Read this text about painting. Did you know that there are six major distinct painting mediums? Those who live in Western societies tend to think about painting when they first think about art.

Painting is the application of pigments to a support surface that establishes an image, design, or decoration. In art, "painting" describes both the act and the result. Most painting is created with pigment in liquid form and applied with a brush. Exceptions to this are found in Navajo sand painting and Tibetan mandala painting, where powdered pigments are used. Painting has survived for thousands of years and is, along with drawing and sculpture, one of the oldest creative mediums. It's used in some form by cultures around the world.

Three of the most recognizable images in Western art history are paintings: Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, Edvard Munch's The Scream, and Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night. These three artworks exemplify how painting can go beyond a simple mimetic function, that is, to only imitate what is seen. The power of great painting is that it transcends perceptions to reflect emotional, psychological, and even spiritual levels of the human condition.

Painting mediums are extremely versatile because artists can apply them to different surfaces (called supports), including paper, wood, canvas, plaster, clay, lacquer, and concrete. Because paint is usually applied in a liquid or semi-liquid state, it has the ability to soak into porous support material, which can, over time, weaken and damage it. To prevent this, the support is usually first covered with a ground, a mixture of binder and chalk that, when dry, creates a non-porous layer between the support and the painted surface. A typical ground is a gesso.

There are six major painting mediums, each with specific individual characteristics:

  • Encaustic
  • Tempera
  • Fresco
  • Oil
  • Acrylic
  • Watercolor

All of them use three basic ingredients:

  • Binder
  • Pigment
  • Solvent

Pigments are granular solids incorporated into the paint to contribute color. The binder, commonly referred to as the vehicle, is the actual film-forming component of paint. The binder holds the pigment in the solution until it is ready to be dispersed onto the surface. The solvent controls the flow and application of the paint. It's mixed into the paint, usually with a brush, to dilute it to the proper viscosity, or thickness, before it's applied to the surface. Once the solvent has evaporated from the surface, the remaining paint is fixed there. Solvents range from water to oil-based products like linseed oil and mineral spirits. Let's look at each of the six main painting mediums:


Encaustic paint mixes dry pigment with a heated beeswax binder. The mixture is then brushed or spread across a support surface. Reheating allows for longer manipulation of the paint. Encaustic dates back to the first century C.E. and was used extensively in funerary mummy portraits from Fayum in Egypt. The characteristics of encaustic painting include strong, resonant colors and extremely durable paintings. Because of the beeswax binder, when encaustic cools, it forms a tough skin on the surface of the painting.

The 20th-century American artist Jasper Johns used encaustic techniques in his compositions. In his work Flag (1954-1955), Jasper used a combination of encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted on plywood.

Jasper Johns, 'Flag', encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted on plywood

Flag, Jasper Johns, encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted on plywood


Tempera paint combines pigment with an egg yolk binder, then thinned and released with water. Like encaustic, tempera has been used for thousands of years. It dries quickly to a durable matte finish. Tempera paintings are traditionally applied in successive thin layers, called glazes, painstakingly built up using networks of cross-hatched lines. Because of this technique, tempera paintings are known for their detail.

Duccio, 'The Crevole Madonna', c. 1280. Tempera on board. Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena, Italy

Duccio, The Crevole Madonna, c. 1280. Tempera on board. Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena, Italy

In early Christianity, tempera was used extensively to paint images of religious icons. The pre-Renaissance Italian artist Duccio (c. 1255–1318), one of the most influential artists of the time, used tempera paint to create The Crevole Madonna. You can see the sharpness of line and shape in this well-preserved work and the detail he renders in the face and skin tones of the Madonna.

Contemporary painters still use tempera as a medium. American painter Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) used tempera to create Christina's World, a masterpiece of detail, composition, and mystery.


Fresco painting is used exclusively on plaster walls and ceilings. The medium of fresco has been used for thousands of years but is most associated with its use in Christian images during the Renaissance period in Europe.

There are two forms of fresco: Buon, or "wet," and secco, or "dry."The

Buon fresco technique consists of painting in pigment mixed with water on a thin layer of wet, fresh lime mortar or plaster. The pigment is applied to and absorbed by the wet plaster; after a number of hours, the plaster dries and reacts with the air: this chemical reaction fixes the pigment particles in the plaster. Because of the chemical makeup of the plaster, a binder is not required. Buon fresco is more stable because the pigment becomes part of the wall.

Domenico di Michelino's Dante and the Divine Comedy from 1465 is a superb example of buon fresco. The colors and details are preserved in the dried plaster wall. Michelino shows the Italian author and poet Dante Alighieri standing with a copy of the Divine Comedy open in his left hand, gesturing to the illustration of the story depicted around him. The artist shows us four different realms associated with the narrative: the mortal realm on the right depicting Florence, Italy; the heavenly realm indicated by the stepped mountain at the left center – you can see an angel greeting the saved souls as they enter from the base of the mountain; the realm of the damned to the left – with Satan surrounded by flames greeting them at the bottom of the painting; and the realm of the cosmos arching over the entire scene.

Domenico di Michelino, 'Dante's Divine Comedy', 1465, buon fresco, the Duomo, Florence, Italy

Domenico di Michelino, Dante's Divine Comedy, 1465, buon fresco, the Duomo, Florence, Italy

Secco fresco refers to painting an image on the surface of a dry plaster wall. This medium requires a binder since the pigment is not mixed into the wet plaster. Egg tempera is the most common binder used for this purpose. It was common to use secco fresco over buon fresco murals to repair damage or make changes to the original.

Leonardo Da Vinci's painting of The Last Supper was done using secco fresco.

Leonardo da Vinci, 'The Last Supper,' 1498. Fresco.Santa Maria della Grazie

Leonardo Da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1495-98, dry fresco on plaster. Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan


Oil paint is the most versatile of all the painting mediums. It uses pigment mixed with a binder of linseed oil. Linseed oil can also be used as a vehicle, along with mineral spirits or turpentine. Oil painting was thought to have developed in Europe during the 15th century, but recent research on murals found in Afghani caves shows oil-based paints were used there as early as the 7th century.

Some of the qualities of oil paint include a wide range of pigment choices, its ability to be thinned down and applied in almost transparent glazes as well as used straight from the tube (without the use of a vehicle), built up in thick layers called impasto (you can see this in many works by Vincent van Gogh). One drawback to using impasto is that over time the body of the paint can split, leaving networks of cracks along the thickest parts of the painting. Because oil paint dries slower than other mediums, it can be blended on the support surface with meticulous detail. This extended working time also allows for adjustments and changes to be made without having to scrape off sections of dried paint.

In Jan Brueghel the Elder's still life oil painting, you can see many of the above-mentioned qualities. The richness of the paint itself is evident in both the resonant lights and the inky dark colors of the work. The working of the paint allows for many different effects to be created, from the softness of the flower petals to the reflection on the vase and the many visual textures in between.

Richard Diebenkorn's Cityscape #1 from 1963 shows how the artist uses oil paint in a more fluid, expressive manner. He thins down the medium to obtain a quality and gesture that reflects the sunny, breezy atmosphere of a California morning. Diebenkorn used layers of oil paint, one over the other, to let the underpainting show through and a flat, more geometric space that blurs the line between realism and abstraction.

Jan Brueghel the Elder, 'Flowers in a Vase', 1599. Oil on wood. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien, Germany.

Jan Brueghel the Elder, Flowers in a Vase, 1599. Oil on wood. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien, Germany

Richard Diebenkom, 'Cityscape #1'

Cityscape #1, Richard Diebenkom

Georgia O'Keeffe's oil paintings show a range of handling between soft and austere to very detailed and evocative. You rarely see her brushstrokes, but she has a summary command of the medium of oil paint.

The abstract expressionist painters pushed the limits of what oil paint could do. Their focus was on the act of painting as much as it was on the subject matter. Indeed, for many of them, there was no distinction between them. The work of Willem de Kooning leaves a record of oil paint being brushed, dripped, scraped, and wiped away, all in a frenzy of creative activity. This idea stays contemporary in the paintings of Celia Brown.


Acrylic paint was developed in the 1950s and became an alternative to oils. The pigment is suspended in an acrylic polymer emulsion binder and uses water as the vehicle. The acrylic polymer has characteristics like rubber or plastic. Acrylic paints offer the body, color resonance, and durability of oils without the expense, mess, and toxicity issues of using heavy solvents to mix them. One major difference is the relatively fast drying time of acrylics. They are water-soluble, but they become impervious to water or other solvents once dry. Moreover, acrylic paints adhere to many different surfaces and are extremely durable. Acrylic impastos will not crack or turn yellow over time.

The American artist Robert Colescott (1925-2009) used acrylics on large-scale paintings. He uses thin layers of underpainting (called scumbling), high-contrast colors, and luscious surfaces to bring out the full range of effects that acrylics offer.


Watercolor is the most sensitive of the painting mediums. It reacts to the lightest touch of the artist and can become an overworked mess in a moment. There are two kinds of watercolor media: transparent and opaque. Transparent watercolor operates in a reverse relationship to the other painting mediums. It is traditionally applied to a paper support and relies on the whiteness of the paper to reflect light through the applied color (see below), whereas opaque paints (including opaque watercolors) reflect light off the skin of the paint itself. Watercolor consists of pigment and a binder of gum arabic, a water-soluble compound made from the sap of the acacia tree. It dissolves easily in water.

Image of light passing through color

Light passes through the color and is reflected by the paper underneath

Watercolor paintings hold a sense of immediacy. The medium is extremely portable and excellent for small-format paintings. The paper used for watercolor is generally of two types: hot-pressed, which gives a smoother texture, and cold-pressed, which results in a rougher texture. Transparent watercolor techniques include using wash, an area of color applied with a brush, and diluting with water to let it flow across the paper. Wet-in-wet painting allows colors to flow and drift into each other, creating soft transitions between them. Dry brush painting uses little water and lets the brush run across the top ridges of the paper, resulting in a broken line of color and lots of visual texture.

Examples of watercolor painting techniques: on the left, a wash. On the right, dry brush effects.

Wash, Drybrush

Examples of watercolor painting techniques: on the left, a wash. On the right, dry brush effects

John Marin's Brooklyn Bridge (1912) shows extensive use of wash. He renders the massive bridge almost invisible except for the support towers on both sides of the painting. Even the Manhattan skyline becomes enveloped in the misty, abstract shapes created by washes of color.

Boy in a Red Vest by French painter Paul Cezanne builds form through nuanced colors and tones. How the watercolor is laid onto the paper reflects a sensitivity and deliberation common in Cezanne's paintings.

Paul Cezanne, Boy in a Red Vest, c. 1890. Watercolor on paper.

Paul Cezanne, Boy in a Red Vest, c. 1890. Watercolor on paper.

The watercolors of Andrew Wyeth indicate the landscape with earth tones and localized color, often with dramatic areas of white paper left untouched.

Opaque watercolor, also called gouache, differs from transparent watercolor in that the particles are larger, the ratio of pigment to water is much higher, and an additional, inert, white pigment such as chalk is also present. Because of this, gouache paint gives stronger color than transparent watercolor, although it tends to dry to a slightly lighter tone than when applied. Gouache paint doesn't hold up well as impasto, tending to crack and fall away from the surface. It holds up well in thinner applications and often is used to cover large areas with color. Like transparent watercolor, dried gouache paint will become soluble again in water.

Jacob Lawrence's paintings use gouache to set the design of the composition. Large areas of color – including the complements blue and orange, dominate the figurative shapes in the foreground, while olive greens and neutral tones animate the background with smaller shapes depicting tools, benches, and tables. The characteristics of gouache make it difficult to be used in areas of detail.

Gouache is a medium in traditional painting from other cultures too. Zal Consults the Magi, part of an illuminated manuscript from 16th century Iran, uses bright colors of gouache along with ink, silver, and gold to construct a vibrant composition full of intricate patterns and contrasts. Ink is used to create lyrical, calligraphic passages at the top and bottom of the work.

Other Painting Mediums

Enamel paints form hard skins, typically with a high-gloss finish. They use heavy solvents and are extremely durable.

Powder coat paints differ from conventional paints because they do not require a solvent to keep the pigment and binder parts in the suspension. They are applied to a surface as a powder and then cured with heat to form a tough skin that is stronger than most other paints. Powder coats are applied mostly to metal surfaces.

Epoxy paints are polymers created by mixing pigment with two different chemicals: a resin and a hardener. The chemical reaction between the two creates heat that bonds them together. Epoxy paints, like powder coats and enamel, are extremely durable in both indoor and outdoor conditions.

These industrial-grade paints are used in sign painting, marine environments, and aircraft painting.

Saylor Academy Knowledge Check

Source: Christopher Gildow,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Last modified: Wednesday, February 14, 2024, 3:59 PM