The Medium

Having recently expressed my frustration regarding the medium of pastels and the followers of pastel artists, an artist friend suggested that perhaps there ought to be a conversation about what is expected of pastelists — among pastelists and their attending myriad societies.

My frustration (aside from such things as the expensive necessity for pastels to be framed and under glass) is primarily with accepted subject matter. Often, when people learn that I am an artist, they ask what medium I use. My answer has been “pastels.” The problem emerges when automatically they imagine that I must be a painter of landscapes, seascapes, wildlife, portraits, or some other subject that so dominates that world. If you have looked at my work, it is clear that this is not the kind of art that I do.

I would very much like to have the conversation that my friend suggested. I told her that, in principal, I think the medium should be anecdotal. The moment the media matters more, the work loses something — unless the particular medium is integral to the meaning of the piece. There may be some people hurt by this conversation but, in the long view, I think it is important enough to step on some toes.

Obviously, I have hurt myself, put myself into this box of pastels, as it were. Now I am trying to figure out how to extricate myself from it. The following short essay, written by Charles Thomson, co-founder of Stuckism (under the umbrella of Remodernism) states my position far better than I could.


Artworks are now predominately defined, distinguished and given accolades in terms of the material they are made of. This is an incredibly limited approach to art, particularly when the medium itself is so incredibly limited. There is not much subtlety and flexibility possible if you are using a dead shark as the expressive material. In fact you can really only use it once, because beyond the fact that it has been used at all, there is little else it has to say.

The equivalent in verbal language to this level of achievement would be the vocabulary of a very young child, able to say that he or she hurts, but barely being able to say whether the hurt is in the stomach or the ear, and certainly not able to relay whether it is a sharp continual pain or a dull intermittent one. That necessary communication is only available with a more extensive and sophisticated dictionary.

Materials in art are a means to an end, not the end in themselves. The end is to address life, and to condense it to a symbolic form that enables us to relive and/or broaden experience and understanding through a ‘magical’ process.

Stuckists use paint as a medium, not because it is traditional, but because its flexibility has a potentially Shakespearian breadth, depth and subtlety. This medium takes second place to the subject; the material is not the cause celebre – the subjects depicted and the consciousness embodied are the primary concern. Even when paint asserts itself as a medium, to be experienced sensually in its own right, it still translates the artist’s hand and mind unavoidably.

To see the materials used as the purpose of using the materials, does communicate, but what it communicates is the vacuity of that process and the lack of depth that informs it. This is why the general public are instinctively averse to such art. They may articulate their aversion in philistine clichés which makes it easy to dismiss them, but the origin of their aversion is a deeper sense that recognises that what is being promised is not what is being delivered, and that will not change even if Sir Nicholas Serota delivers Dimbleby Lectures till the pickled cows jump out of their vitrines and jump over the moon.

The diversification of ‘artists’ into other media, such as video, installation and performance, is equally futile. It is not that those media are not valid – quite the opposite. The futility is because they have been validated and brought to summation by the skills of others, who leave the so-called artists in the shade, snatching whatever scraps are left over from the main meal. Most video art is either an endless repetition of something that would normally form a brief sequence in a major film, or else something which would have ended up on a major film cutting room floor because it was so boring in the first place. Performance art is better known as theatre, which is what its best practitioners call it. Installation and site-specific art is carried out with consummate achievement by architects and environmental designers worldwide, and, even though their ideas can often be dehumanisingly barren, the Fine Art version of this form doesn’t do any better on that score. Text Art, just for the record, is known by people who do it well as literature, and, if it’s written in short lines, it’s called poetry.

From now on, my answer to “What is your painting medium?” will be “emotion,” or something more along that line.  /:-)

Thank you, Rosemarie, for raising the possibility of a conversation.


2 responses to “The Medium

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