10 Materials Commonly Used In Contemporary Art

One of the coolest things about art is its ability to build and strengthen connection. That is especially true when it comes to humans' relationship to natural and man-made materials.

Oil Paint, Wood, and Metal are just a few examples of things that have a vast history of usage and application. We are interested in exploring how contemporary artists are using a range of materials in their art making process. More so, how one material can be used in such a wide range of ways. When was it invented? How is it used in different applications? Who uses this material?

Read on as we look at 10 different materials used by artists in our gallery, in history, and beyond. 

1. Oil Paint

It is no surprise that oil painting is one of the first mediums we think of when it comes to fine art. Oil painting is possibly the most dominant and popular art medium used in the history of art. The medium is loved for its versatility, creating a range of opacity and intensity through infinite combinations of color and forms.

Its first uses can be traced back the 7th century CE. when artists used pigments that may have been extracted from nuts and flowers, bound with animal fats to decorate ancient caves. This is about a thousand years before Europeans started formulating oil paint recipes in the 14th century. 

“Portrait of a Man” Jan Van Eyck, 1433 (Image: Wikimedia.og)

"The most basic components of oil paint include pigments in powder form, types of oils pressed from linseed, flaxseed or walnut, which function as a binder and drying agent."  - canvas.saatchiart.com

Fast forward to now, there is still no match for the medium's versatility. Charleston based artist Kate Hooray Osmond primarily paints with oil for her works on panel. They are perfect example of how the medium can be used in a limitless number of ways. We typically imagine oil paintings to be rendered, portraying objects realistically. Osmond counters this expectation, painting in bold solid shapes.  The manner in which the shapes are arranged creates depth by the colors interactions, rather than by layering the colors on-top of one another. 

Transposition by Kate Hooray Osmond, oil and gold leaf painting of suspension bridge, blue


Transposition, 40" x 60" oil and white gold leaf, available

2. Acrylic Paint

Acrylic compounds began to be created in the 19th century. In the early years, they were mainly intended for industrial use. As early as 1936, Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros founded and held a workshop in NYC to experiment with the latest synthetic acrylics and methods of application. Even mid-century abstract painter Jackson Pollock was in attendance. By 1955 the first commercially available acrylics were placed on the market, developed by Röhm and Otto Haas. [Source: art-mine.com]

Mural work by David Alfaro Siqueiros 

Mid 20th century when acrylic paint became widely available, artists were beginning to explore new art movements. From Pop Art, photorealism, to abstract expressionism, it was a time in which hard lines started making an appearance in art. Acrylic provided the perfect means to do so. 

One of Miller's most iconic lovers of acrylic paint is Laura Dargan. Dargan's love for texture, layers and pushing the limits of the mediums abilities is an absolute feast for the viewers eyes. 

Interlaced by Laura Dargan, painting on canvas, framed, layered circles with bright colors

Interlaced by Laura Dargan, 36" x 36", available

3. Paper

The history of paper is long and complex. Essentially paper was invented to satisfy an urgent human need - the ability to communicate to each other in written form. It's evolution began as early as the 6th century in China. Paper as we know it today is much credited to a small town in Italy, Fabriano. They started producing paper from linen and hemp in the 12th century where they developed and refined methods for paper production. It wasn't until the 19th century that industrial paper making began, mirroring the expansion and demand of newspaper and book production. [Source: pixartprinting.co.uk]

Greenville based mixed media artist Teresa Roche is known for working with paper. She paints with acrylic on heavy sheets of watercolor paper while in other applications, breaks down bits of paper and assembles them into a collage. These unconventional approaches to the use of paper define what we love about contemporary art making. 

4. Gouache

One of the lesser known materials, gouache, is a unique medium. It is also known as 'opaque watercolor' because it is water-soluble. Like watercolor, the pigment is bound with gum arabic but the ratio of pigment to binder is higher. The paint has a fast drying time which makes it great for layering. Finally, it is known for its ability to create bold, flat color. Often you will find a tube of white gouache included with a set of watercolors. 

"They have the opacity of acrylic paint, the transparency of watercolours when watered down, have the long term bendability of oil colours. It’s the best of all worlds in a single tube. You can use all sorts of techniques from dry brush to translucent washes." - cassart.co.uk

Rachael Nerney loves to paint with gouache because of the medium's versatility. The limitless possibilities of combined mediums, fast dry time, and the physical texture of the paint are what she loves the most. You'll find that her work is typically a combination of gouache and acrylic paint, playing with gloss and matte finishes. 

5. Powder Coated Aluminum

Powder coated aluminum is a beautiful and durable material perfect for an outdoor setting. It is lightweight, corrosion resistant and beautiful. The coating is thick like an epoxy paint, but it doesn’t flake or peel like paint or epoxy. [Source: teakwarehouse.com]

Photo by Alan Tansey

One of our favorite examples of powder coated aluminum used in contemporary art is "Spectral Grove". This interactive, functional sculpture is located at the entrance of Pivot Park in West Philadelphia.

The installation emphasizes the overlap of function, structure, and the various communities the park and developments serve. It was inspired in part by Leonhard Euler, an 18th century mathematician who pioneered graphic diagrams used to illustrate relationships and commonalities between different groups. [Source: architonic.com]

6. Clay

Clay has been a tool of self expression and function for thousands of years. While contemporary ceramicists typically use old-world technique to manipulate clay, there are countless artists pushing the boundaries of how clay is shown in a new light.  Ruth Duckworth was a perfect example of a contemporary artist breathing new life into an age-old tradition. She was a British sculptor known for her smooth, abstract ceramic works derived from nature. 

Her works are in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, among others. [Source: salon94.com]

"Most of my work comes from playing. Playing with the clay. And that’s the most creative thing you can do—is play."— Ruth Duckworth, 2007

7. Wood

Used in African, Pre-Columbian, and Oceanic artwork - wood may be one of the oldest and most commonly used materials to create. Over the years, wood has become easier to manipulate thanks to advances in technology with resources like CAD programs and laser cutters. While these tools are available to contemporary artists today, not all necessarily utilize them. [Source: artsy.net]

Angela Chrusciaki Blehm's beloved sculptures are known for their unique use of wood, latex paint and resin. Her approach to building her sculptures is much like a large scale puzzle. She designs, creates and paints each piece individually before turning them into her large scale assemblages.

8. Found Objects

In modern art, the term "found object" (a translation of the French phrase "objet trouvé") is used to describe an object, found by an artist, which with minimal modification is then presented as a work of art.

Extensive use of found objects was made by dada, surrealist and pop artists. Picasso was an originator. From 1912 he began to incorporate newspapers and such things as matchboxes into his cubist collages, and to make his cubist constructions from various scavenged materials. [Source: tate.org.uk]

Robin Howard is known for her use of found object in her sculptures. She elevates commonplace materials to a meaningful state. Arranged in a wooden box, each work becomes it’s own world. Castaway objects come to life when placed in a new environment with careful awareness of composition. Howard works with reclaimed wood, textiles and fiber, encaustic wax, metal, found objects, altered objects, and handmade paper. 

9. Resin

Resin is particularly popular among contemporary creatives. The material has an ethereal quality, with an appearance like glass but a physical makeup that resembles plastic. These qualities allow for limitless potential in the realm of art making. 

Sculptor Olivia Bonilla uses resin in a variety of applications in her artwork. She created her "Cowboy Candy" by pouring resin and cement cast objects into a mold and allowing them to harden. You'll find that in her "Pill Box Series", she created all of the cupcakes bases out of poured resin as well. 

10. Metal 

There are different types of metals best used in artwork based on their durability and beauty. Copper, Aluminum, Bronze, Steel, and Brass are a few examples of what an artist may have to choose between. 

Richard Serra is a famous metal sculptor from humble beginnings. His early work from the 1960's mainly focused on materials such as steel and lead which could be found at the ship yards he worked at in his youth. 

"His series of Torqued Ellipses (1996–99)—which comprise gigantic plates of towering steel, bent and curved, leaning in and out—carve very private spaces from the necessarily large public sites in which they have been erected." [Source: art21.org]