As an artist, your choices are limitless when it comes to selecting materials to use in your final pieces. Many of the world’s best known painters hone their craft using one or two techniques. But, by incorporating different styles and mediums into your work, you have the freedom to explore what you enjoy using most.

Each of the various art mediums can be used to produce unique styles, and we’ll explore them in detail to help you make the best decision for your creative goals.

What are Paint Mediums?

To begin, what are paint mediums? The term “medium” is most commonly used in two ways: 

  • To describe the type of art (such as painting, sculpture, or print)
  • To describe the types of materials that artists use or type of paint they’re working with

You may also hear medium being used to discuss the types of liquids that are used to create different kinds of paint. For example, the medium of some oil paint is linseed oil. 

While there are plenty of options to choose from, there are several mediums that are popular with painters all over the world: acrylic, watercolor, oil, gouache, and ink. These five paint mediums are the most versatile and allow artists the greatest flexibility when trying to create a certain look or style.

Pro Tip
You’ll find that most artists will use at least one of these mediums in their work and, in the case of mixed media, a combination of several.

Acrylic Paint Mediums

Acrylic paint is one of the most popular paint mediums, particularly with beginners, as it’s easy to use and can be quite affordable. Acrylic paints also don’t require special brushes or cleaning tools like oil paints do, making this medium a great place to start if you’re new to painting.

A Bigger Splash  by David Hockney (1967)
A Bigger Splash by David Hockney (1967)

One of the downsides to using acrylics over another medium like oil is that the pigment can appear flat and dull. There are ways around this, though. Adding acrylic paint mediums to your basic paints can make them thicker, change their texture, and brighten the pigment. There are a few different options for adding a medium to your acrylic paint, with the most common being gel, texture, or flow. 

Painting with Watercolor

Watercolor painting is, as the name suggests, water-based and is best used with a special watercolor paper due to its higher absorbency. You can buy the paints in pans or tubes and as stand-alone liquids. This paint medium is known for its transparent look and long drying time, so keep this in mind if you’re planning to add other paints on top for a layered finish. 

Sunrise  by Georgia O’Keeffe (1916)
Sunrise by Georgia O’Keeffe (1916)

Always paint from light to dark when using watercolors and remember that, due to the high water content, the paint can easily bleed and run into other sections of your painting. Patience is crucial when working with these paints, so remember to take your time and test consistencies on scrap paper before adding them directly to your piece.

Oil Paint Mediums

Some of the world’s most famous paintings were made using oil paints. Although they are slow to dry, the finished product is often a deep, rich color and has a distinct scent from the linseed, poppy seed, walnut, or safflower oils used as mediums within the paint.

Girl with a Pearl Earring  by Johannes Vermeer (1665)
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer (1665)

The thick, buttery consistency of oil paints means that they can stay wet for days, or even weeks. They never fully dry and may crack easily, which can add a unique depth to the final painting that’s hard to achieve with other art mediums. Like acrylic paints, liquid mediums can be added to oil paints to improve the paint consistency or change the drying times.

Gouache Painting

Gouache paints have a consistency that puts them between watercolors and acrylics, allowing you to apply solid colors one on top of the other to create an opaque finish. These paints dry matte, which makes them a great choice if you’re planning to digitize your final piece. By adding different amounts of water to your brush, you can paint color gradients more easily.

A Fight Between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader  by Ralph McQuarrie (1977)
A Fight Between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader by Ralph McQuarrie (1977)

One important aspect to keep in mind when painting with gouache is that any layers added on top will react with the underlayers, which are reactivated by the water in the new layer. This can make your finished color much darker than you were anticipating, so keep your white paint on hand if you’re trying to achieve a more pastel tone with this medium.

Using Ink in Painting

Painting with ink is one of the oldest art techniques in the world, used by the ancient Egyptians and throughout Asian illustrations in the form of calligraphy. Using both black and colored ink, painting with this medium is perfect for highlighting contrasting elements and bringing the viewer’s attention to the smallest of details.

Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains  by Huang Gongwang (c.1348-1420)
Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains by Huang Gongwang (c.1348-1420)

In a similar way to watercolor paints, ink can be diluted with water to create a lighter finish. However, it dries much faster and can be scraped from the paper using a palette knife to carve out designs on the paper or canvas.

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How to Choose a Medium to Use

Step 1: Decide on Your Painting Comfort Level

The best medium to paint with is going to be the one that you feel most comfortable using. When you’re new to working with paint or experimenting with a medium you’ve never tried before, take your time in getting to know how the paint you’re using works on your paper or canvas with some test pieces. 

Watercolors may seem like a great place to start for beginners as they’re easy to buy, set up, and clean. But working with watercolor paints is more complicated than it seems. The consistency can be difficult to control and you can’t paint lighter colors on top of dark ones like you can with other paints, so there may be a better starting point if you’re still new to painting. You can find plenty of classes on Skillshare to try painting with gouache and acrylic, or even watercolors if you’d like to dive in at the deep end!

Skillshare instructor Ana Victoria Calderón demonstrates the different finishes between watercolor and gouache paints.
Skillshare instructor Ana Victoria Calderón demonstrates the different finishes between watercolor and gouache paints.

Step 2: Evaluate Your Painting Space

Oil paints create beautifully rich results, but there’s one thing that no one tells you about: the smell! As oil paints are made from different varieties of oil, the fumes can become overwhelming if you’re trying to paint in a small space. 

These paints also take a long time to dry and the temperature or humidity of your studio can add significantly to this process. Before getting started, take this into consideration and plan accordingly. It may be best to use oil paints in the spring or fall when you can paint outside, switching to watercolors or acrylics in the colder months.

Step 3: Determine the Style of Your Painting

When you think about the paintings you love most, what is it about them that you enjoy? You probably already have some ideas in mind about the type of painting that you want to create, and different paint mediums will better suit your vision than others. 

Acrylic is often the best all-round choice as it’s beginner-friendly and can be easily adapted once each layer is dry. Watercolors are the cheapest to start with and mistakes can usually be fixed by adding a little water to the paper to lift the paint off. Oil paints will maintain their color intensity long after you’ve finished painting and can give a three-dimensional appearance when layered with different types of brush strokes.

Adding mediums to your paints can also give you a new way to use your foundational materials and create different styles. Oil and acrylic paints are best for this, with mediums available in gel, liquid, or textured formats. 

Gel mediums come in matte, gloss, or semi-gloss finishes and thin out the pigment while maintaining the smooth finish that acrylic is known for. Liquid gels will increase the transparency and fluidity in both oils and acrylics, whereas heavy body consistencies make the paint thicker so that your individual brush strokes are visible. Textures like sand gels, glass beads, or pumice can also be added to your acrylic paints and are usually applied with a firm bristle brush or palette knife on top of your foundational acrylic paints once the base layer is dry. 

Gathering the right materials is the final step before you can start working on your masterpiece!
Gathering the right materials is the final step before you can start working on your masterpiece!

Settled on your medium and ready to get started? Buying the right supplies is one of the most important steps before you begin working on your painting. 

Brands like Liquitex and Golden Paints carry a large selection of different mediums that can be used with acrylic and oil paints on both paper and canvas, as well as their own ranges of paint in endless color options. Winsor & Newton are known for their high-quality beginner paint sets at affordable prices, which are the perfect choice if you’re still trying to decide on the right medium for you. 

Be sure to stop by your local art supply store, as they can be great resources for both amateur and experienced artists no matter which medium you choose to use. Happy painting!

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Written by:

Holly Landis