APSU Notes

Chapter 3: Significance of Materials Used in Art

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the differences among valuation of art materials, especially with regard to intrinsic qualities of raw material versus produced objects.
  • Identify the differences between monetary and cultural values for works of art.
  • Discuss the idea of “borrowed” significance that comes with the re-use of components from previous artworks.
  • Illustrate the significance of value added to objects by complex artistic processes or by changing tastes in different eras.


  • The choice of material in a work of art is significant.

Materials used in the creation of works of art can help evoke response, aid understanding, and contribute meaning. Therefore the choice of material in a work of art is significant.

Value of Work

  • Monetary Value – the amount a buyer is willing to pay.
  • Cultural Value – the perceived quality or merit of the work.

So what adds value to a work of art? Monetary Value is the amount a buyer is willing to pay. Includes the cost of materials the artist factors into the price of the artwork. Cultural Value is the perceived quality or merit of the work. What it is worth according to that culture’s standards of artistic importance or excellence.


  • Early vessels were made of easily found materials such as clay, which is used in ceramics.
  • Coiling Method – hand-built pots made by attaching coils of clay atop others.

The earliest drawings, paintings, vessels, and sculptures were made with whatever the artists could find. This included mud, clay, twigs, straw, minerals, and plants. They were used directly or with slight alterations such as grinding and mixing materials with water. Artists discovered that mixing certain types of earth with water yield a flexible substance. This is the clay that is used in ceramics. Nearly every culture we know of has practiced ceramics. A major requirement for most ceramic objects is that they be hollow, that they have thin walls around a hollow core. There are two reasons for this. First, many ceramic wares are meant to contain things—food or liquids, for instance. Second, a solid clay piece is difficult to fire and may very well explode in the kiln. One method for making these thin hollow containers was called the coiling method. The ceramist rolls out rope like strands of clay, then coils them upon one another and joins them together. A vessel made from coils attached one atop the other will have a ridged surface, but the coils can be smoothed completely to produce a uniform, flat wall.

Ceramic Ware

  • Ceramic ware was decorated with images from nature, pictorial and narrative motifs, and messages of myth, power, and even everyday life.

Ancient Greek terracotta vessels were also used to relay cultural significance via imagery: this one shows an important ritual, possibly an important figures funeral. Funerary Vases – most over 5 feet tall made of terracotta.

Maria Martinez

  • Maria Martinez was a pueblo potter from Idelsfonso Pueblo, New Mexico, famous for her black vessels.

The native peoples of the southwestern United States made extraordinarily large, Finely shaped pots by coiling. During the20th century, the tradition was revived by A few supremely talented individuals, Including the famous Pueblo potter María Martínez. Choosing to work with clay was purposeful, dictated by her cultural tradition. Working in clay, and taking it form the earth to create, was a spiritual process.

The Potter’s Wheel

  • Invented in China over a thousand years ago.
  • Porcelain – Ceramic made from kaolin and petunse.

By far the fastest method of creating a hollow, rounded form is by means of the potter’s wheel. Potters in the ancient Near East were using a rotating disk, today called a slow wheel, to speed the making of coil pots by around 4000 B.C.E., but the true potter’s wheel, known as the fast wheel, seems to have been invented first in China a little over a thousand years later. The wheel is a flat disk mounted on a vertical shaft, which can be made to turn rapidly either by electricity or by foot power. The ceramist centers a mound of clay on the wheel and, as the wheel turns, uses their hands to “open,” lift, and shape the clay form—a procedure known as throwing. The Chinese bowl illustrated here would have been thrown on a wheel by a specialist at one of the great ceramic centers of imperial China, where thousands of workers produced ceramics on an industrial scale using assembly-line methods. The bowl is made of porcelain, a ceramic made by mixing kaolin (kōlin) a fine white clay, with finely ground petunse (p-toon-se), also known as porcelain stone. When fired at a high temperature, elements in the mixture fuse into a glassy substance, resulting in a hard, white, translucent ceramic. The secret of porcelain was discovered and perfected in China, and for hundreds of years potters elsewhere tried without success to duplicate it.

Meissen Porcelain

  • Traders from Portugal brought back “china” from China in the sixteenth century, resulting in European interest in porcelain objects

The Meissen firm in Germany produced porcelain tableware to suit refined tastes in the early 18th century. Inspired by the Chinese wares flooding into Europe via overseas trade, Meissen developed the first porcelain production in Europe. Its white vessels were formed into fanciful shapes and decorated in gold or colorful enamel paint. Many of the images painted onto Meissen objects were inspired by Chinese motifs.


  • Manuscripts could contain religious subjects or scientific subjects, like this Arabic text.

Handwritten script or images. Manuscripts could contain religious subjects or scientific subjects, like this Arabic text.


  • Codex – manuscript with bound pages were developed in the Roman era.
  • Illuminations – means ‘given light’.

Codex or manuscript with bound pages were developed in the Roman era; made of animal skin, sheepskin or parchment was the most commonly used, most refined book arts were presented on vellum or calfskin. The form of books we know today. By the Middle Ages Monks were copying Christian texts and adding illustrations that told the stories. As the Northern Renaissance emerged from the late Middle Ages we start to see illustrations take on a lustrous look. These images were known as illuminations, that is, given light.

Precious Materials

  • Objects for sacred or royal use were often made of lavish materials.
  • Porphyry – a rich purple marble stone used in ancient Rome/Byzantium.

Objects for sacred or royal use were often made of lavish materials; vellum, silk, linen, wool, ivory, gold, silver, gems, and rare stones; porphyry is a rich purple marble stone used in ancient Rome/Byzantium; it was restricted to royal purposes. Sarcophagus, or stone coffin.


  • Spolia – reused parts that were pillaged from older art and architecture.

Spolia was reused parts that were pillaged or reused from older art and architecture and incorporated into new art objects and places with the implications of conquest, superiority, and heritage for the new patrons. In the eighth and ninth century CE the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne the Great repurposed porphyry columns used inside arches on the upper level of his imperial chapel in his palace in Aachen, present-day Germany. This reuse of the columns signifies the revival and replacement of the old Roman Empire with his own reign as a Christian world ruler. Charlemagne specifically pillaged and re-used porphyry columns for their historical reference to power.

Liquidation of Treasures

  • Many extravagant shrines and liturgical furnishings have not survived because they were used to feed a famine-stricken community Liturgical furnishings – related to worship


  • Sculptures, objects, and architectural components of wood were fashioned with a view to their monetary and cultural value
  • Northern Europe during the Romanesque and Gothic periods focused on wooden sculpture more than painting.

Sculptures, objects, and architectural components of wood were fashioned with a view to their monetary and cultural value. Lindenwood and limewood are associated with the Middle Ages. Wooden Sculpture was far more predominant art form than painting in northern Europe during the Romanesque (c. 1000 – 2000 CE) and Gothic periods (c. 1200 – 1500 CE). Lindenwood or limewood allowed the sculptor to carve intricate details. It could be polychromed (painted) to increase the figures life-like quality.


  • The naturally reddish-brown wood was prized for its beauty and strength.

The naturally reddish-brown wood was prized for its beauty and strength. Throughout the 1700s was used to create fine furniture. Discovered in the Caribbean islands, Central America, and South America. Furniture made during the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 19th century became sought after as the growth of industrialization.


  • Inlay – where one material is cut and fit into another in complex patterns.

Inlay is where one material is cut and fit into another in complex patterns. Inlay techniques – used to provide visual contrast and to emphasize both the distinctive and diverse qualities among the materials brought together and the refined craftsmanship involved.


  • Lacquer – made from sap of tree originally grown only in China.

It hardens to a natural plastic when exposed to the air. The base of lacquered objects is wood. It requires great patience due to needed at least 30 coats of sap, with each layer drying completely before the next can be applied. Carved lacquer originated in China but soon spread throughout Asia.


  • Bronze was usually reserved for very important works.
  • Made with the lost-wax hollow casting technique.

Bronze was an expensive material. Usually reserved for very important works, such as this colossal statue of Buddha. Made with the lost-wax hollow casting technique. This process ”saved” the material of the pricy bronze by making a thin shell with a hollow interior without compromising the strength of the metal.

Rare and Prohibited Materials

  • Ivory – Once highly sought after to make devotional objects.
  • Today it is a protected material

We must take into account the economic and ecological factors involved with some materials used in art. These factors sometimes take a rare and valuable material and make it a prohibited and taboo material to use. One key example is Ivory. Originally it’s rarity and ease of working with it led it to be a highly valued. This value and desire for works of Ivory has threatened the very existence of the elephant. Today the sale and purchase of Ivory objects, even historical works, is boycotted and in some places illegal in hopes of preserving the species.

Different Materials

  • A work was made of chocolate syrup is a play upon the Renaissance artist Leonardo’s famous Last Supper.
  • Some artists chose to work with very different materials.

Art with wire, sugar, chocolate and string



Lecture Video


Chapter Three: Significance of Materials Used in Art Quiz