Small painting of clouds, hills and grass

Realistic effects are part of the impasto mistique.

The third acrylics class was just like a food network show. We gathered round to see the making of modeling paste “recipes,” then we saw an impasto demonstration, and then it was time for us to try it for ourselves. Impasto is the application of thick paint to a surface. This can be done in a variety of ways with acrylic, thanks to the many applications of this medium and  to all of the additives in the market.

We worked from simple references, mixing colors first on the palette, then applying the thick paste with a palette knife onto primed cardboard.

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

A student gets ready to apply impasto with a palette knife.

Woman's hands applying thick paint with palette knife.

Several acrylic additives give paint a thicker texture.

People like impasto because it visually reminds viewers of the very physical nature of paint while simultaneously creating an illusion. It gives you the opportunity to work with paint that is easier to control. Application with a palette knife does not require so much skill and some even say is more ergonomic than holding a brush. For people with arthritis, it is physically easier to spread heavy paint on a surface than to beat paint into a canvas.

I advised everyone to get the largest surface they could bring to class. Something we all discover sooner or later is that impasto call for a large palette or mixing surface. It is also more comfortable to use larger gestures to apply paint, and to be able to tilt the easel. Some people get rid of the easel altogether and use a table.

Acrylic Glazing Demo

This 20 min demo is part of my Choosing and Mixing Color class. An expanded version of it is part of my Painting in Acrylics class.

Acrylic glazing, done by mixing smaller amounts of paint with pouring (liquid) polymer medium, is a great way for painters to control the opacity of their paint mixes. For painters mindful of color, glazes have additional uses. Glazes can be used to add temperature, intensity and contrast to parts of our painting, without the bulk of repeated layers of pigment. They can give a watercolor feel or can be used to create very subtle gradations between values. For beginners, glazes can be a way to “test” a mix.

Photo of an acrylic painting of a male face.

This example was created in less than 20 minutes.

How Glazes Work
Glazes are semi-transparent and as such rely on light reflected by the layers of paint underneath. So, when painting a glaze over a pre-existing layer, the top layer should not be completely opaque or it will block the light reflected by the bottom layer. The bottom and transparent top layer will combine and will create a third, more luminous hue than if you had mixed them on the palette. In this example, the gray underneath combines with the transparent orange to form a subtle green.

Grisaille as Underpainting
This is a technique that dates back to the times of illuminated manuscripts. Much of the oil painting done before the 19th century was begun with a grisaille. Painters created a monochromatic underpainting in shades of gray as the way to establish volume, and laid glazes on top of it for the hues. A modern example is Tamara de Lempicka’s figurative work.

You put down one color and it calls for an answer. You have to look at it like a melody. Romare Bearden

In this example, the facial structures were laid first with a grisaille, then an orange glaze was applied and reinforced with later glazes of dark orange for the mouth, nose and ears and brown for the darker parts of the face. No glaze was used for the background or the pupils, so that the chromatic Black that I mixed could have maximum opacity.

Building Volume With Glazes
Another way to gradually saturate or desaturate color, or lighten or darken a value is to start with a base color over the whole face or object. In this case, the base color was a rather saturated orange for the skin, laid flat over the whole face. Then I used a glaze of a pastel orange and medium over this to lighten certain areas of her face. I used a dark orange to partially darken other parts. And I used a pastel orange with more white for the highlights. I did not use a glaze to paint the black hair, for maximum opacity. Unlike in the first example, here we are progressing from light to dark. A modern example is the landscape work of Peter Wileman.

Painting in Acrylics Starts March 18

A student at a table with paints, a palette and brushes.

Use the paints you already have and learn whether there is anything else you might need to buy.

Some people start learning to paint with acrylics. Others begin with oil then switch to acrylics under the assumption that they are less messy or toxic. Watercolorists switch because it is less difficult and expensive to frame an acrylic painting. Then there are painters who are prevented from bringing their oils to communal spaces.

No matter your reason to try them, rest assured no medium has been more misunderstood than this one. You see, it’s all about the additives. Knowing how to use them will give you a tremendous range of effects that simply cannot be achieved with oils. Yet visiting an art store and knowing which additives to get can be a bit intimidating, so many students continue painting without them and reaching the conclusion that acrylics is a difficult, unwieldy medium.

 I can water them down almost like watercolors or I can use them thick like oils. I believe they are respected as oils when the painting is good and they look awful (same as oils) when the painting is bad. Patricia Ann Rizzo

Acrylics are in fact, a great medium for novices and experts alike. They are very forgiving (just paint over your mistakes). They dry fast, enabling you to work on successive layers in an accelerated timeframe. You can clean everything with water, and gel medium has a very mild odor compared with turps. When you mix in a little gel, the results can be undistinguishable from an oil painting.

So, to all the acrylic haters out there, you simply don’t know what you’re missing!

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