Oil and egg-tempera have been my main media for painting, along with occasional dabblings with watercolour. For drawing, I regularly use pastel and colour pencils. I have branched out into Photoshop and other digital media too. However, I have always stayed away from acrylic, convinced that it’s not for me.
I tried acrylic more than 2 decades ago hopes of creating an egg-tempera like luminosity (egg-tempera itself is not an easy medium to use successfully).
I bought a good selection of acrylic colours. However, my excitement turned to disappointment as soon as I started using them. I made some colour swatches, then realised that acrylic forms a plasticky, even brittle film (I shouldn’t have been surprised – acrylic is plastic!).
Then I tried some layering techniques (building many layers, adjusting opacity/transparency of each layer) for an abstract design. It was again disappointing – the more layers I built up, the more murky the surface became. I really didn’t like this material, so I didn’t touch it until 2 months ago, except when I sometimes used it as a primer for canvas, wood or paper.
So why did I decided to try acrylic once again?
- I heard that several manufacturers started making ‘artist ’ acrylic and its quality has been greatly improved.
- Although I like both oil and egg-tempera painting, I have yet to be convinced by either of them as my medium.
Oil is great for wet in wet, direct technique, but its slow drying nature is not always favourable for people like me who use layering (building up many thin layers).
Egg-tempera dries quickly and can produce beautiful ‘opalescent’ luminosity which oil paint can’t produce. However this is a very delicate medium and any correction of the original composition is difficult. Also its lack of viscosity limits expressive brush strokes.
So I decided to have another go with acrylic.
I did a bit of online research and decided to get either Schmincke or Old Holland artist acrylic. I know it sounds a bit snobby as they are high-end manufacturers. But I think they are great and reliable colour makers. Winsor & newton’s artist acrylic sound good too and I’m sure there are many other good alternatives, but I had to start somewhere and fortunately an online supplier had a discount for Schmincke’s ‘PRIMAcryl’, so I got
- Cobalt Blue
- Madder Brilliant
- Naples yellow light
- Transparent Golden yellow
- Payne’s grey
- Titanium white
I also got acrylic binder, because I have a good range of pigments for egg tempera, and I can mix those with the binder to make acrylic colours as I need.
As for medium, I just got acrylic fluid, which should produce a semi-matt finish.
I was wondering if I needed a retarder, because I heard that many acrylic painters use it to blend adjoining colours. However I decided to postpone this purchase, because one of the main attractions of acrylic for me is that it dries quickly. A retarder would undermine this benefit.
As soon as the goods arrived, I mixed some pigments with binder and made colour swatches, together with the tubes I bought. I was very impressed by the brilliance and purity of each colour. I found also that the covering power (opacity) of Schminche’s titanium white is super.
I had a wooden board I primed with acrylic gesso, so I had a go with this new material. I composed an imaginary scene using a life drawing. I used the same technique I use for egg tempera but in a more relaxed way, because the film acrylic makes is more solid and stable than egg.
The painting went according to plan. However I found the surface was a bit too shiny, or in another words plasticky! Although it wasn’t an unpleasant shine, I felt the necessity to add more medium to increase the matt effect.
I was also surprised by how quickly the paints dried. It was even quicker than expected. Thus, I felt the need for a retarder/ slow drying medium after all.
I also realised, at this stage, that I had had a silly and stubborn prejudice that acrylic paint is just plastic. Oil paint consists of pigment and oil as a binder, watercolour is made of pigment, gum Arabic and water as binder, and egg tempera is made of pigment and egg yolk+water as binder. But somehow I assumed that acrylic paint was a kind of coloured glue without pigment, or in other words 100% acrylic. Of course, it actually consists of pigment and acrylic resin as a binder. This now seems obvious, but the realisation helped me to treat this medium with same respect that I give oil paint and the other media.
I did a second round of shopping for my next painting:
- Matt gel
- Slow drying medium
(Both of these were Winsor&Newton. I got them just because they were the cheapest among the artist quality media. But the matt gel turned out to be very good. I need more experience to evaluate the effects of the slow drying medium. I want to try other makes).
- Phthalo blue cyan (Schmincke’s PRIMAcryl). Like other colours of this maker, it has brilliant purity. This may be too intense to use alone, but it’s great for mixing with other colours, especially to make greens.
- Warm grey and carbon black – both by Old Holland’s New Master series. I just wanted try out this maker, because it has a great reputation. They are really good, especially their creamy consistency.
The idea for my second acrylic painting came from a life drawing and imaginary scene inspired by my dreams (both day and night dreams). So I had a quite specific image in my head and I made a preparatory rough sketch following that image. However, all the details were very vague and I needed to adjust all the components many times during painting. I enjoyed the whole process because I was (and still am) very curious about what acrylic can do.
After considerable trial and error, I finished the painting and here is what I found about acrylic painting:
- It can produce intense, brilliant colour effects
- I feel that I chose very good makers, though I should try more makers before reaching a final verdict.
- It’s very suitable for thin layering techniques, similar to egg tempera.
On the other hand, I don’t want to use it for ‘impasto’ – thick application of paint – because its plastic appearance becomes too obvious when it’s applied by a single thick brush stroke.
- Although I feel it’s closer to egg tempera painting than to oil painting, the film it makes is much more stable than egg tempera. Also it allows me to build more layers than egg tempera.
- Acrylic paint is widely considered as a modern alternative to slow drying oil paint. However, I feel that it is a very different material from oil paint, both in appearance and behaviours. I think it should be treated as a unique medium, not a substitute for any other medium.
- So will I continue to use acrylic for my painting? YES, of course!
I’m still a beginner with this medium, and I’m excited to continue to explore it. Comments and advice from fellow artists are most welcome!