Mixed-Media: Through the Ages

Understanding Mixed Media Artwork

One of the most challenging artistic genres to define is mixed media..   We  cannot begin to identify mixed media art through aesthetic similarity, nor by subject matter, but by the multiplicity of materials used in its creation. Unlike other mediums, its origins cannot easily be pinned to one artist, time period, or geographic region.  Instead, mixed media refers to any singular artwork composed of a combination of more than one traditional medium, such as paint, textile, sculpture, and print. Not to be confused with multimedia, which uses both traditional mediums and non-traditional or non-visual media such as audio, video, or tactile sensation.

Before the term was ever coined, artists as far back as the Byzantine Empire (330 A.D.)  mixed their artistic media, using gold leaf in sculpture and painting. However, the history of mixed media as we know it today starts in the early 20th century with the convergence of the two-dimensional canvas surface and three-dimensional newsprints, textured paints, crayons, etc.

Pablo Picasso, considered by many to be the father of modern collage, began exploring the medium at the advent of the “cubist” era in the early 20th century, using various materials such as charcoal, watercolor, rope, newspaper, and oil paints all on the same mounted cork canvas to create unique textures and washes (Wallace).  During this era, many artists began to explore the limitations of working on canvas, extending their work beyond two dimensions by affixing newsprint and found objects to their flat artworks, rendering them three-dimensional. In the 1920s, German Dadaist Kurt Schwitter created mixed-media artworks out of even more mundane items–ticket stubs, buttons, compasses, and random scraps of printed text. These objects capture a sense of quotidian familiarity, frozen in the time period to which they belong.  Henri Matisse began working with mixed media using cut and ripped paper in the 1930s, creating collages featuring human figures.  MoMa later displayed this collection of “cutouts” in New York City, 2014.

With the advent of the Digital Age, artists began to create larger-scale mixed and multimedia works– interactive multisensory artworks and immersive installations of prosaic commercial objects such as plastic packaging, such as in the work of Felix Gonzalez Torres. This trend has continued even into the multimedia art of today, with the use of all sorts of different mediums–such as fire, sand, chewing gum, or even toast.

Rather than by their similarities, mixed media art pieces can more easily be identified by their multitudinous possibilities. Because of the very definition of mixed media, it could describe the work of many different artists working with various mediums. The very genre lends itself to exploration, through composition and synthesis of any combination of mediums, encouraging artists to find innovative ways to use their materials. As the tools available to us advance and artistic culture evolves, the term “multimedia” will continue to apply to works which creatively combine multiple mediums, whatever those happen to be.


Sources Cited:

Berta, Clara. “The History of Mixed Media Art.” Ezinearticles.com. EZine Articles, 11 Jan. 2011. Web. 16 June 2017.

LeBourdais, George Philip. “The Most Iconic Artists of the 1990s.” Artsy. Artsy, 24 Aug. 2015. Web. 16 June 2017.

Liphart, Jill. “Mixed Media Art, An Overview.” Udemy Blog. Udemy Blog, 28 May 2014. Web. 16 June 2017.

Wallace, Nora. “History of Mixed Media.” On My Wall. On My Wall, 14 Apr. 2016. Web. 16 June 2017