Apples and oranges


Dear Artist,

Among the new and old friends who came to Banff last Saturday was a burgeoning painter who told me about a recent switch from oil to acrylics. “Those acrylics, they dry too fast,” he said. “How do I get that stopped?” I glanced over his shoulder at a painting done by my dad while sitting in the sunbeam of a glacier not far from where we were standing. “At first, they dry too quickly,” I said. “With time you may find that they don’t dry quickly enough.” We talked about remedies to keep the paints moist, like dribbling medium over the palette and setting it on a wet sponge. We discussed Open Acrylics and their greasier consistency and how they’re slower to dry.


“The Painter to the Moon” 1917
gouache on paper
by Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

When asked whether she preferred dancing with Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse replied, “It’s like comparing apples and oranges. They’re both delicious.” Oil, in its buttery decadence, offers the gift of patience and planning. It seduces new painters with time-honoured stages of mastery and holds onto experienced ones with the possibilities for technical rebellion. In his 1890 Manual of Oil Painting, English portraitist John Collier implored his readers to never touch an oil painting unless it’s very dry or very wet. “There is nothing more fatal than to work at a picture when it is sticky,” he chided. Perhaps this constant danger helps oil retain its abiding supremacy.

And so, why switch? The zippy, flexible, full-coverage, easy clean-up, fresh ease of acrylic beckons with a promise of convenience and new possibilities, with the turmoil left behind in the wet box.


“Self-portrait with Seven Digits” 1913
oil on canvas by Marc Chagall



PS: “Acrylic may not be for everyone, but it is used by more artists today that any other painting medium.” (Stephen Quiller)

“Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented.” (Willem de Kooning)

Esoterica: “Even when we have done our best to hasten the drying of our picture, it will certainly not be in a fit state to work on again until a clear day has elapsed,” wrote Collier in his Manual for Oil Painting. “This is one of the serious inconveniences of oil painting; but it can be easily met by having two pictures going on on alternate days, which is not a bad thing in other ways, as the change of subject gives the eye a rest.” And if you’re thinking of making the switch, you can still work simultaneously on multiples for fun, for a change of subject and to rest the eye. When they don’t dry quickly enough, you can paint in the sun, use a hairdryer, or even perch them on stands over the baseboard heater, as my dad was prone to do.

marc-chagall_blue-circusDownload the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, hereProceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“I work in whatever medium likes me at the moment.” (Marc Chagall)




  1. Very timely email on two counts. I am just leaving Canmore to pick up my third Sara painting by your father. I marvel at your father’s work and there is something about a figure in a painting..”what are they thinking” which sort of completes a painting for me and adds value. If I had been able to attend the Banff event I would have asked the same question as mentioned in your posting. I am transitioning from watercolour to acylic and struggle with the washes :-) Keep up the good work.
    Cliff Swanlund

  2. Most of my painting colleagues use acrylics but I’m afraid they don’t work for me. I sometimes use them for a quick under painting after outlining the major design with black gesso but find that even the open acrylics including Golden dry too quickly for my liking and I can’t blend them. I switched from watercolour to oils 20 years ago for the ease of attaining strong values and colour contrasts. Still like the medium best although I use water solubles for field painting because of the easier cleanup. A few western artists like William Matthews and Don Weller seem to be able to achieve what I wanted with transparent watercolour and gouache and if I had discovered them earlier I might not have switched. But you know what? There is a suitable medium for every taste.

  3. I’ve been painting portraits in oils for twenty years and in the beginning was told “you do not need to wait until the painting is dry to work further the next day. That’s the advantage of oils. You can paint wet into wet, wet onto dry or wet onto partially dry.” I’ve followed this advice and Love oils for this reason.


      • I paint with regular oil paints and wanting to paint non-toxically I use no thinners of any kind and clean my brushes with soap and water. I learned this twenty two years ago from a teacher in the Ontario College of Art. Surprised we were at first but it works well.

  4. kathryn taylor on

    I love Marc Chagall’s paintings. Its like he captures dreams, on canvas. So unique. I like the quote you shared of his, too. I havent painted in a few years, but I used acrylics and watetcolors , in school. Then switched to “graphite” doing portraits. Then turned to writing, and promoting/selling art. Havent used oils, yet, so cant comment on the differences. (apples & oranges!)

  5. Sheri-Lee Langlois on

    Hi Sara
    I realized a long time wish by seeing your Dad’s work in person and by meeting you & your mother in Banff. I was as fully satisfied by seeing the works as I thought I might be. Now that I have the beautiful book about your dad’s art & life, I feel that I can enjoy it all on any given day, up here in St. Albert
    Keep up your own wonderful work .. it was truly special to meet you two.

  6. And then……there’s the option of making your own SLOW drying medium for oils, using among other ingredients, clove oil, to keep your oils open much longer and fresh on the palette! Great for the alla prima painter.
    You can speed the drying time up to ” Acrylic speed” by using a fast drying medium like Winsor Newton Liquin.

  7. I started with acrylics and sometimes switch to oils now and then. I’ll agree with what was written in this letter that acrylics do dry faster and don’t dry fast enough for me, a hair dryer solves that. The reason why acrylics are favorable is that you can see what the color will look like when its dry, they have no toxic odor and definitely clean up much easier than oils. Also if you are a painter that doesn’t prefer to have many paintings on the go at once and if you are in advanced years, time becomes precious and the quicker a painting is completed, the quicker the next one can be started. I’ve shown paintings both painted in Acrylics and oils to painter friends and none could tell which was which. What are the advantages of slow drying oils? I would have thought a skilled artist can paint in any media.

  8. I’ve worked with both oil and acrylic. When I was six, I had my first introduction to oil, and ever since I’ve loved the feel of a loaded paint brush touching the canvas: It’s smooth and forgiving. However; in art school it posed more problems for getting pieces finished because of the drying time. This taught me to work in both.

    I use acrylics for more of a collage type work and oils for more of an intense style of work where the drying time isn’t needed as much. Both have their pros and cons; however with the new mediums that can be added to slow down acrylics and speed up oil drying times an artist can have the best of two worlds.

  9. Hi all!
    I began years ago with oils….flammable, toxic, smelly, slow drying and not a good choice for a deadline meeting illustrator. Switching to acrylics allowed me to paint water colors, do pen and washes, impasto abstracts, AND…. I discovered if one learns how to use mediums to slow the dry one can paint similar to oils. I paint primarily with acrylics and have several works in progress at a time on canvas or panels. Paintings can dry earlier with a hair dryer…or better yet… overnight just like oils. Scumbling and glazes are easily applied. For slower drying and Plein air painting use Golden Open acrylics. Just got to remember to varnish at the end to bring the depth of the colors back. Thanks.

    • Are you the Bob Cronk from St. John, NB? I used to live up the hill from your place.
      I began with oils years ago also, and now work in watercolours, acrylics and oils.
      Jean Beaton

  10. Dave mentioned alkyds, I use oil with a slow drying medium for my still lifes, and can work wet on wet for most if not the whole painting, up to a week. But I found that for my landscapes, alkyds allow me to work on a dry painting the next day. This allows layering which keeps the colors clean on the landscapes, muddy areas were a problem with my greens. I can use alkyds for the first few sessions for the fast drying and finish with the slower drying Artist Oils if I want, which I find easier to use and a bit easier to get my colors right with the Artist oils. There is no problem with fat over lean this way.

  11. I use a small amount of walnut oil when painting with oil paint, it’s non toxic and is slower drying and it complements my style which is heavily Impastoed and always going through changes in one painting, I can also clean my brushes too with walnut oil.I haven’t use Mgraham oil paints but they use walnut oil as a medium in their range.

  12. I paint in both oil and acrylic and am not sure what all this talk of drying timr is all about…for 29 years i attack them both with results that please me and judges, never thinking abjout awaiting a day…

    • You can use a spray bottle filled with just water and from time to time – spray your palette. It keeps the acrylics moist and prevents them fro drying out.

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Featured Workshop

Italy 2017
September 3, 2017 to September 11, 2017

030715_sharon-rusch-shaverThis Artists-Adventure is to an ancient hilltop village in Italy to explore, paint, and eat gourmet Italian cuisine all while staying in an historic 16th Century restored Villa in the center of a beautiful ancient medieval village. This exciting journey is for painters and non-painters alike. Artists will find inspiration everywhere in this beautiful undiscovered Umbrian region of Italy. We will be offering not only plein-air painting instruction with artist Sharon Rusch Shaver, but also Italian cuisine cooking classes, horseback riding and winery tours and tastings as well as other optional activities for our guests. To enroll, please go to our website: Saraswati
oil on canvas
30 x 50 inches

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There’s a hush… a palpable electric presence radiating from some of the paintings in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and in the galleries of the Frick Collection.


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