choosing the best painting medium

What is the best painting medium for the artist?

Artists have been creating for centuries, ever since our caveman days. Humans have an innate desire to express how we feel and what we see.

Over the centuries mankind has used various types of painting mediums. The oldest paintings in existence are over 40,000 years old.

Today's popular painting mediums

Painting mediums for beginners

early types of art mediums

Early paints were made from iron oxide ore. Today we know them as; yellow ochre, raw sienna, burnt sienna, raw umber and burnt umber.

We still use these earth colored paints today. They are reliable and economical. They are an excellent addition to the artist's palette.


One of the first painting mediums was charcoal. Cave dwellers did charcoal art around 28,000 years ago.

Charcoal is still used by artists today for sketching or doing complete charcoal paintings.

black ink

Around 5,000 years ago, charcoal was ground into a powder and combined with liquid to make black ink.

Later the Chinese used plant dyes to make colored inks. We modern artists have a vast array of inks to choose from.


Pastels were first made in the late 1500s. Edgar Degas, a famous renaissance artist did 700 pastel paintings in the 1600s.

Ground paint pigments are combined with gum arabic or other glues. The pastels are formed into a stick similar to crayons.

Pastels have been used by artists for hundreds of years.Image by LiberalLoner

There are soft pastels, hard pastels, oil pastels and water pastels depending upon how they are manufactured. Pan pastels are a soft pastel that is made in a cake form. 

Pastels are fast and fun to use. Use pastel paper that has a textured surface that grips the pastels.

They can produce a lot of dust while you are using them. Consequently, they are not considered the best painting medium for people with breathing problems.

The finished paintings are subject to fading and may be smeared by touching.  A spray fixative can be used to protect the painting. Fixative is known for dulling the colors slightly. Finished pastel paintings should be framed under glass.

Pastels may be used on dry watercolor paintings to create emphasis and highlights.


The common art medium, graphite was discovered in England in the 1500s. The last couple of centuries graphite pencils have been in full use.

Intricate drawings can be created with pencils. Many times the best painting medium is whatever is available.

We can create some nice artwork with ordinary pencils.A lovely graphite pencil drawing
by Elisabeth Rudolf

We all probably used graphite pencils in grade school. Our common yellow pencils are #2 pencils.

The art pencils labeled from B up to 8B are soft pencils, suitable for darker values.

The pencils labeled H through 6H are hard pencils generally used for sketching and drawing the lighter values.

Use hard pencils for drawing on watercolor paper. Excess graphite from soft pencils would be hard to paint over with transparent watercolors.

HB and F are in between the soft "B pencils" and the hard "H pencils".

Modern artists, also have a wide selection of colored pencils.

What is medium in art?

The term medium is used three different ways in art.

  1. Medium is the type of art such as carving, printing, painting, etc.
  2. Medium is the material used to create an artwork. For example, acrylic, oil and watercolor are art mediums.
  3. Third, a painting medium is something that can be mixed into the paint to thicken, thin, extend it, slow down or speed up the drying.

Media and mediums are both plural forms of medium in art.

What is the best painting medium for art?

All art paints use the same pigment colors. The only difference between the mediums is the substance that carries the paint pigments.


Tempera has the paint pigments mixed with egg yolks. It may also be called, egg tempera.

It has been used for centuries, as far back as the third century. The Egyptians used tempera and casein for their murals and paintings.

Tempera was the favored painting medium during the middle ages from about 1200 until 1500 when the Renaissance began.

Tempera is fast drying and permanent. It is not flexible, so it needs to be painted on a rigid surface.


Many fresco murals and paintings were done during the time of the Italian Renaissance. Michelangelo, as well as other artists did numerous paintings throughout the Sistine Chapel.

In the early 1500s Michelangelo did nine fresco paintings portraying the book of Genesis on the ceiling of the chapel. The most famous one is the Creation of Man (Adam), the painting below.

Selecting the best painting medium for your artwork.Man has been painting since the "Creation of Man"

Fresco was the best painting medium for the interior, plaster walls. The Italian masculine word for fresh is fresco.

The paintings are created by mixing powdered paint pigments with water. The paint mixture is painted on top of a thin layer of wet lime plaster.

As the plaster and paint dry, the two are fused together. They dry into a lovely matte finish. They are extremely durable in the absence of water.

today's popular painting mediums


Casein is a painting medium similar to tempera. It is mixed with milk instead of eggs. It is thinned with water.

Today casein is considered one of, if not the best painting medium for painting murals.

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oil paint

Tempera was the best painting medium used until around 1500. Then oil paints became popular. Oil paint pigments are commonly suspended in linseed oil, hence the name oil paints.

Oil paints are slow drying. They are a versatile painting medium that may be reworked until they are dry. If you don't like something, you can scrape it off and repaint it. You may also, paint over a dried oil painting months later.

Alkyd paint

Alkyd paint is a modern type of painting medium. They are extremely durable, so car manufactures started using them in the early 1900s.

Winsor & Newton started making alkyd art paints in the 1960s. The paint pigments are suspended in an alkyd resin. They dry completely overnight to a uniform matte finish.

The finished paintings look just like an oil painting. Alkyd has been my favorite "oil painting" medium since the 1980s.


Most children in the United States use watercolors in grade school. Many schools consider them the best painting medium for children.

Watercolors are thinned and cleaned up with water. They dry quickly.

Watercolor is the painting medium used in many primary schools.Watercolor paintings have a fresh appearance.
Image by Martina Bulková

Watercolor is made by mixing the paint pigments with gum arabic. There are two options for watercolor paints. They may be purchased in dried cubes, called pans. Or we may get moist watercolor paint sealed in tubes.

It is difficult to adjust watercolor after it has been applied to the painting surface, especially after it has already dried.

Watercolor paintings are traditionally done on paper. To protect the finished painting, it must be framed with a mat under glass.

Today watercolors may be painted on Aquabord or watercolor canvas. The paint is easier to remove from aquabord or watercolor canvas.

Dry watercolor paintings on aquabord or canvas can sprayed with a fixative. Then the painting may be framed without using glass.


Gouache is another painting medium that has been around for centuries. It is a water-based medium that dries fast.

Their pigments are combined with gum arabic (or dextrin) and white paint. Gouache is an opaque medium, as opposed to watercolor that is more transparent.

Many modern artists consider gouache the best painting medium for design work, comics and illustrations.

Gouache is also used for airbrushing.


Acrylic is a newer painting medium developed in the 1940s. The paint pigments are mixed with an acrylic resin.

Acrylic is a water-based paint that dries very quickly. Slow drying mediums may be added to extend the drying time.

This medium may be painted in thin layers to resemble watercolors. It may also be painted thick to resemble oil paints. Some people consider acrylic the best painting medium for beginners.

Finished acrylic paintings are very durable and they are framed without glass. Dried acrylic is flat without any gloss. Therefore, finished acrylic paintings are normally varnished.

Acrylic may be painted on anything from paper to fabric, wood or rocks. I used acrylic to paint fruit and flowers on my kitchen cabinets. When the cabinets were varnished, the paintings were sealed and protected.

Acrylic pouring is a popular modern form of acrylic painting.

the beginner's best painting medium

Watercolor, oils and acrylics are all good choices for the beginning artist.

What painting medium is good for the beginning artist?Finding the best painting medium

Beginning artist may start out with student paints. Then switch to the artist grade paints after choosing a favorite painting medium.

Cotman paints made by Winsor & Newton are good student paints. They have the highest pigment load of any brand of student paint. They cover well and produce good color.

  • Choosing our painting medium is a matter of individual preference. Most artist try several different painting mediums before settling on a favorite.

After finding a favorite painting medium, shop for professional artist paints. They cover better and produce vibrant colors.

They are more expensive because they contain more pigment. They pay for themselves in the long run because it takes less paint for good results.

A little experience helps us decide on the best painting medium for our personal painting goals and expression.

happy painting

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