What’s Your Medium?

Maybe you already know you were meant to paint. Or sculpt. Or stitch. Maybe you’ve known since childhood that wood was the only thing for you, or that wax was how you’d make your mark on the world.

Photo by Earl Zachery

But maybe not. Maybe you’re like many of us:  you know you want to Make Things, but you’re not quite sure what you want to use to do that. Or maybe you make things using all kinds of tools and supplies and materials, but you’d like to focus more, find your niche, really hone in on that one thing that’s meant for you to find. Lots of advice suggests thinking back to your childhood:  what captured your interest back then? Whittling wood? Drawing? Making stuff out of clay? Finger painting? If that doesn’t give you any clues, though,here are some things to think about as you start to focus. Open up your notebook, find a pen, and make some notes.

1) Does size matter? While you may dream of creating life-size sculptures of the animals of the rain forest, if you’re living in a two-room apartment in Brooklyn, you may need to put those bigger pieces on the back burner for now unless you can find outside studio space. Think about what you can create in the space available to you. Rather than welding steel, you may want to start with soldering. Rather than making wall-sized quilts, you might start with something just a bit smaller. You don’t have to give up your dreams; think of it as perfecting your skills and exploring your medium in a way that works for you right now.

2) Do you love messy, or is neat more your style? It seems like a small matter, but if you’ve always hated getting your hands stained and sticky, you might not want to pursue a medium that requires you to do just that. I discovered in a drawing workshop with the fabulous Carla Sonheim that while I love markers and pens, vine charcoal and I are never, ever going to bond. I don’t like the roughness of the line or the lack of control over fine detail, and I *really* loathe getting it on my hands. My husband and I looked at our hands and looked at each other and went, “Uhhh. No.”

Photo by Earl Zachery

3) Do you like wild abandon, or do you like control? If you love the former, you might try painting with your hands, like Jesse Reno. You might like throwing clay or texturing metal. If you like things precise and neat, you might want to take a workshop with Theo Ellsworth, who creates exquisitely detailed drawings, and you might think about pen and ink or beading or wire-wrapping. Think about what activities make you happiest:  tiny, tedious things, like sewing on beads one at time, work for me. You, on the other hand, might thrill to the joy of carving wood with a chain saw.

4) It doesn’t have to break the bank. Although lots of people enjoy the whole scouting/searching/collecting aspect of making things, creating art doesn’t have to be expensive, and you don’t have to rent a storage building to house your collection of stuff. A set of paints and a pad of watercolor paper, fabric from the thrift store and a handful of embroidery floss–making art doesn’t have to be about scouring the antique shops for vintage anything. It can be, but it can also be about drawing what you see on your daily walk.

5) Are you a slow-and-patient kind of person, or do you need immediate gratification? I like beading garments and art quilts by hand. This means that any project is going to take me days, probably weeks, maybe months. I don’t mind. I like relaxing into a long project. If you, on the other hand, think this sounds like torture, think about the kinds of things you can finish in one sitting–photography, ATC’s (artist trading cards), smaller machine embroidery.

Photo by Earl Zachery

It may take a while to find your medium–you may have to dabble in several different areas before you feel one click. Maybe nothing ever does, and you realize that you’re not meant to have to focus on just one thing–and that’s perfectly OK. But if you feel there’s something out there calling you, something that might be Your One Perfect Medium, take some time to listen.

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4 Responses to What’s Your Medium?

  1. I just love this article! I am searching right now for a bit more focus in my work and this article touches on so many things to think about to help me better discovery and define my artist self.

  2. fabricfriend says:

    perfect timing. i am getting frustrated and going in 10 different directions. i need to focus so thanks for the kick in the pants:)

  3. Emily says:

    I started my artistic journey as a self-taught watercolorist. I have since dabbled in acrylic paints. I love the texture that can be created with acrylic paints but have found myself wandering back to watercolor and sketching and coming to the understanding that watercolor is my preferred medium.

  4. Rice Freeman-Zachery says:

    I’m so glad it was helpful–I know how tempting it is to try EVERYTHING. Guess how I know that?