Yesterday, Cyndie Katz of New Boston, NH, USA, asked, “What do you say to people who are acrylic snobs? One of the oil painters who is in a show with me said that it might not be a good idea for me to mention the word acrylic on the title cards. ‘After all,’ she said, ‘it’s just plastic goop.’ This hurt me and I can’t stop thinking about it. Worse, I couldn’t think of a nice comeback — nothing better than, ‘But I love acrylics!’ ”
Thanks, Cyndie. Most of the bad attitude you hear about acrylics comes not from collectors, but from other artists. This is unfortunate because the same narrow views can work against other media — watercolour for one. As an acrylic painter myself, I get around the problem by praising oils. I’m on solid ground here — I worked in oils for thirty years. I tell folks that nothing will ever beat them for texture and workability. Only occasionally do I mention oil-based problems: darkening, yellowing, oxidizing and sinking in, etc. It’s not the pigments, it’s the medium — traditional thinners, drying oils — particularly linseed oil. Also, because of technical ignorance and creeping amateurism, oils can require early restoration — some after only a few years. Interestingly, decaying oils these days are restored with acrylic. If you’re in the mood sometime, you can check out a few of the oil painters whose work has ended up as restorer’s hell: Rothko, Ryder, Pollock, etc.
Back in high school I made some early skirmishes in acrylics. We called them co-polymers in those days. Years later I noticed that they still looked fresh and bright. Working juicy, I had discovered that in acrylic you are okay using lots of medium. As well as being a big strong molecule, as far as we know the molecule stays big, strong and clear — almost indefinitely. Of course, being a relatively new medium (about 70 years), the jury is still out, but most experts think that the future looks great for acrylic.
What’s not to love about acrylic? Let me count the ways. Apart from apparent permanence and strength, there’s flexibility, controllable opacity, colour fastness, resistance to pollutants, opportunity for variety of creative methodology, adaptability to mixed media, as well as speedy drying and cleanup. Used knowledgably, there’s less toxicity with acrylic. More than anything, glazing and scumbling in acrylic are a piece of cake.
PS: “Today, very little serious oil or fresco restoration is undertaken in anything other than acrylics.” (Ian Hebblewhite — Artists’ Materials)
Esoterica: I switched from oils to acrylics in 1974. I did it for health reasons. My price structure stayed the same. Oils/acrylics — same prices, same increases. Resistance to the medium has been infrequent and generally from the ignorant. Collectors, I’ve found, have to like what they see, and by and large they trust the artists to know what they’re doing. Medium is not such an issue. I still love oils. I delight in cruising the surfaces of the masterful ones. But I tell people, “In acrylic, what you lose on the corners, you make up for on the straights.”
It’s not the medium that matters
by Bryan Dunleavy, Southampton, UK
I wonder if there were people running around in the 17th century condemning painters of oil on linen. “Fresco is far superior!” “If you must paint in oil, paint on wood panel!” Frankly I get weary of this snobbery which is usually a manifestation, in some artists, of fear and an unwillingness to step beyond the little box they have created for themselves. No one medium is inherently better than another. Each will produce different effects and there are always things you can do with one medium that are impossible with another. Truth to materials is important, but at the end it is not the medium that matters — it’s the message.
Acrylics hard to beat
by Collette Fergus, Waikato, New Zealand
With oils I actually ended up with a bad case of chemical poisoning where the levels of chemicals in my body were over 80% more than was acceptable. (Years later, there are still some side effects but I’m much better now.) I put a lot of it down to careless use of cleaning up and mixing mediums with my art, so I do advise being more careful. This, however, was what made me switch to acrylics and there’s no going back for me. The smell, the cleaning up, the drying time and the flexibility of using acrylics along with the opacity and of course the variety of creative diversity and ability to adapt to many forms of mixed media, its hard to beat.
Glow of oils
by Cassandra James, Austin, TX, USA
My experience with acrylics has not been as happy as yours — I worked in acrylics all through grad school, and then watercolor for years — finally becoming so discouraged at the shift from pure red one day to brown the next, I moved to oils and never looked back. Except for visits to Museums showing much of the work I thought was my meat and potatoes from the sixties and they look dead (dry, faded, lifeless), while paintings from the 1500s still look alive to me. The linseed oil in binders and mediums bounce the light around and give them a certain glow. You see it in Mona Lisa’s face, and much of Tiepolo’s and Titian’s work.
Must we paint for eternity?
by Petra Voegtle, Munich, Germany
Ah well, this attitude “against acrylics” is absolutely ridiculous for various reasons. First — there is absolutely no argument why I should endanger my health deliberately. Second — despite missing proof of acrylics “being for the eternity,” I would like to ask each artist whether this would be the main reason for painting at all. Do I, as an artist, have the “responsibility” to paint for the eternity? I doubt it — no matter how big or small my talent and means might be. The third — what about experimenting with new media? If oil were the one and only, how poor would the art world look and how boring. Using oils does not make a painter a true painter!
How to blend acrylics?
by Roberta Faulhaber-Razafy, Paris, France
I’ve been painting in oil for over 30 years, but it’s really becoming a problem health-wise, my lungs and brain can’t take it any more. I have used acrylic on occasion, but am unhappy with fast drying times and blending issues. I do a great deal of blending… I’ve tried mediums that are supposed to slow the drying process, but they are still too fast… Can you recommend a medium for acrylic that could slow drying time almost to oil speed and thus permit blending once the color is on the canvas?
(RG note) Thanks, Roberta. Most acrylic manufacturers offer retarders. While their effectiveness varies, even a small amount mixed in with the medium slows drying a bit. A spritzer spray on the palette from time to time works too. Pre-mixing in yoghurt cups is dandy for big areas.
Repairing oils with acrylic
by Jamie Erfurdt, San Francisco, CA, USA
Why is it now okay to put acrylics on oils? I’d love to know, as I have a number of oil paintings that need retouching, and doing it with acrylics would be so much easier than with oils, where I’d have to go through the whole messy toxic clean up routine for just a dab of color here or there. I do occasionally use oils still, but like you, found that my health improved when I wasn’t using them, and quit using them altogether for nearly ten years, till 2001, when I began again in limited doses outside.
(RG note) Thanks Jamie. You have to consult professional conservators for this, as every painting may present unique problems. As a general rule, after completely removing any final varnishes on the oil painting, the areas to be repaired can be buffed lightly with steel wool or emery cloth (don’t use water) and the damaged area filled in with acrylic. Acrylic mediums and pastes can be used like plaster for impasto passages. Acrylic is used for “grouting” cracks and crazes to strengthen, stabilize and to prevent further flaking. Let the acrylic medium penetrate the ground (canvas, wood, etc.) where possible. Colour matching can be tricky. Finally the whole painting is given an even shine with a varnish suitable for oils.
by Jennifer Seymour, Vancouver, BC, Canada
You’ve written about Golden products in the past but I have to add a little praise. The extensive line of Golden mediums is amazing. They do everything they say they will and more. Great product info on the Golden website. And they’re quick to answer questions. No, I don’t work for this company.
Job for Mr. Clean
by Lynda Lehmann, New York, USA
Last month we had an oil burner “puffback” at home and every object in our house was covered with a light but greasy film of heating oil soot! We have had to throw out carpets and upholstery that couldn’t be cleaned, and are still in the process of cleaning everything else with either Lysol, Murphy’s oil soap, or baby wipes! The baby wipes work well for cutting the oily film on wipeable objects. I hesitate to use these chemicals on my new acrylic paintings, which I had just hung on the walls in the 2 weeks prior to the smoke event! Do you have any insight on how to wipe the oily film off these without harming the pigments?
(RG note) Thanks, Lynda. Baby wipes are an excellent cleaner. I’m a believer in Mr Clean. Using a clean rag, spread a thin solution cut with cold water. Spray it well with a garden hose. Wipe dry and let it dry overnight. Repeat if necessary.
Blessings of oil and acrylic
by Paul Massing, Amelia Island, FL, USA
Recently, I have renewed my knowledge of painting with oils. Oil painting has forced more discipline into my paintings in relation to the dynamic expressive manner in which I paint with acrylics. Having been a demonstrator for an acrylic manufacturer and promoting the “Copolymer Product,” I attempted to convince those painters who saw my demos that acrylics offer much more diversity than oils. Now that I have done a suite of oil works, in representational manner, I want to get back to a large work with the expressive freedom that the acrylics afford to me. Then to do an oil in the same manner. In a sense I am stating that my painting experience is richer for blessings of both mediums.
Acrylic varnish for oil paintings
by Luc Poitras, Montreal, QC, Canada
The beauty of oil reveals itself when the colours are saturated as on a wet day. The saturation is often achieved by applying a good varnish. Some of the great varnishes are made of soluble acrylic, such as Soluvar from Liquitex (there are other manufacturers too).
So, you want your oils to look great and beat the UV war, apply the acrylic varnish! Ah! The plastic to the service of the oil. Did you know that with time, the oil polymerizes and thus turns into a plastic — sort of? If you want the same quality as varnished oil, but in no time flat, go acrylic all the way — you’ll win on all counts.
Oils and alkyds
by Kenneth Flitton, Toronto, ON, Canada
Being somewhat asthmatic, I have been concerned with the health aspect of oils for a long time. However, not having mastered oils after 35 years, I think it’s too late to switch to acrylics. I have developed a process that reduces the problem of oils and might be of interest to others.
Last year, someone introduced me to W&N Griffin alkyd Titanium White. It and/or any other oil colour mixed with it dry absolutely hard overnight. For colours not using white, a single drop of Walnut alkyd oil does the same thing. Thus I can work on a painting for several days without fear of smudging, etc. and can glaze or scumble over any parts the next day. I use a palette of wax paper taped to a plastic cutting board. This lasts for several days as I can use every square inch and even mix over old mixes because they are bone dry. When the palette is too messy, I simply fold it up and toss in garbage — no turps, no linseed oil. Brushes must be cleaned up after each day’s work, but for that I use only a tablespoon of mineral spirits in a 5 oz. tomato paste tin. This also keeps covered with Saran for several days, and it doesn’t seem to matter how much residual paint has accumulated in the can, because a few drops of dish detergent get the brushes sparkling clean. What’s left at the end of a week to go down the pipes is pretty minimal.
Plenty of snobbery to go around
by Jan Blencowe, Clinton, CT, USA
I’ve had the good fortune of taking several workshops with Charles Sovek whom I consider one of the great living modern masters. He works in a number of mediums: oil, gouache and acrylic among them. He says that if acrylics were available to the Impressionists they would have used them because of their beautiful pure colors. Truth to tell there’s plenty of snobbery to go around, painting en plein air vs. studio painting, working from imagination vs. using a reference, realism vs. abstraction, colorist vs. tonalist, oil vs. acrylic and the list goes on and on. Every medium, style and method has its virtues and drawbacks. When handled well, the virtues carry the day. For me the bottom line is whether or not the work strikes a chord, brings me joy, makes me think or connects with something deep inside me, not what medium was used but rather how well the medium of choice was employed.
Acrylics well suited to glazing
by Susan Yost-Filgate, Fresno, CA, USA
My husband, Leonard Filgate, switched from oil to acrylic after our daughter was born in 1984 — he painted at home and did not want an infant breathing the fumes from turpentine, etc. Since then, he has mastered the medium — so much so, that we have to constantly correct gallery tags to read “acrylic” — galleries seem to assume they are oils. He finds acrylics “more forgiving” than oils, and in other ways more challenging. He has actually considered going back to oils — the main reason being that we now live in a hot, dry climate and the paint on the palette dries too quickly.
And as to objections to the medium — that did not stop the curator (Dr. Joyce K. Schiller) of the Delaware Art Museum from exhibiting his work in a one-man show that opened last October and closed in January. She wrote in the exhibition catalog: “With its watery setting and foggy weather, The Adventure (a Rip Squeak® book) benefits from Filgate’s use of glazing, a traditional and time-consuming painting technique of applying colors separately in successive glazes of thin, almost transparent paint. Each layer of paint must dry before the next is applied, and each application modifies the color beneath, like sheets of colored glass laid one over another. Acrylic paints are well suited to glazing because the layers of transparent washes dry more quickly than is possible with traditional oil paints. Filgate builds up veils of color to give the water a depth that mimics the layered visibility of the sea.” We rest the case for acrylics.
Prejudice against acrylics
by Susan Connelly, Las Cruces, New Mexico, USA
I am so happy to see this problem addressed. I, also, had to give up oils for acrylics for health reasons. I actually love this forgiving medium and I paint exactly the same way as I did with oils. When it comes to painting clouds and skin, I do miss those juicy oils but have learned to overcome the drawbacks, i.e the fast drying of the medium. I rather miss making a little pile of mud. But the result, after glazing, is almost impossible to determine whether the medium is oil or acrylic. Most of the framers and galleries mistakenly refer to my “oil paintings,” which continues to tickle me.
However, I was amazed that a gallery owner in Scottsdale refused to consider my work. Actually, she was looking at my work and did not suspect it was acrylic until I mentioned it. She announced that her gallery never represented acrylic painters. I did not realize until that episode that there was a prejudice against acrylic painting. Are we really the poor stepchildren of oil painters? I have taken many workshops for oil painters and have used my acrylics. My instructors have been very encouraging and I have not encountered a problem with any of them as to the use of acrylic instead of oil paints.
From what I have read about acrylic paints they are more archival than oils (as far as we can tell) and I was happy to read your feelings on this matter. And there are many fine painters like Bob Kuhn who choose to paint with acrylics.
I would love to hear some feedback from other painters on how they have dealt with the prejudice against acrylics.
Prejudice against oil pastel
by Bill Engell, Erie, PA, USA
Oil pastel artists have run into a similar situation. Previously, public awareness of oil pastel seemed fixed by the plethora of student grade materials that were available (and what that implied) and the early instruction literature, much of which exemplified an almost childlike expressionism. Only recently has the wider public understood that archival quality materials are available (and have been for years), and that the medium has great stylistic flexibility. Much contemporary oil pastel work is stunning, taking a back seat to dry pastel (and other media) only in market share, not in quality.
Choose words carefully
by Scott Pynn, St. John, NB, Canada
Acrylic paints are nothing more than plastic goop? That’s the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard! It’s like calling hockey a slow game because you don’t know how to play. Every medium has its pros and cons. I personally love acrylics and work with them exclusively. To me, an oil painter calling acrylics nothing more than plastic goop is like hearing a Christian call the Buddha nothing but a fat slob. Most of us artists have an intense bond and dedication to our medium of choice, so choose your words carefully, as if you were commenting on someone’s religion.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Bob Abrams of LaConner, WA, USA who wrote, “You didn’t mention that one of the reasons that the oil artists ‘put down’ acrylics is that they are unable to paint with them as they dry faster, and therefore a little more control or certainty is needed.”
And also Peter Gluck of Romania who asked, “Can laser engraving be a true form of art?” (RG note) Thanks Peter. Everything that is artistic is art.
And also Peter Brown of Oakland, CA, USA who wrote, “The danger to oil paintings, as reported by the British Museum, is organic compounds introduced by wet wool sweaters and flatulence. This is not a big problem at my home in California.”
And also Duncan Long who wrote, “If you think acrylic snobs are bad, try being a digital artist.”
And also Paul Corby of Toronto, ON, Canada who wrote, “Oils — they’re only oleaginous stains.”
And also Debbie De Baun of Anchorage, Alaska, USA who wrote, “The worst thing about acrylics is that they dry fast, and the best thing about acrylics is that they dry fast.”
And also Robert Bissett of Naples, ID, USA who wrote, “I did the math and I’ve been using acrylics for nearly forty years. I’m still learning new secrets about it. And the new generation of paint addresses some of the shortcomings and has lots of promise. Chroma Interactive for example.”
And also Lena Lucas who wrote, “Yeah, and those early painters had trouble accepting oil paints… they so knew their egg-tempera was superior… they were oil snobs. Pollock used mostly house paint, both oil and latex. Glad it’s not my job gluing his bits back together! The media is not the art.”
And also Otrud K Tyler of Oak Island, PA, USA who wrote, “You cannot fight preconceived ideas — it is a total waste of time. Paint in whatever medium makes you happy and enjoy the process.”
And also Moncy Barbour of Lynchburg, VA, USA who wrote, “I think it to be nonsense for an artist or buyer to be concerned with the choice between the two mediums. Both are great, this is the 21st century for God’s sake.”