Sunday, August 23, 2009

Getting started in oils and acrylics

Welcome back! Let’s move on to oils and acrylics, shall we?

Oils are called oils because their pigments are mixed with oils and you have to use stuff like turpentine and paint thinner to thin them down. Except for the new water-soluble oils, which actually thin and clean up with water. (Though you should use special additives to get them to flow right.)

Oils take a long time to dry. Count on 6 months to a year to dry all the way through, depending on how thick you paint. Don’t varnish until your painting is dried all the way. It will take a day or two for your painting to become dry to the touch, which allows you to go back within that time and work the paint while it’s still wet as needed.

The new oil alkyds (I love alkyds!) dry all the way through in a month or three. You can paint on your alkyd painting, break for lunch, maybe take a short nap, and when you return to work your painting will be dry to the touch. How handy is that!?

Acrylics thin and clean up with water. They dry very quickly, sometimes TOO quickly for my tastes. Once they’re dry, you can’t go back into them and rework things, like if you want to soften an edge or two or blend something.

That is, unless you get the new ”interactive” acrylics. I’ve got a pile of ‘em in a bin but haven’t worked with them yet. Depending on what you mix with them, you can keep your acrylics “wet” for a few hours. If they dry, there’s a special solvent that opens them up again for reworking. Here’s a manufacturer’s demo:

There’s also a type of paint called “open” acrylics, that have a longer drying time than regular acrylics. They’re like a bizarro alkyd: one (the open acrylic) stays wetter longer, for a working time of a few hours, and the other (alkyds) dries quicker, with a working time of a few hours. With all kinds of acrylics you should wait about 2 weeks after your final brushstroke before you varnish, if you feel the need for such.

Ain’t technology great?

Your brushes for both oils and acrylics will have long handles, because you should be standing back from your canvases as you work. Unless you’re using acrylics as if they were watercolors, which many do, in which case you should be using the short-handled watercolor type of brushes. Robert Burridge attaches long twigs to his handles so he can stand back even farther, but he also uses the occasional mop when he paints as well. He is, after all, Robert Burridge.

Don’t mix your brushes! Once you get oil on a brush, it’s useless for water-based paint. And yes, that applies (I think) to the water-soluble oils. Use pretty kitchen jars to collect each type of brush and the display in your studio will look Very Professional. Visitors will be impressed.


Here’s something I only learned lately. I grew up painting with oils on canvases and now everyone’s saying no, canvases have too much “give” in them. Eventually inflexible oils will crack as the canvas surface expands and contracts and generally moves about. Canvases will even alter their tightness when changing altitudes. I’ve heard of artists who’ve had to restretch their canvases when sending them off to mountain galleries. Acrylics remain flexible when they dry, so canvases are fine for them.

People are urging artists to use rigid supports for their oils. That would mean boards, which can be gessoed or covered with canvas to get that familiar canvas texture and then gessoed. You can buy them predone or make them yourself on the cheap.

Acrylics can be used on just about any surface. If you want to get funky and paint on metal or some such, just make sure you prime it first. And acrylics on an oil-based surface--forget it! It’s like using latex acrylic house paint on a wall that’s previously been painted with oil-based paint. The new paint will bubble and/or flake off. Use a primer that’s specially made for that surface or choose a new surface.

Oils you’re going to be buying in tubes. Acrylics come in tubes, jars and squirt bottles. The squirt bottles are for people who are using the paints in a watercolorish way, and contain extremely concentrated pigment.

When I went to art school at Carolina, a teacher (who is still on staff, ahem) had us using a harsh, cheap solvent to thin our oils. When one of his colleagues asked him why he did that, he answered, “Hell, they’re only students.”

This is not the right attitude to take. You should approach your painting as if you were a professional. Even if you’re just foolin’ around, seeing what the paint will do, experimenting with how you’re going to approach your painting, you should use the correct materials.

Thinning and mediums

This is something I’ve recently learned, but it makes sense. If you thin your paint with a solvent you make it weaker in structure. You lose the archival properties of the paint. If you want your paint to flow more easily, use a medium, not a thinner. Thinners/solvents are for cleaning up, for breaking down your paint.

For oils, they make lots of special mediums. (And yes, the correct plural of “medium” in this sense is “mediums.”) You pour a bit into a small cup and keep it next to your palette, and mix a tiny bit in with your paint as you go. You can dip your brush in it every now and then or add it into the piles of paint on your palette. A lot of people use alkyd mediums to speed up the drying time of regular oils. Go to your local art store and start reading labels and asking the staff if they seem intelligent.

You will need to clean your oil materials. Don’t get turpentine! It stinks. It’s bad for the air in your home. Your lungs don’t like it. Get some of the new thinners that are odorless and much safer to use. (You’ll need a small amount of pure turps to add to some kinds of varnishes [not all require this], though, so make sure you know where your store displays them.) (And remember that if you're using water-soluble oils, you clean them with water. That's the whole point!)

For acrylics, there are quite a few confusing additives you can drip into your paints that will accomplish different things. For mediums, though, you can start out with the standard stuff: gloss and mattte medium. For a beginner I’d choose matte. If you want to gloss things up you can put a gloss coat over your painting at the very end. I wouldn’t want to squint through the glare as I was painting.


As usual, NEVER USE STUDENT-GRADE ANYTHING! Student grade stuff is cheaper because it’s been thinned. Likely it will not be archival.

As you’re choosing your paints, don’t be put off by stuff that says something like “cobalt hue” or “alizarin crimson hue.” You may be aware that if one is cooking one wants to buy pure vanilla and not something that is vanilla flavored, which is a cheap version that won’t stand up to a lot of cooking. But with colors it’s different.

Alizarin crimson, one of my favorite colors, is not archival. It fades. They’ve finally come out with a “hue” version that isn’t by-definition alizarin but is the same color and permanent. Other colors, like the cobalts and such, have look-alike “hues” because the original formula is poisonous. This is why you now see names like I never saw when I was a student, tongue-twisters like “quinacridone” this, and “dioxazine” that.

With acrylics you can also get keen metallics, pearls and stuff. Your store should have color charts for you to drool over. Be aware that “thalo” blue and green are the same thing as “phthalo” or “phthalocyanine” blue or green, which are the same thing as “brand name” blue or green (like Winsor Blue or Green, for the Winsor-Newton brand). “Phthalo” is pronounced with a long “a,” by the way, and silent just about everything else.

What else? What else? My teachers always told me to never ever use black, but that rule is being broken all the time these days. The average artist uses black sparingly. (Your best blacks will be mixed from a deep red and green on your palette.) Just don’t buy a black like Carbon Black, as it’s gritty. It’s called “carbon” because there are bits of carbon in it. Use Ivory Black instead if you MUST use black-black.

I made a mistake once and bought a huge tube of Flake White. This is really transparent stuff. There’s a time and place for it, but they don’t come often. Get Titanium White instead. Get a big tube. You’ll use a LOT.

If you’re using acrylics, a cheap way out is to use white gesso as a white. It’s just as permanent as white paint, but you’ll find it’s not nearly as opaque as Titanium White. Still, because you do use so much white when painting, gesso can save you big bucks.

Speaking of gesso, gesso is a painting base that stabilizes whatever you’re painting on. It comes in a number of colors, the most often used being white. Canvases are primed with gesso. Because it's acrylic you can paint with either oil or acrylic on top.

Although I’ve never used it, every last artist I’ve ever heard of who expressed a preference for gesso said that by far Utrecht gesso was the best. One of these days I’ll try it to see what all the hubbub’s about.

Different pigments of paint have different levels of transparency. Look at your tubes and you’ll see how the different companies indicate this. Sometimes there’s a large dot and it’ll be black, which means opaque, or yellow, which means transparent, or half-and-half, which means somewhere between the two. Sometimes they’ll run the color over some black type--very artistically, you might not even notice it--and that’ll show you how transparent things are.

When you’re trying to mix a good green to cover something up and your color just sits there and lets everything underneath show through, you’ll come to appreciate transparency/opacity ratings.

So what colors do you need? The primaries: yellow, red, blue... and white. They’ll get you through practically anything. As I said, Titanium White’s the way to go. For yellow, try a cadmium yellow, either medium or light, or something else in that area. Cadmium Red Medium is a solid red, or something that looks near it. Blues... I love blues. Choose from cobalt or ultramarine or cerulean or thalo, whatever hits your button. For extra colors, I’d pick up a yellow ochre, burnt sienna, burnt umber, and some kind of green and bluish red, like dear alizarin or a rose red.

The theory is to have your white and then warm and cool versions of the primaries: red, yellow, blue. Warm means yellowish tones. Cool means bluish. We’ll be getting into that later on. For now, though, you don’t really need to have the full range. You can operate very nicely with four colors. Lots of artists like to limit their palettes that way. And with a limited palette it’s extremely hard (if not impossible) to come up with colors that don’t belong in your painting.

Oh! Almost forgot! Palettes:
For oil when I'm in the studio I work on a glass surface. On the road, I get disposable paper palettes. I've seen the wooden palettes but IMHO they are a pain to clean.

For acrylic you can use either of these but if you've got a few extra bucks, spring for the new specialized acrylic palettes. Mine is a whole palette-within-a palette deal where I can pull out dishes and bins and still have two flat palette surfaces to work on. When I'm ready to quit painting for the day, I just load everything I've used up into the contraption, add a bit of moist sponge, and seal things up. It's like Tupperware. You can come back in a week and your paint will still be wet. How cool is that?!!!

There! Next time we might actually start painting something.

Got a question? ASK!!! If I can’t answer it, I’ll try to find someone who can.

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