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Starting The Year With Acrylics

A student's arms and hands hold a brush and a palette knife.

In acrylic, happiness comes a bit faster. Robert Genn

I will be teaching a class at the Richmond Art Center on Jan 11, “Acrylic Bag of Tricks.” In February, I will begin teaching a series of two workshops about painting acrylic still lives at the Frank Bette Center (Feb 24 and Mar 23). So I can rightfully say I will start the year with acrylics.

colorful acrylic paint pouring off a canvas

Liquid acrylic pigments change quickly due to gravity.

But did you know that I did not start using acrylics until 2005? I did not receive instruction in it when I was in art school in the 1980s. Some instructors used acrylics back then, but they treated it like a lesser medium. If, as painter Andrew Hamilton says, “acrylic is the only painting medium that can be all mediums – it can act like watercolor, it can act like oils, and it has its own innate properties,” none of this was demonstrated in the classes I paid for. Instead, the few instructors or colleagues that used acrylic complained of the loud colors, or the quick drying time, and of the fact that it ruined brushes faster than oils. After I left art school, the stigma persisted. So I did not touch acrylics. I did not hate them, I just did not know what was possible.

A student paints on top of a giant gel plate

This giant gel plate is being used like as a monotype tool. No need for a press!

Fast forward twenty years. I took a figure painting class and met my friend Karen Zullo Sherr, a feisty lady who used nothing else. She explained it was “all in the additives.” Intrigued, I began reading and trying out acrylic “recipes” I found in books, and sometimes on video. I began experimenting with thickening agents and eventually graduated to image transfers. Along the way, I figured out how to take advantage of its many features in plein air and studio situations.

Over the years, I realized not everyone will like or use acrylic. To find out if you are cut out for it, take my quiz:

1. My level of experience is ___________.
a. beginner  b. I have taken some classes  c. I use a different medium for most of my work

2. I do most of my work ___________.
a. indoors  b. outdoors  c. both

3. This word can be used to describe most of my paintings:
a. experimental  b. abstract  c. traditional

4. I am _________ to solvents
a. very sensitive  b. neither sensitive or insensitive  c. not sensitive

Give yourself two points for every “a” response, one point for every “b” response and zero points for any “c” response.

If you scored 6-8 points, acrylic is in the charts! You are too neat for oils, too sensitive to thinner, you work where a faster drying time is not an issue, and you “seize the moment” as an artist. If you are a beginner, this water soluble medium is definitely for you.

Magenta and yellow paint blobs on a palette

Modeling paste mixed with paint turns into textures.

Those who scored 3-5 points could give this medium a chance but first they would have to set themselves up for success. Using additives that mimic the qualities of oils, using retardants to delay drying time and taking the time to learn about the medium’s attributes will let you see what you’ve been missing!

Even if you scored less than 3 points, that does not mean you should write acrylics off. You may be very experienced with other media and thus ready for a change of pace. Your health might change later on and you might have to switch, or you might be getting ready to do different work. One never nows so why not check it out?

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Rebeca Garcia-Gonzalez avatar
Rebeca Garcia-Gonzalez is the author of these posts and the instructor at Rebeca's Art Classes. She completed her BFA at the University of Puerto Rico and moved to SF seeking to complete an MFA. She did her graduate studies in education instead but continued painting. Later she served as program administrator in a couple of non-profits, After a position as Deputy Director of the Richmond Art Center, she is now painting and teaching full-time and loving it!

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