Friday, January 8, 2016

264: Paint is Still Just Paint

Closeup of a recent acrylic painting, Turn To Light, 48" x 36".
WHEN things go bad with a painting negative voices sound off in my head. When I’m painting with acrylics such voices usually repeat worn out phases such as “what do you expect using plastic paint”, or similar comments delivered with an internal, imaginary smirk. Such phrases can be traced to teachers or peers who claimed that acrylics don’t have the depth or, more elusively, the quality of oils.

Yesterday I heard such voices as a large acrylic painting started heading south. But my experience is that many of the so-called defects of acrylic arise from handling it as if using oils. I find there are no intrinsic defects with high quality acrylics. The defects are imaginary or arise from misunderstandings of why the paint is misbehaving.

High quality acrylics and oils are both just pigments mixed with a medium. In the case of oils it is usually linseed oil. In the case of acrylics the medium is acrylic polymer and water. If you take both mediums and let them dry on a sheet of glass you find little difference–except the linseed might be a little warmer and the acrylic will dry slightly thinner with a glass-like clearness. This demonstrates that the two mediums dry similarly. So why the controversy over the quality of acrylics?

The primary misconception is that acrylics dry muddy or flat. This flatness results from the quicker drying time of acrylics. The standard method of loading the brush in oils is to swipe the brush through piles of paint with the oils remaining wet throughout the painting session. Using this method with acrylic paint will result in less intermixed color since thin, stray acrylics tend to dry on the palette and not intermix. To foster vibrant color you need to allow shards of color to randomly intermix (even if this intermixture appears on a nearly microscopic level). Muddy color means little or no optical vibration within that color or color field.

The same amount of acrylics on the palette and identical methods of mixing the acrylics results in a less intermixed appearance. The shards of random color that oil painters get are essentially field effects that energize the paint. The fact these bits of color are harder to foster in acrylic should not be held against the pigment–especially when some painters are oblivious to the phenomenon. The solution is to use more paint on the palette (larger dollops dry slower), be sure to keep the central mixing area wet (usually with a mister), or use a brush loading system that guarantees broken color (see this blog entry).

Another complaint is that acrylics don’t have the depth of oils–meaning it doesn’t have the gloss or glow of oils. Oils have glow and gloss because as they dry the linseed oil comes to the surface as the heavier pigments sink. This gives a naturally occurring gloss of color. This layer of oil will also tend to be yellow (from the thicker layer of oil) giving the surface a mellow appearance. This glowing, mellow affect can be added to acrylics by adding a gloss surface after the painting dries or adding it to the paint beforehand. If you add a slight bit of Hansa Yellow to the glossy additive (like gloss varnish or Clear Tar Gel) you can achieve identical results.

Another complaint is that acrylics don’t have the body of oils. The reason is that acrylics contain water in the acrylic polymer. Water is a less viscous medium than linseed oil and gives less friction to your brush. The solution is to add a thickening medium to the acrylics such as molding paste. My favorite is Golden Colors’ Coarse Molding Paste. Adding pastes, which have additives like marble dust, will diminish the gloss so if you desire the glossy depth of oils be sure to add a little gloss medium (my favorite is Tar Gel).

Many artists exploit the qualities of acrylic to get matte finishes that have very little microscopic field effects. This is an entirely justified use of acrylics. But it is unfair to condemn acrylics just because they don’t behave like oils.

I’m like most artists–I ascribe a host of virtues to paint that probably don’t exist. For example, I think Golden Color’s acrylic Cobalt Blue has near magical properties. If a painting is failing I feel I just haven’t added enough Cobalt Blue. Although such obsessions can be charming and nearly everybody needs a lucky charm on occasion, such irrational ideas, when they turn negative, need to be exposed for what they are–irrational prejudices that harm unfettered exploration of paint.

Brad Teare –January 2016


  1. I've been painting, oils and pastels, only for going on 3 years. I have used acrylics very little but do already posses a lot of the stereotypical biases against them, such as those you mentioned, as a result of hearing comments from fellow painters, my instructor, and reading articles in art publications. The conclusion I continue to harbor is that fans of acrylics seem to go through all kinds of machinations in order to make them "behave like oils". My thought is, if you want your paint to behave like oils and to enjoy the benefits of oils why not just use oils in the first place? I have not seen that acrylics have any particular advantages over oils except drying more rapidly which for my purposes is not an advantage. I admit that I am likely somewhat naive on the issue.
    Let me add I enjoy and have learned a great deal from your blog.

    1. Great point, Greg. The main reason for me is that acrylics dry much faster than oils. I continue to use oils for my landscapes but for my abstracts, where the paint films can get very thick, I use acrylics.

      When the paint film gets really thick I think acrylics have a definite advantage. Such thick oils films would take years to dry and would ultimately crack (probably fairly soon in the life of the painting). But that is a great topic and one I should dedicate a whole blog entry to. Thanks for the great question.

    2. Thanks, Brad. Your reply as well as your subsequent post (#265) have given me a much better appreciation for potential beneficial attributes of acrylics. As a landscape painter I will be sticking to oils (and pastels) but should I venture into abstracts I would definitely give acrylics a try.

  2. I had been using acrylics for my abstracts and I could just feel the freedom and not getting scared about where I was landing up. I recently tried for landscape and failed miserably mainly because of the consistency.After reading this post I think I will try it again, this time mixing it with the impasto gel that I got recently. Thank you.

    1. Glad you found the post useful, Padmaja. I'm still loving oils too though. I think is is good to know when to use which medium.

  3. Interesting post as usual Brad. I feel there is a bit of duality in your approach to acrylics, as you rightfully declare that “is unfair to condemn acrylics just because they don’t behave like oils” but at the same time give some practical key points advice in in order to make acrylics look and feel more like oils.

    I do believe this is a very common cultural issue, more than technical, that afflicts many modern days painters, especially the ones with a comprehensive art history knowledge.
    My take is that the issue of oils vs. acrylics is mainly referential, a self imposed and a self limiting one.

    Anyone that has ever studied, admired, and fell in love with any Old Master, or any relevant painter form the 15th century to the early 1950s, has been subjected to the spell of oil paint. It is a very heavy heritage that still weight enormously on the painters community. Oil paintings are commonly considered of higher value compared to acrylics, or other media, in the majority of art galleries and regarded as more “mature” and accomplished works in the career of painters, especially for the representational ones.

    In my view acrylics should be considered just as a different medium, period. But I understand this approach is difficult to sustain in an unbiased way, as I struggle myself with it.

    There is so much to say about this topic that I can only conclude saying that if you’d give a child a bunch of oil and acrylic paints, without any rule or instruction, you’d probably see a beautiful mess as outcome,
    done without any preconceived and discriminating approach to the paint itself, solely directed to express the creative insight of the individual, that is Art.

    Ok, I might sound overly romantic, but I hope you got the point.

    1. I believe I did get your point, Liricus, and very nicely stated.

      There is an expression in the software field regarding accidental aspects of software as being a "bug or a feature". The idea being that sometimes it's hard to tell whether an aspect of a product is negative or positive.

      My main reason for describing how acrylics can be modified to appear and handle like oils was to express how acrylics can be modified–not only to be like oils–but to be what ever you want it to be. For example, you could modify acrylics to have even more richness by making it even more golden and more glossy–a kind of ├╝ber oil. Adding Clear Tar Gel is almost like adding resin. It can make acrylic outrageously glossy.

      I do agree that there is a preference for oils in the traditional landscape market. Do you think the prejudice against acrylics is evident in the abstract market?

      Many thanks for your thought provoking comments

  4. Quite interesting.

    I've been trying out some of the same experiments with acrylics, (which I've had a 40 year love-hate relationship with!). I always keep looking for those who've pushed it in different directions.

    Besides you, here are two of my latest other discoveries (both abstract) whom I think you'll find extremely interesting:
    (Glassy, luminous poured acrylic paintings, (well beyond the craftsy fad- the very best of it's kind I've see - like a moonlit Paul Jenkins)
    (The other extreme - bright, sunny, large-scale UBER-impasto modeling paste AbEX. They really connect emotionally even as little web pictures.)


Thanks for your comments!


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