Starting The Year With Acrylics

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?

Learning To Paint – On A Budget

Are you a painting student on a budget? Like most artists (except perhaps for Jim Carrey and George Bush) I am frugal with art supplies. Not only do their prices climb up every year, there’s no need to waste what I already have. Some students have asked me to describe my favorite tricks for saving money on supplies, and so I have decided to write about it in a tongue-in-cheek way.

Photo of the front of a box of Russian gouache.

I cannot read cyrillic, therefore cannot tell which brand.

Where should we aim to cut costs? Ok. Let’s think of two kinds of learners. There is the student who is deciding whether painting is something they will like, and there is the student who already does a fair amount of painting during vacations, classes and workshops.

If you are figuring out if painting is for you, keep it a secret. Don’t let your relatives or close friends pick out your gear or supplies. There are many many choices, and you might end up with stuff you can´t use that you will not be able to exchange. If you already “spilled the beans,” tell them to give you gift certificates. Start perusing Craigslist and Nextdoor, noticing the art supplies people are selling or giving away, and don’t buy anything yet. There is a reason everybody is selling french easels, for example. They are sooo heavy! Next, get on Google and type “acrylic or oil painting supply list” and read what art teachers are asking people to buy. This will give you an idea of what is normal to use in a painting class with that media. Then wait to the twice a year art store sales at the beginning of each semester. A good store with lots of different brands and low prices is Jerry’s Artarama. But if you have more time, follow the tips below.

Photo of a box with paint tubes.

Brand-new gouache courtesy of a neighbor.

If you have been painting for a while, read on. Just keep in mind that I want you to save money with the intention of spending it on quality paint. This is the one area where you should “bite the bullet.” For everything else, here’s my list:

  1. Easels.Craigslist, garage sales in affluent neighborhoods, or Nextdoor are the best sources for both field and studio easels. Avoid vintage easels unless they have never been used because their hardware might not work. Test for actual wood and quality hardware. Assemble the easel in front of the seller to make sure all the parts are there. Offer to pay 30-50% of the original price. Your local art center probably gets field easel donations that they cannot use. Leave your name and phone number with them. Expect to pay something for it.
  2. Painting grounds. Canvas, masonite and paper have all skyrocketed in price, but if you don’t plan to sell your work or show it in a gallery, there is no reason to practice on expensive surfaces. Prime some cardboard or matting board with acrylic gesso. The day after Christmas usually finds me hard at work in my studio cutting cardboard into pieces I can paint on. Fun! You can also stretch and prime your own canvas if your hands are strong, but you might end up spending more time on this than on painting.
  3. Brushes. Never buy them at an actual brick-and-mortar store. Go to the store to check out brands and sizes, then order them online. If you work with larger brushes, it’s ok to get those cheaper brushes made in China.
    Photo of two acrylic brushes.

    These come in a package of ten sizes, and you can purchase them in round, flat, nylon or bristle.

    Their bristle is usually ok, but the ferrules fall off. No problem! Twist the ferrule off, score the wood tip with an x-acto knife, and re-attach it to the ferrule with wood glue. Let it dry for 30 hrs. If you do end up purchasing a high-quality brush for details or sharp lines, do not use it for anything but its intended purpose. Wash it well after every use with gentle soap, blot it dry and store it in a case.

  4. Paper. Recycling centers, estate and garage sales, dumpsters and printers all have something in common:  paper they must get rid of or recycle. Craigslist and Nextdoor are always great for this, if you can quickly pick up what your neighbors are discarding. Often you must compete with public school teachers, so don’t wait. Recycling centers that sell extra supplies are also coo,l but my experience is that I can never arrive early enough to take advantage of the spoils. Send an email to your freinds asking them to keep an eye out for you. This is how I used to obtain paper when I was teaching high school art.
  5. Paint Are old paints of good quality worth it? Yes, when the tubes are not hard. If the paint is good but tubes are damaged or fragile, art stores sell empty tubes you can fill with paint squeezed out of old tubes. This works great when the cap is stuck, or when the tube has a perforation and paint is oozing out of it. E-Bay sells paint tubes in lots, but unless the vendor can assure you the paint is still viable, I would not buy them. I would instead use E-Bay to try out new paints of brands not regularly sold in the US. There are many Russian and English paint brands that are perfectly good and sold at decent prices. Look the brand up on Google to see what people are saying.
  6. Pricey Accessories. Paint knives, viewfinders, table easels etc. Don’t buy these at Michaels or JoAnn because the Chinese goods sold there will fall apart after a couple of uses. If you are checking E-Bay, set the filter to “nearest” to avoid Chinese manufacturing. Look for vintage quality brands such as Loew-Cornell, Grumbacher, and Windsor & Newton. Make an announcement on social media, but provide pictures to help people figure out what you need.

I hope this has helped. Now you are ready to go on an exciting search!

Acrylic is Perfect for Multimedia

Photo of a table holds a large colorful paper.

Printing with acrylic pigments yields rich and colorful results.

We used a giant gel plate for experimental monotypes, and I have to say the colors are always much brighter than when we use block printing ink. The other big difference is that the results cannot be altered as acrylic is not water soluble. But these prints can become a background for play with other paint with watercolor or ink, for example. The gel plate was created using a variation of a recipe I found on the internet. 6 months and $150 later, I found the right combination of gelatin and glycerin and now share it with my students. I love gel plates, not just because of their sensitivity to textures but because they require almost no physical exertion.

colorful acrylic paint pouring off a canvas

Liquid acrylic pigments change quickly due to gravity.

Pours on small canvasses are the happy experiments on which anyone can build a larger or more complex piece. I buy packs of these 9 x 12″ canvasses and do my teaching demos on them. The pours are exciting because the colors change right before our eyes. Anne Marie from BeadFX because has a much better description of what happens: “layer up various densities of paint dollops (heaviest on the bottom, and lightest on top). A couple of light swirls with a stir stick, and then you pour on your background. When you’re done, you start tipping the substrate, for a wonderful, swirling explosion of color saturated eye candy!” In our case, we sprayed liquid acrylic, poured some using a different recipe, and added latex paint at the end.

hand tilting colorful canvas

Another “dirty” pour in process!

You don’t really need to take a class to learn how to pour acrylics on a canvas. I find that what people want to learn is how to prepare the various pouring recipes. But I always tell them that the internet has so many instructions for the curious. Michael Townsend has written an excellent article that goes beyond recipes. It is more of an overview, explaining how the various mixes behave on a level surface. I would start here first and then go to You Tube for the many variations.

Acrylic Washes And Pours

Two students tilt a paper with acrylic wash

Too bad this is not wine or we could say this wash has “legs!”

Those who love texture will appreciate the point of enhancing it with specially-mixed acrylic washes. Learning to make this mix was the first part of our class. While there are many recipes for it on Your Tube, we were aiming to mix something that could be used in a variety of materials such as paper, molding paste or canvas.

A female student tilts an acrylic wash she has applied with a spray bottle.

A student tilts an acrylic wash she has applied with a spray bottle.

Our surface was heavy watercolor paper because this paper can take a lot of abuse. We scored it, sanded it and covered it with masking fluid. The texture and hues on the wash can serve as a beautiful background for a collage. Once the acrylic washes were applied with a spray bottle, we tilted it and let the excess pour on a mixing tub that had an inch of water.

A hand applies spray to a small canvas on a table.

This canvas was first treated with molding paste and the acrylic wash accentuates the textures.

The second part of our class was devoted to learning how to mix the paint for a pour. This time we tried both paper and canvas. I had a few examples to show. There are many resources on You Tube that can show you how to make various types of pours, but I find there is no substitute for doing one yourself. Not everyone is comfortable with the messiness factor engendered by this type of activity. By the time we finished, our pours were hanging from a clothesline, dripping lots of paint on my studio floor!

A large paper shows patterns made with thick paint over wet paper.

Pouring medium over a wet paper results in something Joan Miró could have made.

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