Art Pulse

Venerable Vintages: Surfaces & The Birth of Mixed Media

The history of surfaces and supports for art-making starts with the beginning of art itself. From human flesh and cave walls to a sophisticated array of canvases, papers and wood panels, the surface category has transformed in direct response to artistic movements and motivations. (Greenbery, Morriss-Kay). In addition to a diversification of materials (today an art surface may be fabric, wood, metal, slate, found objects, recycled material, cardboard, walls, glass, clothing), our industry has developed sizing techniques, primers, grounds and mediums for even more specialization and experimentation.

Robert Rauschenberg, Reservoir, 1961, oil, wood, graphite, fabric, metal, and rubber on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum; Robert Rauschenberg, Bed, 1955

Deviating From the Plan

Over time, painters of all backgrounds have deviated from the traditional, long-standing stretched canvas surface. For instance, in the early 20th century, Pablo Picasso began experimenting with collage, and decades later Robert Rauschenberg took surfaces a step further with his assemblages. While individual trailblazers pushed the envelope, artists’ collectives also created waves that rippled into what we now know as Mixed Media. A group known as Supports-Surfaces “employed a variety of unusual materials in their works, such as stones, waxed fabric, cardboard and rope… the works themselves were often folded, crushed, burned or dyed and exhibited on the floor or hung without a frame.” Driven by a fascination that would later inspire themes within the Mixed Media movement, their goal, to “deconstruct the act of painting to its essential physical properties,” created space for dialogue about what a surface could be.

Photo by Alp Allen Altiner on Unsplash

Motivations Behind Mixed Media

The emergence of Mixed Media techniques over the past 30 to 40 years reflects innovation that invites artists to experiment with materials. The ways in which mixed media artists create are as varied as modern surfaces: paper, illustration board, cotton canvas, linen, polyester canvas, masonite, aluminum, and various wood panels and plywoods (GOLDEN).

Mixed Media artists’ motivations around process fall on a continuum of extremes. On one end, the particular and formulaic: always tinkering with a recipe that will allow them to accomplish a specific effect. On the other, the accidental and effusive: thirsty for new combinations, relishing in the unexpected.

Photo by Art by Lønfeldt on Unsplash


Artwork by Cyntha Mosser – @cynthiamosser

For mixed media makers, process is often just as important as material. Mixed Media artist Cynthia Mosser’s details illustrate just how specific mixed media artists can get about their process in a demo for Ampersand:

“The ability to layer different media is my key to a successful painting. Because of its special surface, not only can Encausticbord handle all my favorite materials, but it also readily accepts encaustic paint. Generally, it’s not a standard practice to use acrylics under encaustic, but since I use extremely thin layers and leave so much of the white absorbent surface of Encausticbord open, I don’t encounter any problems. I use a recipe.”

Another mixed media artist outlines the intricacy of her preferences when it comes to surfaces. “Like many mixed media artists, I like to work on watercolor paper. For wet media, like watercolor and acrylics, I use Canson XL 140lb cold press. Since I don’t do much watercolor work, I prime my paper with acrylic gesso, to make it ready for acrylics or water soluble pastels. The gesso cuts down on the paper’s natural absorbency, and provides enough grab for paints or pastels to be applied in light layers.”

She points out the irony of trying to design a catch-all for mixed media paper. “‘Mixed media paper’ is designed for some mixed media work, but not all. It’s good for light paint work, collage, and pastels, but maybe not the best choice for very heavy or very wet paint work. Canvas boards, or canvas panels, are flat, rigid boards that have been covered with canvas, then primed. I prefer canvas panels over stretched canvas, because I do a lot of pressing and rubbing of the surface when I’m working. Canvas boards hold up to the beating.”

Philosophical motivations push the material as well. As one artist eloquently put it, she creates to “explore the lush and strange and exciting inner-landscape of my mind and creative spirit.”

And so, modern day makers ask an important question of the surfaces category, a question manufacturers are tasked with answering: How far can we push a surface? Is it specialized or broad? Which surface can not only handle these techniques, but assist and even enhance?

Photo by Gianandrea Villa on Unsplash

Circumstances & Method

While the diversity of surfaces available in the present day speaks to the way different mixed media artists work, the innovation in our industry around surfaces is also in direct response to understanding the physical, everyday needs of the art-making community. Identifying as an “artist” used to mean showing in galleries, creating in a lofty studio, a back room lined with racks of canvases. In 2019, we’ve got more variety. Urban sketchers need their surfaces in sketchbook form and able to hold mixed media, dry quickly and fit in a knapsack. Crafters with limited table space appreciate panels, boards and art journals—more portable surfaces that can hang on a wall easily or be stored on a shelf for later. Millennials are using any surface they can get their hands on to customize and individualize. Creatives who appreciate experimentation look for surfaces that can handle layer upon layer of materials or surfaces that are reusable altogether, such as Legion Paper’s Yupo paper, which can be rinsed clean.

Photo by Donovan Arias on Unsplash

The Value of Hands-On Purchases

These exponential combinations (material, process, circumstance) are opportunities to design, supply and promote creative surfaces that are suited for specific primers, mediums, varnishes and physical processes (such as burnishing, burning, rubbing, peeling or pouring).

More good news: artists are not quiet about what they want! Especially the mixed media community; they are throwing themselves (and sometimes their artwork) into the fire, trying anything and everything. For retailers, having experts on the sales floor is crucial.

One mixed media artist warns her community, “Don’t order canvases blind, because you may end up with a surface you don’t love.” The “blind purchases” of online shopping just don’t work for these kinds of creatives. Yes, they are open to experimenting, but seasoned Mixed Media artists want to know what they are getting; they have a specific method that needs to work with the product. They need the physical feel of the surface, even to try it out in the store, to feel strongly enough to commit.

This is where our community of retailers comes in! What surfaces are inspiring your customers? What are mixed media artists in your community looking for in a surface? Let us know in the comments or email us at artdogblog (@)  

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