Materials and Techniques of Design and the Fine Arts: Media

The choices a designer or artist can make are determined by the characteristics of the materials used, and the techniques applied to those materials. The combination of materials and techniques used are also referred to as the medium used.

The media we will discuss are:

  • Painting and Related Techniques
  • Drawing
  • Printmaking
  • Textiles
  • Metal
  • Wood
  • Ceramics
  • The materials and techniques selected define the forms of visual expression the artist or designer can develop in their work. The various media offer both distinctive limitations and opportunities for the artist/designer. For this reason we need to look at the media traditionally used in order to understand the context in which visual language evolves. We will do this before we begin to examine the actual styles that have developed historically.

    Painting and Related Techniques

    Painting involves applying color to a surface. The colors were traditionally earth pigments which were ground into a fine powder and then mixed with a medium, usually a liquid, so they can be applied to a surface. Today there are also some artificial compounds used as pigments. The choice of the medium and the method by which the color is applied have important effects on the characteristics of the finished work, since each medium has its own limitations and potentials.

    We will discuss many different painting related media:

  • Encaustic
  • Fresco secco
  • Fresco
  • Egg tempera
  • Mosaic
  • Oil paint
  • Watercolor
  • Acrylic paints
  • Collage

  • The oldest examples of painting date to more than 20,000 B.C, and can be found in the caves in southern France. The best known of these caves is at Lascaux, although there are many others. These portraits of animals and hunters were probably done with a mixture of minerals such as ochre, with animal fat used as the medium. Rock paintings in this technique can be seen in many parts of the world.


    In the technique known as encaustic, the medium for the powdered color is hot wax which is painted onto a wood surface with a brush. It is then smoothed with a metal instrument resembling a spoon, and then blended and set over a flame to soften and set the colors into the wood. This method produces durable colors and permits sculptural modeling of the paint surface. Because of the wax medium, the colors are semi-translucent and look fresh and lively. This technique is rare today, but it was practiced in late Roman times; for example, we have burial portraits from Faiyum, Egypt, 2nd century, A.D.

    Fresco Secco

    In the dry plaster or "fresco secco" technique, pigments are usually mixed with water, although other substances might also be used. The paint is then applied to a dry plaster wall which has been wetted down with water. Since the plaster is relatively dry, it is non-absorbent, and the pigment adheres to the surface of the plaster. This technique differs from true fresco (described below) in several ways. The colors tend to flake off the surface of the plaster. The colors have a harder and more brilliant appearance and tend to be lighter in value than those in true fresco. Advantages of the technique are that the painting can be done more slowly and carefully, and changes can be made simply by over-painting, since colors are opaque. Examples: Egyptian murals, 2500-1000 B.C.


    Fresco, also known as Buon Fresco or True Fresco, entails painting on freshly spread, moist plaster. First, layers of plaster are applied to the surface. While the final layer is still wet, the artist applies the colors, which are earth pigments mixed with water. The colors penetrate the wet plaster and combine chemically with it, producing a painted surface which does not peel when exposed to moisture. As the paint must be painted on wet plaster, the amount of plaster which may be put down at one time is limited to what can be painted at one sitting. Often lines can be seen in frescos around an area which was one day's work. The painting must be done rapidly and without mistakes. It produces a mat surface with fairly desaturated colors. This technique was perfected in Renaissance Italy. Examples include Roman wall paintings at Pompeii, 1st century A.D ; Giotto's Arena Chapel at Padua, 14th C.; Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, 16th C.

    Egg Tempera

    In this method, the pigment is mixed with egg yolk or both the yolk and white of an egg. It is thinned with water and applied to a gesso ground (plaster mixed with a binding) on a panel. It was also used on parchment or paper to illustrate or embellish books in the era before the 15th century development of the printing press. This type of painting dries very quickly and produces an opaque, matte surface. The colors tend to dry to a lighter value than they appear when wet. The colors produced are bright and saturated. Modeling is achieved by hatching. Egg tempera was used for panel painting until the 15th century. Examples of artists that worked in egg tempera include Cimabue (14th C.); Duccio (14th C.); Andrew Wyeth (20th C.) Islamic and Medieval miniature paintings in books and manuscripts are another important class of egg tempera paintings; the celtic Book of Kells is a well-known early example, as is the Book of Hours commissioned by the Duc du Berry in the 14th century.


    The design is created by small pieces of colored glass, stone, or ceramic (called Tesserae), embedded in wet mortar which has been spread over the surface to be decorated. Their slightly irregular placement on a surface creates a very lively, reflective surface when viewed at a distance. This was often used to decorate walls, floors, and ceilings. This link takes you to an gallery of Byzantine mosaics.

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