Encaustic Slide

Describing Your Medium

Installation of Sean Sullivan's work in the Gallery at R&F Installation of Sean Sullivan's work in the Gallery at R&F
June 18, 2013 - Written by  Laura Moriarty

In the fine arts, ‘medium’ refers to the material or substance that your work is made of. As more and more contemporary artists begin working with encaustic in traditional,  non-traditional and boundary-crossing ways, the quandary of how to describe ones work clearly, correctly and professionally arises. This is complicated by the fact that each branch of visual art has a different way of wording these descriptions. These differences are not written out anywhere, but are nonetheless understood by professionals in the field.

Obviously, artists are free to describe their work however they want to, but those looking for guidance might begin by identifying the sensibility that most closely matches their work, and following similar standards for describing their medium and materials. Speak in the language of the field your work is akin to.

In researching this post, I perused a number of catalogues and websites, looking to see how different kinds of artwork were listed.  What I found was very illuminating.  The following overview gives some examples that might help get us thinking about how our work in encaustic can be integrated into the wider world of contemporary art. You will notice that each of the five fields that I focus on, Painting, Sculpture, Printmaking, Fiber and Textile Arts, and Mixed Media/Collage have a distinct way of describing what the work is made of - a material vocabulary all its own.


Painters define medium strictly by the substance that carries the pigment: Oil, Acrylic, Encaustic, Alkyd, etc., followed by the support (panel, metal, canvas, paper). They keep it short and sweet. It is assumed that the medium contains pigment, and varnishes are not usually listed.

Examples of the way the medium is described:

Oil on panel |Oil and charcoal on canvas |Acrylic on aluminum |Encaustic on panel | Encaustic and mixed media on panel | Gouache and ink on paper |Encaustic and oil on canvas | Oil paint, paper collage, glitter, map pins on linen

Check out the websites of Paul Rinaldi, Cindy Stockton-Moore, and Debra Claffey to see how they identify their work as painting.


The standard in the field for listing sculptural media is all about the raw material. With the exception of casting and welding, references to process are not typical. Sometimes details about the items listed are significant, but in general it is a pretty straightforward list.

Examples of the many ways the medium is described:

Plaster on steel frame | Rubber, polystyrene | Cast bronze | Mattress, water bucket, melons, oranges, cucumber | Polyester resin, fiberglass and human hair | Bisected map, acrylic box |Size seven boots with razor blades | Wax & cigarette butt | Books, wax, pins | Earth, plants, flowers and encaustic | Wax ex voto heads, steel and glass case, heating elements, canaries, steel table, coal miner’s ledger

Check out how Lorrie Fredette, Heather Hutchison and Jehanne Halle place their work in a sculptural context.


Printmaking covers many different techniques and processes of reproduction. Since each has a particular look and feel, it is standard practice to be technical in describing the medium. Unlike with painting, it is not always important to list whether the ink is oil or water-based, and unlike sculpture the descriptions can contain a lot of detail. It is often assumed that the work is on paper, but sometimes a specific paper will be described, or a non-traditional substrate will be used, and in many cases a combination of processes will be listed.

Examples of the way the medium is described:

Engraving | Relief monoprint | Etching, relief, lithography, and screenprint with chine colle | Hand-cut adhesive vinyl film | lithography with line block | inkjet with archival inks | relief print from laser cut blocks | woodcut, hand-colored with stencils | Photogravure etching | lithograph | woodcut, mokuhanga woodblock, watercolor, wax | woodblock print from 17 cherry plywood blocks, dry pigment and neri-zumi | woodblock, gampi collage | woodcut printed with Sumi and Graphite pigment on Washi paper | screenprint, felted wool, spray paint, cut paper and mica | 113-color woodcut |woodcut, mezzotint, polymer relief & mixed media

See how Haley Nagy, Wayne Montecalvo and David A. Clark place their work in the context of printmaking.


Fiber artists have a long-standing history of experimentation with materials and techniques, and a focus on creating work about cultural issues such as: gender feminism; domesticity and the repetitive tasks related to women’s work; politics; the social and behavioral sciences; material specific concepts related to fiber’s softness, permeability, and so on. These concerns are reflected in the way the artists describe their materials.

Examples of the way the medium is described:

grapefruit and cantaloupe peels with waxed-linen thread | Sisal, hemp and horsehair, slit tapestry weave with raised coils of supplementary wefts; attached strips of weft-faced plain weave and lengths of horsehair | woven, sewn hemp, linen, handmade paper, twigs, stainless steel wire | Tea stained voile, linen, cotton and embroidery thread | Digitally printed fabric with screenprinting | Hand knit coated wire | Hand spun, hand knit silk & wool, hanger | nylon, fiberfill, wool, paint, wire; felted soft sculpture

Check out Catherine Nash, Deborah Kapoor and Lorraine Glessner and you will see by the way they list their media that they are speaking the language of the Fiber and Textile world.


This term simply refers to artwork in which more than one medium has been employed. It is historically related to Modern Art, but in recent years it has evolved into a kind of catch-all category.  The best way for contemporary artists to use this term might be as a way to shorten and simplify an exhaustive list of materials. Using Mixed Media alone just doesn’t tell enough and can seem evasive or undefined. Off-shoots of this category, such as Collage and Assemblage, might be more specific and useful for artists working in encaustic.

See how Miranda Lake, Judith Hoyt and Nancy Natale describe their mixed media work.

This post is by no means complete or exhaustive - in fact it barely scratches the surface. But it demonstrates how artists can direct the associations that curators, jurors, gallery directors, collectors and writers make about their work, helping them to place it in an appropriate contemporary context. And maybe even more importantly, it gives artists working with encaustic a better understanding of how to identify their work and why.