An Easy Guide to Understanding the Different Mediums Used in Painting

Art Wise

Whether it is the rich, intense colour of oil paints and pastels, or the soothing glow of watercolours, the medium in which an artwork is created, has a big influence on how it looks and feels. It is important to know how each medium differs before you invest in a painting, so here’s a useful guide to understanding the 7 most popular mediums used in paintings.


An ancient medium that was originally used for murals, the word tempera originally came from the verb temper, or, 'to bring to a desired consistency'. Created by hand-grinding dry powdered pigments into binding agents such as eggs, glue, honey, water, milk and a variety of plant gums to hold the colour together, tempera was the primary painting medium for centuries. Tempera artworks last very long, with some of the earliest works dating back to the 1st century! Tempera eventually reduced in use compared to oil paints, when the latter rose to popularity during the Renaissance.

(Tempera paints; image source:

(Primavera by Sandro Botticelli; tempera panel, 1482)

Oil Painting

Known for pure colours, buttery consistency and a distinct scent, oil paints are made from pigments with linseed oil, poppy seed oil, walnut oil or safflower oil used as binders. The choice of oil affects the paint, so an artist might choose to use several different oils in the same painting to get varied effects.

(The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh; oil on canvas, 1889) 

Since it has more pigment in it, oil paintings are richer and vivid. Oil paints stay wet for days or weeks, depending upon humidity and temperature, making it easier to continue mixing colours for several days to produce subtle colour variations.

(Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer; oil on canvas, 1665)


First used in the 1940’s, acrylic is a unique paint that combines properties of both water and oil colours. Made by combining pigments with synthetic resin binders, acrylic paint is known for its versatility and fast-drying ability.

(Mind Forest by Naina Maithani Kulkarni; acrylic on canvas, available for purchase on Artisera)

Because of its water-soluble character, artists can modify the appearance, flexibility and texture of a surface painted with acrylic, simply by adding water. Acrylics are also useful in mixed media works, as it allows for the use of pastels, oil, chalk, charcoal and pen on top of the dried acrylic painted surface.

(A Bigger Splash by David Hockney; acrylic on canvas, 1967)


Watercolour is a painting method in which the paints are made of pigments suspended in a water-based solution. Translucent and lustrous, watercolours appear luminous because the colours are laid down in pure form, with just water and very few fillers. 

(Paul Cezanne, self portrait; watercolour on paper, 1896)

Watercolour is an extremely old painting technique, dating back to the cave paintings of Palaeolithic Europe. Since water is an active element in this painting process, it becomes important for the artist to learn about and anticipate the behaviour of water. This makes watercolour techniques unique, giving this medium the reputation of being quite demanding. 

(Jungle Calla Lillies by Georgia O'Keeffe; watercolour on paper)

Pen and Ink

A traditional yet versatile medium, pen and ink have been used by artists since ancient-Egyptian times for sketches, finished drawings or ink and wash paintings and illustrations. The medium was continuously developed in Asian art, especially as a part of calligraphy. In China, traditional paintings were executed with brushes dipped in black or coloured ink. Known for highlighting contrast, and bringing attention to even the minutest of details, pen and ink is truly a varied and multifaceted medium.

(Pen and Ink artwork by Babu Eshwar Prasad)

(Parrot Paradise by Chinese artist Wu Guanzhong; coloured ink on paper)


Known for their intense colour and varied textures, pastels have been in use since the Renaissance, gaining considerable popularity in the 18th century. Pastels are created by mixing dry pigment, chalk and a binder together to form a thick paste, which is then allowed to dry. Soft pastels and oil pastels are known for their buttery and waxy texture, while hard pastels produce a sharp drawing material that is useful for fine details.

(La Toilette by Edgar Degas; pastel on paper, 1884-1886)

Mixed Media

A term used to describe a combination of different materials, mixed media artworks have gained much popularity in recent times. An example of a mixed media artwork could be a combination of paint, ink, and metal on canvas. The advantage of mixed media lies in its ability to showcase multiple desired effects on the artwork. It has an experimental feel, and ensuring appropriate layering is an important aspect of this technique.

(Mixed Media work by Ekta Singha, available for purchase on Artisera)

While no medium is better or significantly easier to master than the other, each creates a unique feel and texture, giving a distinct character to a piece of art.

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