What Is Mixed Media Painting?

Learn about the technique, then try it yourself

Macro photo of one of my paintings on canvas

R J McDiarmid/Getty Images 

A mixed media painting is one that combines different painting and drawing materials and methods, rather than only one medium. Any materials can be used, including collage items such as pages from magazines, newspaper, photographs, fabric, soil, or packaging. Or a mixed media piece can be as "simple" as using two mediums, such as acrylic paints with pastel on top. 

History of Mixed Media Paintings

Mixed media isn't a 20th-century phenomenon, although in previous centuries artists were less experimental in what they used. For example, gold leaf was often added to church paintings, Leonardo da Vinci mixed pastels with other drawing media, William Blake used watercolor washes in his prints, and Edgar Degas combined pastels with charcoal and printing inks.

Current artists working in mixed media include New York-based artist Lawrence Weiner, who is regarded as a founder of postminimalism conceptual art. He is known for incorporating text into his works, such as large installation pieces in galleries. The New York Times once described him as a "language-based sculptor."

German artist Rosemarie Trockel is another contemporary artist working in mixed media. As an extreme example, during a 2013 exhibition, Trockel found a dead moth in the museum and quickly incorporated it into one of her works on display. The act of adding this unusual medium added a new layer of meaning to the work, by calling to mind a prior video piece of hers featuring a moth. 

Challenge Yourself to Try Mixed Media

New to mixed media? Give the technique a try. Combine a wet and a dry medium in one painting, focusing on mark-making with lines (rather than blocks of color or tone), and work in layers, adding on top without completely hiding what's underneath. Follow these parameters to give you a place to start.

When selecting your mediums, remember that one must be wet and one dry. More than two mediums may be used. Mixing different brands of the same type of paint doesn't count as mixed media.

Something that you can turn from a dry into a wet medium by adding water or solvent (e.g., watercolor pencils) counts as one medium, not two. Watercolor paint (wet) and watercolor pencil (dry) is OK, but the paint must come from the tube or pans, not the pencils (i.e., applied in bigger quantities than you can easily lift from a pencil).

Collage items count as "dry." If you use pencil, it must be an integral part of the painting, not merely the initial sketch to establish the composition.

Using oil pastels and oil paint sticks on top of oil paint counts, though paintsticks must be used differently than how you apply paint with a brush.

Suggested Art Supplies for Mixed Media Painting

Have a look in your art supplies box for supplies you haven't used in a while. They'll likely be a perfect fit for a mixed media project. If you're feeling stuck, look for any of the items on this list:

  • Heavy-weight paper that will stand up to some reworking
  • Oil pastels that can be used over acrylics, watercolors, and oil paint
  • Hard pastel sticks for sgraffito into still-wet paint
  • Soft pastels to add over watercolor or matte acrylic (glossy acrylic may be too smooth a surface for it to stick to) and work into still-wet paint
  • Charcoal for working underneath, on top, and into the paint. If you don't like dark and messy, perhaps this is not the best choice for you.
  • Inktense blocks and pencils, which are like watercolor pencils but insoluble when dry
  • Watercolor pencils and crayons
  • Waterproof pens
  • Oil sticks