underground avant-garde into the mainstream.

Different kinds of paints may be combined in mixed media painting.
Different kinds of paints may be combined in mixed media painting.

Use of mixed media was a significant emerging trend in the evolution of early 20th century art. According to art history scholars such as Clement Greenberg, cubist collage first began to be employed by painters such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque around 1911. Picasso created his first mixed media piece, "Still Life with Chair Caning," in 1912. This daring work incorporated oil, oilcloth, and paste paper to simulate chair caning on the canvas. Breaking away from centuries of painting tradition, artists were now depicting objects three-dimensionally from various angles and points of view.

Another variation of modern mixed media painting is combining paint with other paper media such as pen-and-ink drawings. Advances in technology also make it easier for today's artists to mix traditional printmaking techniques with digital photography or graphics. Multimedia art, a related form, was inspired by mixed media painting. Multimedia art differs from mixed media in that nonvisual elements may be used. An example might be combining recorded music, dance and spoken word poetry into a single work.

Mixed media is typically created in layers. The artist chooses each layer with care and allows enough time for each layer to dry properly. Found objects such as bottle caps, matchbooks, or rocks are sometimes employed for effect. Pieces of jewelry, mismatched buttons, pencils, cereal boxes, bolts, screws and nails may provide some added visual color and interest. Use of these types of elements in a mixed media painting can impart new meaning to such seemingly unimportant things. This technique adds even more texture and depth to the work.

Mixed media painting can combine paint with other types paint, such as water colors and acrylics.
Mixed media painting can combine paint with other types paint, such as water colors and acrylics.

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Discussion Comments


@croydon - I do think in some cases mixed media artists use their mediums as a crutch to achieve interest when their subject or technique isn't that good. Abstract art can be very difficult to compose well and adding a few chunks of texture doesn't necessarily make it a unique work of art.

In some cases I think artists would do well to experiment more with their vision and less with their technique.


@umbra21 - A lot of contemporary art uses mixed media and I think they take that into account. It might look like someone has just splashed a whole bunch of different colors and shapes onto a canvas, but usually the painting is the end result of a long process of experimentation.

That's not just a creative activity. The painter will also be experimenting with media, and making sure that it's going to last and behave the way the painter wants it to behave.


One of the issues with using mixed media is that it can be unpredictable how the painting will age. Even when you do things like thin out oil paint you have to be careful about making sure that the balance is right so that the thin (or "lean") oil paint is not painted on top of the thicker (or "fat") paint.

This is because the paint is made thicker with more oil and thinner with turpentine and these substances can effect the drying time of the paint. If the paint on top dries faster, it can end up cracking when the paint below it dries.

The same thing could happen with different kinds of paint. Oil paints take a lot longer to dry than, say, watercolors. If you paint with oils and then put watercolors on top, you might end up cracking the painting as it dries.

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