Medium: that by or through which anything is accomplished, conveyed, or carried on.
The Living Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary.

For each art has its own medium and that medium is especially fitted for one kind of communication. Each medium says something that cannot be uttered as well or as completely in any other tongue.
-- John Dewey, Art As Experience.

THE MEDIUM OF PAINTING is a complex of materials and conventions, both of which have been modified and augmented over the years. Its materials tend to be various paints and the surfaces which receive and support them. Its conventions are "usages" of those materials. Some conventions involve representation and figuration; others don't.

The medium of painting (like many other media) has often been compared to a language. While it isn't specific enough to be one, like language, it communicates through symbols, usages, and inflections. Unlike language, it also communicates through material and optical presence.

The medium of painting isn't fixed and final. It changes, albeit slowly. This development is brought about by changes in materials and in the conventions that govern their use. These don't necessarily coincide. Thus, the medium can't be considered apart from its history, and that history is affected by materials and their uses.


MATERIALS TEND TO ENABLE rather than dictate. Their influence is subtle. Often they don't create new conventions so much as they reinforce some existing ones and, in so doing, lead to the abandonment of others. Above all, materials tend to be agents of stability and continuity.' For example, oil paint dominated pictorial art until the emergence of photography in the nineteenth century, and dominated painted pictorial art until the 1950s. In some ways its domination remains, as many of its characteristics were built into the acrylic paints which have all but replaced oils for the purposes of abstract painting. The capacity of materials to resist change is exemplified by photography's bias towards representation. It has resisted abstraction for well over a century, despite the efforts of many photographers.

Oil Paint

PAINT IS THE MATERIAL which gives painting its name. It colors and covers surfaces. Basically, it consists of colored powders (pigments) suspended in a colorless, glue-like medium.* When this medium is diluted or extended with a solvent, it becomes an applicable vehicle. Some kind of adhesive drying, usually of the medium, itself, affixes paint to a surface.

From the sixteenth century until recently, Western painting has been dominated by oil paint. Although this remarkable material was probably known in Roman times, it wasn't used in pictorial art until commercially distilled solvents (particularly turpentine) were made available in the fifteenth century. Although oil painting was practiced early in that century by Flemish painters like the van Eycks, it didn't reach Italy until mid-century or later. It was probably introduced there by the Sicilian, Antonello da Messina (c. 1430-79), who was influenced by the van Eycks and may have worked in Flanders.

Oil paint was adopted quickly in Italy, especially by painters in Venice. During the sixteenth century, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese ­­ the great Venetian masters ­­ explored and exploited the new material's richness and flexibility. In doing so, they established the painterly (malerish) foundations of Western art, or as Delacroix put it, perfected painting's "material means".Ý

* Obviously, this sense of the word medium differs from that in the "medium" or vehicle which, combined with pigment, constitutes paint. However, I suspect the words are misconstrued at times.

Ý The Journals of Eugene Delacroix , trans. Walter Pach (New York, Grove Press, 1961) p. 529.


Pigments ground in slow-drying oils like linseed oil could be used in a variety of ways. To begin with, layers of oil and varnish-thinned glazes could enrich the rather dry surfaces of tempera paintings on panel without suppressing their clear-cut, sculptural contours. This was the general practice of the fifteenth century Flemish painters, and was continued in Italy, particularly by painters in Florence and Rome.

Because of its thick, greasy consistency, and because it dried slowly, oil paint could be worked, corrected, and blended right on the picture surface. This simplified the shading and modeling which painters had developed during the fifteenth century. Blending and blurring also made it possible to immense figures in atmosphere, and this had enormous consequences for subsequent painting. Oil paint could also be applied in thick, opaque layers. These heavy impastos literally raised the surface into a kind of brushed, low relief. This characteristic was enhanced in the nineteenth century, when the addition of thicker oils (such as poppy seed oil) to the vehicle gave the paint a buttery consistency which held its shape as it dried. Thereafter, oil paint could be literally troweled onto the surface.

Before the development of oil paint, artistic personality was defined primarily by the drawing of shapes and contours. After its introduction-and especially after the introduction of stretched canvas-expressive paint-handling and brushwork were added to this.


CANVAS CAME INTO ITS OWN in sixteenth century Venice as a ground upon which to apply oil paint. Before that time, oil painting has been done primarily on wooden panels. However, in the damp climate of Venice, wood panels tended to deteriorate. The solution was to paint on a light, flexible fabric such as canvas. However this, too, presented problems. Oil paint dries by oxidation; this chemical change attacks organic fibres; so canvas must be sized to protect it from the oil. It was tacked to stretchers for sizing, and these sized, stretched canvases quickly replaced wood panels.

Stretched canvas didn't warp and split like wood. It was much lighter and didn't require complex bracing, so it could spread to cover relatively large, uninterrupted areas. Although its surface wasn't as smooth as wood, when properly prepared it received paint well-and in a new way. It enormously enriched the relation between surface and paint. Canvas not only supplied a woven tooth which provided a broken texture when paint was dragged across it, but it "gave" under the brush: its spring resisted and enhanced the brush's spring. This added enormously to the possibilities of painterly touch. Oil paint, stretched canvas, and a variety of springy brushes became one of the most successful material combinations in the history of art.

Stretched canvas brought another kind of freedom to Western painting. Because it was light and portable, relatively large paintings didn't have to be painted in situ . They could be painted in studios (usually on easels, hence easel painting), and the finished works could then be transported to patrons or customers with relative ease. Thus, the stretched canvas easel painting tended to replace all but the smallest panels and all but the largest fresco. This portability, along with another aspect of stretched canvas, reinforced the reliance on standardized formats. Because canvas doesn't stretch easily around complex shapes, picture formats that derived from sculpture or architecture (for example, cruciforms or Gothic arches) declined. Large oil paintings seldom fully occupied walls: they were placed upon walls and within their confines. Similarly, pictures no longer had to be combined in compartments or cabinets to create large-scale effects, as had been the case with earlier altarpieces.

The self-contained rectangle wasn't new to pictorial art; nevertheless, stretched canvas reinforced it powerfully. Easel paintings tended to unify within their borders rather than across the divisions of altarpieces or in relation to the shape and confines of rooms. As a result, paintings ceased to be sequences or compartments of representations (perhaps Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling was a late and supreme example of this). The unbroken surface of stretched canvas insisted on pictorial unity, a unity which took place within the confines of a harmoniously-proportioned rectangle (i.e., one not too long and narrow). In terms of representation, this unity insisted upon a coherent, illusionistic space seen at a moment of time from a singular point of view; and a unified dramatic action, or narrative.

Narrative, Representational, Material

BETWEEN 1500 AND 1850, the primary vehicle of pictorial development in the West was the easel picture. (Since the mid-nineteenth century it has shared this development with the photograph. Since that time, the easel picture has changed radically.) This development took place within the confines of an art that was boldly and fundamentally representational. Many conventions of representation developed before 1500, in the period of transition from sculpture to painting when Romanesque and Gothic gave way to the Renaissance. One of the these involved various methods of suggesting "sculptural" figures, usually by drawing and shading; another involved methods of placing these figures in illusory space. Geometric perspective was an example of the latter; because it was a form of drawing, it favored a clear cut drawing style and emphatic linear design.

During the fifteenth century, pictures became more and more self-contained. Within their borders they tended to narrate singular events set in coherent space seen from a single point of view. Even when depictions multiplied in altarpieces the individual units tended, increasingly, to be self-contained pictures.*

In the sixteenth century, the unities of narrative and representation were reinforced by the material unity of oil paint and the easel picture, a material unity that began and ended inside the picture frame.Ý These unities called for emphatic spatial coherence, and oil paint discovered new means of achieving this. Prior to 1500, painting had exploited emphatic patterns and clearly-drawn shapes. But these, even when supplied by geometric perspective, tended to interrupt the picture surface and undermine its integral wholeness. Oil paint emphasized this wholeness by blending and blurring, and by suggesting enveloping atmosphere through transparent glazes. Chiaroscuro, which gave strong effects of relief by modeling with darks and lights, gave way to sfumato and various other methods of surrounding figures with atmosphere by blending them into the paint surface. This unity of setting and atmosphere led, eventually, to the "pure" landscape painting of the seventeenth century. In a sense, this was a precursor of art for art's sake, a kind of pictorialism for its own sake: the picturesque. In the latter nineteenth century, the Impressionists exploited the alliance between pictorial unity and landscape once again. Then it led away from representation.

* Again, Michelangelo is an exception. He intended to compose in terms of the single figure or figure group rather than the picture as a whole. While this resulted in some of the supreme achievements of Western art, it belonged, in some respects, to the medieval and Byzantine past. His paintings remain juxtapositions of ideal types rather than unified pictures. Even his late paintings aren't quite dramatic units, at least not in the sense of the Raphael cartoons, and a sense of place in them is scarcely more than suggested. The spatial dislocations of Michelangelo's late "Mannerism'' may well stem from a tendency to carry Medieval sculptural units into the pictorial world of Raphael and Titian.

Ý To some extent, the Baroque countered this tendency towards the easel picture, but generally when it conceived in units larger than the picture. For example, a type of Italian ceiling painting, quadratura, sought to extend and "unify" the entire interior space. But even then it was sometimes mixed with quadri riportati, which gave the effect of framed, easel paintings transferred to the ceiling. Annibale Carracci used this in his fresco for the Farnese Gallery, begun 1597. The very fact that quadratura tends to dissolve figures in clouds, sky, and light suggests that Venetian oil painting-and material unity-had intervened See: Rudolf Wittkower, Art and Architecture in Italy 1600 to 1750, The Pelican History of Art, 1st paperback ed. (Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1973), pp. 65-G6.


Reynolds, Lady Skipworth

SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS CALLED attention to the material unity made possible by oil paint in "Discourse Eight" (1778), calling it ''fullness of effect" and contrasting it to "effects of relief", which he felt belonged to art prior to 1500, to

... the old Painters, such as Andrea Mantegna, Pietro Perugino, and Albert Durer; and to ... the first manner of Leonardo da Vinci, Giorgione, and even Correggio; but these three were among the first to correct themselves in this dryness of style, by no longer considering relief as a principle object.

Fullness of effect, Reynolds suggested, was

... produced by melting and losing the shadows in a ground still darker than those shadows [he noted that Rembrandt excelled in this]; whereas... relief is produced by opposing and separating the ground from the figure either by Light, or shadow, or color.

Reynolds' fullness of effect refers to the melting and blending exemplified in what the great, German art historian, Heinrich Wolfflin (1864-1945), called the painterly (malerisch) style. He opposed this to the linear style, and used it to describe the tendency of Baroque paintings to unify by merging figure and ground within a common paint surface rather than arranging clear units of design. As he saw it, the painterly sought unity in an overall impression; the linear, through multiplicity.*

* Principles of Art History, 1916 (first translation, 1932). Other aspects of this linear vs. painterly opposition were: plane vs. recession, closed form vs. open form, multiplicity vs. unity, and absolute clarity vs. relative clarity.


A CHILD OF THE ENLIGHTENMENT, Reynolds was obsessed with theory. He judged and generalized. But his experience of Western painting presented him with a duality he couldn't reconcile. He sought unity in two irreconcilable aspects. These didn't just confound him; they confounded artists well into the nineteenth century. Art, he believed, entailed generalizing from experience; above all, it entailed elevation: the grand manner and the dramatic unity of narrative. The grand manner called for "a firm and determined outline";* this suggested effects of relief; and these, as he suggested later, were incompatible with fullness of effect. Reynolds was never able to reconcile fullness of effect with the grand manner in his own art. He couldn't paint successful narratives (few artists could). He excelled in the portrait, where he achieved, at best, a kind of elevated characterization. This was accomplished by broad and fluid paint handling which looked forward, at times, to Magnet as well as back to Rembrandt and Titian. But it wasn't history painting.

Delacroix, Christ on the Sea of Gallilee

In the nineteenth century, this conflict between narrative and fullness of effect reached a crisis in the art of Eugene Delacroix, another artist given to theorizing. Delacroix painted narratives, but painted them in a flamboyantly painterly manner: color and bravura paint handling attempted to match the dramatic intensity of his exotic subjects, drawn from literature, medieval history, and especially, North Africa and the Middle East. In his hands narrative inclined to violent activity: battles, lion hunts, The Fanatics of Tangier. These, in turn, were subsumed by color and brushwork. In short, narrative gave way to "pure painting.'Ý At best, Delacroix's, prodigious handling of material prevailed. But, as Walter Friedlander observed, Delacroix was the last great narrative painter-or the last great painter obsessed with narrative. Although his rival, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, preached the classical style, that style had become incapable of narrating: effects of relief had become immobile.** All that remained was the statuesque pose, the statuesque portrait, and congregations of figures frozen into designs.

By the mid-nineteenth century, narrative had been largely abandoned to the academies and the Salon.ÝÝ The best painters seldom took it up. Eventually, even generalized human nature ceased to matter as a subject for representation. Painting resigned itself to the materials of its medium, to oil paint and sized, stretched canvas: to the material easel picture. In the process, it became more purely painting. Artists sacrificed unity of action, unity of time, and even unity of place to fullness of effect of one kind or another. They abandoned coherent, unified narrative; eventually they abandoned representation, itself.

* Joshua Reynolds. "Discourse Three," 1770.

Ý Delacroix 's journals-supported by Baudelaire's observations-reveal an artist passionately devoted to the exploration of painting's material means. Nevertheless, he seems to have believed that representation was an essential part of the medium of painting. See his journal entry of 20 October, l 853.

** Later in the century, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes(182498) attempted the resurrection of a monumental, classical style; but his figures, too, strike attitudes.

ÝÝ I don 't mean to suggest that oil paint is solely responsible for the demise of narrative. Narrative depends on the ability to suggest and unify movement. By the first half of the Nineteenth Century, drawing-apart from the painterly, and then mainly in the hands of Delacroix-was unable to supply this. The inclination to symbolism in the late 19th Century can be seen as a an attempt to covey meaning apart from narrative.

Jules Olitski, Third Manchu, 1974

This material on the history of oil painting appeared first in a catalogue essay accompanying the exhibition Jules Olitski and the Tradition of Oil Painting at the Edmonton Art Gallery in 1979. Third Manchu, one of Olitski's masterpieces, was included in the exhibition. Despite the efforts of many admirers, Olitski hasn't yet received the recognition his art deserves.

© Terry Fenton 1979