What is Mixed Media?

Mixed media is simply any combination of media such as acrylic, oil, watercolour, pastels, pencils, gilding etc. Mixed media sometimes gets a bad wrap that is not always deserved. The reason why?

Mostly it is because mixed media can include elements that don’t meet the requirements of fine art. That is, they can very easily fail to meet the requirements of being acid-free and lightfast. Why you ask? Some elements that are used are taken from the craft world which has different standards and requirements. For instance, paper-crafters are usually quite fastidious about ensuring their paper and card is acid-free, however rarely do you see ratings for being lightfast products. These items can still be used by a fine artist but they will need to cover them with UV protecting varnishes or mediums, and these are quite expensive.

In recent years we have seen an emergence of certain techniques for acrylic paint become bastardised to achieve a quicker and cheaper impact. Crafters began mixing silicone oil with acrylic paint and acrylic mediums to get “cells”, and then over time it has resulted in people using PVA glue (which is full of acid) and house-paint conditioner (Floetrol) which are considerably cheaper instead of buying artist quality mediums. While they create amazing designs, they are not guaranteed to last as simply put, oil and water don’t mix! Originally this technique was achieved by artists understanding the different weights of the pigments and using that to create “cells”. If you are interested, scientists at Golden Acrylics in the US have done testing and reported their findings.

Other so called “original ideas” that untrained artists have come up with show that they don’t understand their materials. For instance, painting with traditional gouache or soft pastels over the top of another medium and expecting it to stay put when not protected by glass. Another trend is using inks and markers that are alcohol based. Traditionally these were used by illustrators who digitise the image on completion, as the dye that the colour is based on is not lightfast. Think of drawings on sewing patterns or landscape designs, with black lines and swishes of colour.

Making acrylic paints look like watercolours on canvas but instead of using a medium (which is the correct thing to do), they just thin the paint with water, which inevitably reduces the adhesive property of the paint to almost nil. Doing it on watercolour paper at least allows for some of the moisture and paint to sink into the paper, but that doesn’t occur on canvas that has been coasted with a sealer and gesso.

The surfaces that are used also need to be archival, with an expectation that they will survive for at least a hundred years. MDF uses acid in the manufacturing process and the tiniest bit of moisture will cause it to expand rapidly and disintegrate….I have also seen someone staple a piece of cotton rag (watercolour paper) to a canvas stretcher. Over time, depending where you live, moisture will get absorbed by the “paper” and the fibres will swell and loosen and no longer be compressed, so it is unlikely to last. Similarly, I have seen an artist paint on a standard cardboard box, which is cheap but not long lasting or acid-free. Using canvas as a base for resin art is another accident waiting to happen – canvas is flexible and resin is not, so movement over time which occurs naturally due to changes in temperature and humidity means that the bond between the soft canvas and hard resin will breakdown.

Finally, mixed media often includes ready-made components that the artist has not made themselves, so taking credit for the artwork can be a little tricky…

Using the right tools for the job means:

  • Using professional quality mediums
  • Using acid-free paints, papers, cardboard, boards and anything else you use
  • Using high quality paints that are lightfast and suited to the surface and the eventual framing/presentation style you intend to use
  • Spending more money on the surface or substrate to ensure it will last the test of time and sit nicely. Watercolour paper that is less than 300gsm will buckle unless it is properly stretched before use, making the framers job almost impossible
  • Making your own specialist papers and cards (eg: corrugate your own acid-free papers and cardboard)
  • Creating your own embellishments with ingredients that are acid-free and lightfast
  • Fixing any loose mediums like pastel, charcoal and even graphite. Watercolours on boards (instead of traditional paper) that have been coated with an absorbent ground need to be varnished so that you don’t wipe the paint off by accident.
  • Coating leafing so the metal, which is not usually pure gold, so that it doesn’t corrode
  • Framing the artwork in the manner that suitable for the medium. For example: If you cannot afford to frame pastels properly so that any loose pastel dust falls behind the matboard, perhaps you should consider another medium!
  • Consider your location – where I live has high humidity and temperatures so linen becomes floppy very easily and may need to be re-stretched several times over its life. If you don’t want to/can’t afford to do that, then use another style of “canvas”
  • Varnish your work to protect it and to standardise the surface gloss levels. Different pigments have different levels of gloss – some are dull and chalky while others are shiny!
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