Acrylic Tips

Following is an expanded version of the acrylic tips I shared with artistsnetwork.com, titled How to overcome 3 acrylic painting challenges. Artists Network also published my online article, Painting Shadows and Evoking Emotion. In addition, you can order a copy of my 10-page article, “Shadow Lover,”  in Acrylic Artist Magazine’s Fall, 2016 issue by following this link.

I hope you enjoy reading my tips (below) about acrylic’s fast-drying properties, transparent paints (initial layer, and subsequent layers), and creating interesting negative spaces.

ACRYLIC’S FAST-DRYING PROPERTIES

The fast-drying property of acrylic can be its biggest negative. Once we learn some tricks to overcome that challenge, however, we can enjoy one of the greatest advantages of this quick drying time: being able to move from one layer to another in no time at all. Here are some tips that have been helpful for me in overcoming the challenges…at least with my style of painting, anyway.

Challenge #1. How to end a brushstroke over a previously dried area without leaving the little dots from the texture of the canvas. Solution (which works well for me with a flat edge bristle brush): holding the brush flat against the canvas, push the paint in the direction of the end of the bristles, as opposed to pulling the brush in the direction of the handle. The end of your stroke will not “run out of paint” this way. I don’t do the whole painting this way; just when it is needed, such as a transition from one color to another. It seems to be especially helpful for me in large areas like a big sky.

Challenge #2. As an acrylic painter, I sometimes drool when looking at the beautiful blending that can be achieved in an oil painting. Which brings us to the second challenge. You’ve decided you want that creamy, luscious segue between color A (which has already been applied, and is now dry) and color B. The solution is so obvious, maybe I am the only one who was slow in getting it: I’ve learned to persevere now and just go at it purposely a second time. Hello! (Isn’t that the beauty of acrylic anyway? That we can paint over a dry area with a fresh start?) So I simply apply color B, and quickly, while it is still wet, reapply some more of color A right next to it, blending as I create my strokes.

Challenge #3. Your painting is almost complete, and now you realize your composition calls for you to make one or more of your edges softer, or “lost.” And it’s too late in the process (or not expedient) to repaint the edge, as in the paragraph above.

  • One solution is to add a scratchy parallel line (see Little Shed on the Prairie) or messy globs (see Edge of Light) with the edge of an appropriately sized knife.
  • Once in awhile I can get away with a perpendicular brush stroke between two different colors on the edge which I want to soften. However, if my attempt doesn’t look right, I quickly wet a paper towel and swipe it off (another benefit of acrylic). I can either try it again, or use one of the previous approaches. It’s all about trial and error. Always learning and always discovering.
LG-Little Shed on the Prairie copy
Little Shed on the Prairie, close-up of edge.
Little Shed on the Prairie
Little Shed on the Prairie, 36″x48″ acrylic on canvas
LG-Edge of Light copy
Edge of Light, close-up
Edge of Light, darker sky
Edge of Light, 24×36 acrylic on canvas

It’s worth mentioning one of my favorite advantages of the fast drying qualities of acrylic: in no time at all I can switch back and forth from thick opaque layers to thinly watered down paints (either transparent or opaque), which allows me to achieve the multiple layers I desire.

TRANSPARENT PAINTS – The initial layer

In the past couple of years I have discovered some wonderful things that can be done with transparent acrylics when they are thinned out with water. I discuss them briefly in the Fall, 2016 issue of Acrylic Artist Magazine. (Again, it can be ordered here.)

For my style of painting, I like to keep a lot of my layering visible in the finished piece in order to provide visual texture. It all begins for me with the initial foundation, which is transparent acrylic thinned out with water to the point of being drippy.

My favorite transparent colors are: burnt umber, hansa yellow medium, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, phthalo blue, phthalo green, dioxizine purple, and occasionally ivory black.

Because I paint large works, I start with a 3″-4″ flat wash brush. I spray it on both sides with water, and once I dip into my heavy body acrylics, I continue spraying my mixing area on the palette as I go…to keep things nice and loose.

I start with the warm transparents on the canvas, in areas that will be sunny, and transition to the shaded areas with cool colors, mixing various transparent shades together as I go.

I lay in wild strokes with wide sweeping motions…working fast and furious, and responding instinctively to my resource photo. This is also a good time to use a paper towel to create movement by wiping out paint. This energetic movement forms the “design.” Drips are also a part of this layer, and I try to preserve many of them. My goal will be to have the white canvas underneath showing through in various areas of the finished painting. The effect of the warm transparent with white peaking through (in areas where less paint is applied) gives a heightened sense of sunlight or warmth.

TRANSPARENT PAINTS – Subsequent layers

Adding warmth:

Let’s just say you have a great painting going on, and you have been successful in maintaining multiple visible layers. You’ve got the brushstrokes and drips that you don’t want to lose by painting over them, but you realize that you want one or more of your “sunny” areas to be brighter and more prominent. This tip just might rock your world, like it did mine: take a transparent warm color, such as Hansa yellow medium, thin it out extremely with a lot of water, and with a bristle brush, sweep it over whichever areas you want to make warmer, sunnier, brighter, more saturated…whatever your goal is there.

Just remember that the pigments in some of the transparent paints (I’m thinking particularly of phthalo green and phthalo blue) have a stronger staining quality than others, so if you don’t like what you did and you wipe it off, even quickly, with a wet paper towel, you might still have some remaining pigment that has been stained onto your work.

Adding shade, or toning down the color:

After I had been experimenting with this procedure for a number of paintings, it dawned on me that I could do the same thing to shade (gray out or darken) an area. And it doesn’t have to be a straight-out-of-the-tube cool transparent; you can mix any of the complementary colors to get a grayish wash. For instance, a transparent yellow and a transparent purple, mixed together and watered way down, can be brushed over a small area that you want to deaden but not necessarily darken in value, all while allowing the previous layers to show through.

One of the best examples of the possibilities with thin transparents is in my painting, One Last Goodbye. I heightened the saturation of color in the background “trees” (which, by the way, are nothing more than the initial random marks made in my foundation) with Hansa yellow medium (Golden brand is my favorite), and maybe some burnt umber, and maybe even some alizarin crimson. In a painting I just finished, I did the same thing with a green color in my “grass” area. I mixed transparent yellow with transparent ultramarine blue, watered it down, and applied it wherever I wanted to extend the green I needed, without covering over the beautiful brushwork I had already established and wanted to preserve.

One Last Goodbye, new photo
One Last Goodbye, 36×36 acrylic on canvas

Watch for an addendum about some of my favorite mixtures of colors.

DON’T FORGET THINNED OPAQUES

Watch for an addendum here soon regarding some great uses for thinned opaques.

CREATING INTERESTING NEGATIVE SPACES

If my brushwork in a large negative area (such as the sky or any other large puzzle piece) looks too busy, too boring, or just not interesting, here’s what I do. While the paint I’ve just applied to the canvas is still wet, I switch from a brush to a large knife, and, with the knife flat against the canvas, move the paint around. I get creative; I’m not careful or specific. Each time I pick up my knife, I stay extremely alert to what the knife is leaving behind. If I accidentally get an interesting thick edge or blob, or even a mixture of colors I wasn’t planning on…all the better! I get geeked out by the “good” happy accidents (not all of them are good, of course) that add interest to my brush and knife work…and ultimately the painting.

This has been especially helpful to me for sky areas, or large foreground areas of grass, that could be considered “empty.” I used to be intimidated by those large areas and tended to shun them. Now I embrace them as an opportunity to “show off” some fun brush and knife work. The key ingredient to every painting (as artist/teacher/author Dan McCaw says) is me/you, the artist, so this is our chance to let loose and express ourselves.

If you have a subject you’d like me to comment on, relative to my style of painting, please let me know. I’d love to hear from you. Just leave a comment on the “Contact” page of this website.  ~Karin