If you look up the description of Vincent van Gogh’s Self Portrait with Pallette (1889) you will find that the artistic materials of the painting are oil and canvas. (1) Upon closer examination it becomes obvious that the canvas was mounted onto something. Traditionally wooden frames were used for this purpose, so we can assume that it was also the case with this painting. As canvases rarely adhere to a frame by themselves, something is needed to fix the canvas in place (nails, staples, etc.) Similarly, the painting then needs to be fixed into a frame. So what actually is the material of the artist? Let’s suppose that the frame was only added later, and its shape and color was not part of the concept from the beginning. Then there is still the painting itself, which consists of far more elements than just oil and canvas. In order to prepare oil for artistic applications it has to be mixed with finely ground pigment, perhaps a bit solvent is added to change the viscosity. A preliminary list of the artistic materials would then read as follows: oil, canvas, pigment, solvent, wood, nails.
What seems like bean counting here refers to a fundamental question, which is not only relevant for art historians but also for artists: What are the materials of art? In the example above the materials were named after the fact: oil and canvas (wood, nails, pigment, solvent). With other artworks the list can be quite different: Michelangelo’s Dying Slave consists of marble; Valie Export’s action Tap and Touch Cinema consisted of a body, box, curtain, visitors, movement, and so on. If one tried to compile a list of artistic materials it would likely be an impossible and incredibly boring endeavor.
Asking the artists makes the matter even more complex: The number of materials used in their work process is incomparably higher than the materials in the finished works. Many things are not defined from the outset, there is much experimenting, models and prototypes are crafted, rough sketches drawn, research conducted. All of these involve materials that artists deal with on a daily basis and should, consequently, be integrated into our list above.
The main difference to the aforementioned materials, however, is that they are not defined after the fact, rather they represent a potential for the artists—a potential that refers to a possible future work, materials with which they will make something.
We should not forget that the employed materials also continuously change: Changes in technologies, new processing methods or aesthetic trends always generate new materials while others become obsolete (for example, hardly anyone draws with red chalk anymore).
So which materials are those of the artists? Those that constitute the finished work or those that were used beforehand in the production process and refer to a future work? However we decide, we will not succeed in drawing up a list that clarifies, once and for all, the question of artistic materials. We can only come up with excerpts, describe fragments of a material cosmos.