If watercolour were a virginal harpsichord, and oil were a grand piano, then acrylic might be a mighty Wurlitzer organ. Modern acrylic technology has made possible a great fugue of capability and variety. Acrylics flow from watercolour-like to oil-like, and everything in between. Speed, texture, and permanence are some of its most endearing virtues. Manufacturers have pressed their chemists to produce a variety of gels, gacs, mediums and pastes, as well as pigments of interference, fluorescence, metallic luster, and other variants. While opening new potential for crafters, regular painters can pull out any stop they might fancy.
Acrylic facilitates experimentation and gives new ability to process ideas. Faster and fresher, the journey becomes less arduous — and in many ways, more fun. At the same time it’s important to be aware of the facile effects that can be handily achieved. As ever, taste, choice and suitability need to be weighed. A long time ago, before Metallica, I spent several days throwing glitter into my acrylics. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Doing the deed taught me “All that glitters is not gold.”
But it’s there if you want it. Crackle, dissolve, glue, transfer, press, spray, stencil, ripple, scrafitto, glaze, scumble, stain, drip, razzle, blend, peel, holograph, marbleize, collage or suspend. The complex and versatile acrylic molecule has become the visual composer’s bar and staff. New music is possible. For those who instinctively dislike acrylic, it’s an acquired taste, like Philip Glass or Gavin Bryars. You never know until you try it.
“Acrylic may not be for everyone,” says Stephen Quiller, “but it’s now more popular than any other painting medium.” Stephen goes on to say it has so many approaches that each expression can take a unique path. This is indeed where Acrylics shine. In the search of personal style and statement, the acrylic painter is blessed with a vast repertoire of possibilities. In my own very occasional workshops I often tell students to do anything they want in the full knowledge that it can be fixed. In the words of Rachel Rubin Wolf, “Flexibility is the one word that describes acrylics. There are so many ways to use this wonderful medium, and they haven’t all been discovered yet.”
PS: “The shortcomings of acrylic are its benefits.” (William Hook)
“A magical medium for alchemists.” (Nancy Reyner)
Esoterica: I don’t know whether you’ve noticed or not, but art books of former times showed people how to draw and paint trees, heads, noses, etc. These days they tend to show every darned thing you can do with the materials. A new generation of tricky-dickies now sit at the acrylic console and play with the medium. To help potential maestros on their way, an excellent new book by subscriber Nancy Reyner lays out 104 acrylic techniques and methods. While painters may never use all of the ideas and potentials she presents, it’s awfully nice to know they exist. Nancy has included hundreds of working tips and cautionary warnings. You can save time and grief with this well illustrated book.
by Cheryl Lobenberg, Sacramento, CA, USA
Yes! Acrylic painting allows one to continuously change and play, with none of the waiting time associated with oil. I can change a day scene to night. I can paint all mid range values and then change them to contrasting lights and deep darks. Colors can be played with. Brush movement can be experimented with. The list goes on and on and all this within a few hours! I’ll even do a plein air painting and then tweak or radically change it back at my studio all within a matter of hours. What fun! What freedom! What a great way to learn and grow.
Bothered by bias
by Darr Sandberg, Desert Hot Springs, CA, USA
It is great to see the glories and benefits of acrylic paint celebrated with such enthusiasm. I do most of my work in acrylic, in part because I live with a parrot and an asthmatic who cannot tolerate the fumes given off by oils. And I have to admit, as much as I love what acrylic paints can do, there is a common negative reaction to acrylic that still bothers me. Often, someone will be very excited about one of my paintings, and ask something along the lines of “Is that in oils?” When I explain that the work was created with acrylic paints, the disappointment on their faces is heartbreaking, and unnecessary, since they couldn’t tell the difference by looking.
I love the way acrylics lend themselves to so many techniques and styles, and can produce works as varied in appearance; from having richness and depth of color that oils are known for, through to a deliberately plastic appearance appropriate for sleek, modern settings. Now if industry chemists could just find a solution to the bias against acrylics, the medium would be perfect.
by Steve Day, Blandon, PA, USA
Thanks for your bi-weekly bits. Although I am not a painter per se, I find them to be of great use. I am a novelist and a ceramic artist. Clay is nature’s acrylic. Nothing more than recycled rock (using water, gravity, and a few hundred million years), clay is the chameleon of the art world. Take a turn down the aisles at any big craft show and see how each artist takes the same ‘mud’ and adds his unique vision to it. Like acrylic, bad art can be made with clay. But nobody blames the clay.
A secret mistress
by John Pryce, Uxbridge, ON, Canada
I have long admired your ability to work with acrylics en plein-air. I have had for many years a love/hate relationship with this wonderful medium confining its use to the studio. Acrylic was my secret mistress, I didn’t want anybody to know about her. Last year I was fortunate to be one of the 25 artists that travelled the Arctic to paint and record the environment. Weight restrictions and safety rules forced me to step out of my usual use of solvent-based oil paints. I found that I was forced into trying something different, liquid acrylics, which were lightweight and versatile. The results were very satisfying as the acrylics dried better than watercolours, as well as retaining their chroma and left the paper flatter on the relatively inexpensive sketch pad paper. I have also had to produce a lot of paintings from the trip in short time to satisfy the need for the scheduled travelling shows. Once again, I had to resort to acrylics. I now show my affection for my mistress in public and look forward to an exciting long term relationship.
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
One drawback with acrylics, and it is huge to me, is that unlike oils, they change color as they dry. That is not perhaps a big issue if one has blocks of studio time, but if one works as I do, sporadically in small bits of time, this really is a problem. And, then, I am yet to see a 500 year old acrylic painting. If one has metallic envy, try mixing a little powdered copper or bronze with cadmium red or white to oils.
A personal look emerging in acrylic
by Mark Wood, Duarte, CA, USA
I mainly have been making time to paint at 3 hour figure sessions. First started in charcoal, then 8″ x 10″ oils, then watercolor. Great practice but couldn’t break out of academic looking studies, until recently.
Bought a roll of canvas paper. I’ve been cutting 29″ x 22″ sheets and painting in Acrylic. A personal look is emerging that I plan to continue to develop. Now having fun.
Instead of sitting around waiting for art critics to discover this new look I decided to give creative writing a shot. To get into the mood I went out and bought black framed glasses and put ‘product’ in my hair and did a self-interview. No tattoos, I’m afraid of needles.
Acrylics need defending
by Marie Martin, Fountain Valley, CA, USA
Acrylics are fast, versatile, flexible, easy to manipulate and provide a huge range of opportunities, as you mentioned. And, they are environmentally friendly. Their water solubility ranks them high in the “green” world. No matter how much artists love to use them and no matter how much viewers enjoy the results, they will never enjoy full acceptance in the art world unless people of prominence speak out in their favor, as you have done. I know a few “closet acrylic artists” who love using acrylics but only show work using oils because they believe the acrylic work won’t be taken seriously. Acrylic is my poison of choice and I have always felt a bit substandard because I don’t like to paint with oils. There is a not-so-subtle message being promulgated that “real” art can only be achieved with oils.
Fount of information
by Pauline Conn, Taos, NM, USA
I’ve attended classes Nancy Reyner has given. She has demoed at the art store here in Taos as a Golden rep. She is a fount of information and I’ll bet her book is wonderful. Acrylic Revolution is available through Amazon. And, no, I am not related to her. I don’t even usually paint with acrylic but she is so personable and informative I always go see her when she is in town. And I think in the past you have mentioned the Golden website which also is an amazing source of information and answers. They will, I understand, even do special mixes and compounds for artists. This filling of unusual requests is how they came up with some of their more unusual products in their line. Thanks again for letting us know her book is out.
Long-time acrylics user
by Pepper Hume, Spring, TX, USA
As a theatre artist rather than a “fine” artist, my paintings were all called renderings and existed simply to show the costumes or scenery I intended to produce onstage. I was able to get away with using acrylics exclusively. I switched to them as soon as they came out and soon exploited their versatility to impersonate water color or oils. I usually changed my rendering style to suit the character of the show.
Retired from theatre now, I use acrylics to paint skin and features on my one-of-a-kind art dolls. I also do an occasional painting and some cutout cartoon figure screens. I’m recycling old costume designs in paper dolls and I just did a little dab of silk painting. But all color comes out of the same tubes of acrylic paints. It’s nice that my only medium has finally gotten socially acceptable.
Recreating images by lifting
by Taylor Ikin, Tampa Bay, FL, USA
My studio houses just about anything the acrylic painter might wish to call upon in order to make a painting. I have really tried to enjoy this medium and often I have had some pleasing results. Nine years ago, when I started creating on Yupo, I discovered I was a LIFTER! I pile on the paint and weeks, months, years later I am able to recreate images by pulling back through the layers, making discoveries not possible on any other surface. I enjoy digging back through watercolor and discovering small amounts of amusement still in place bits and pieces just waiting to play another role in a new image.
Finding your own medium
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I have found my medium as an artist in acrylic paint. I remember spending a year of sheer Hell in art school in my third year and taking Lithography. In my final critique I told my instructor, “I am not a lithographer.” It was a defining moment. But what artists need to do is find their voice as an artist and see what medium works for them. It takes some experimentation and trying different things. But for heaven’s sake, stay away from those “how-to books.” Spend some time with a canvas or a potter’s wheel, work with other artists and learn their techniques. But finding your own voice as an artist is a far better way to unravel the equation of our reasoning of being creative.
Exploration of textures
by Kristi Johnston, Mansfield, MA, USA
Having played with watercolors in the realistic style for 20 odd years, I have recently become infatuated with the more abstract, layered texture and color in walls that are 100 years old. I decided that I needed to find a new way to work in order to convey my pleasure in these varied surfaces. I turned to acrylics and was delighted to find the gel and other texture-creating mediums now available. The last time I painted in acrylics there was only tube acrylics, so finding the new heavy-bodied paints as well as the liquid varieties was exciting. I have been enjoying the experimentation and am pleased with my results. More textures await my exploration!
Reminder of acrylic magic
by Helen Musser, Terrell, TX, USA
I used acrylics long ago before I fell in love with oil, watercolor, and encaustic. Encaustic! Now that’s a medium worth trying if you have not had the pleasure yet. I have been working with virginal watercolor, encaustic, and gold leaf for a while now. Night scenes have a wonderful sense of awe when dark encaustics are sprinkled with powders of gold leaf.
Van Gogh knew night scenes are exciting; who can forget Starry Night? Now he was a master copying no one! Well, maybe a few of the old masters before his time. When painting with pure watercolor I always felt acrylics would rescue me if ever I needed it. Perhaps it is time to try this medium again. Thank you for reminding me of their magic.
What’s with acrylic?
by Brian Reifer, UK
It is obvious that you are an acrylic fanatic and your latest letter is a mere repetition of this preference. But I wonder why you have to sell it so hard? I have used it from time to time as a sketch tool, although, for this, I prefer the speed and lightness of touch of watercolour.
I think acrylic is an ideal medium if you cannot handle the nuances of watercolour or do not have the patience to deal with its unpredictability. Watercolour is a medium that challenges with its transparency and luminosity and delights with its vibrancy particularly when white paper is the carrier. It requires planning, skill, the acceptance and excitement of the element of chance involved, but most of all it requires enthusiasm. It really comes into its own when you wish to portray mood and atmosphere. Its subtlety is challenging and is not for artists who want a quick fix and ‘hit you in the face’ colours.
Oils are for painters with patience. It has a richness, plasticity and versatility that other mediums lack. Because it is slow drying, it can be manipulated and pushed around, scraped back to reveal parts of the underpainting, mixed on the canvas and has countless handling possibilities. It is a forgiving medium that blends well, offers the facility to paint wet-in-wet, with thin washes and impasto, collectively or individually.
For acrylic painters the attraction seems to relate to speed of production as much as its obvious versatility in using everything from sand, safety pins, gels, tapes and ties, down to the humble cow pat or elephant dung. Acrylic is unbeatable if you do not want to use just paint. It is permanent, we are told. More so than any other paint. Great if you like to think your work will be around for more than the four or five centuries of conventional paints… No, this is not sour grapes. Each to their own, but if you plug one, then you should be even-handed.
Are acrylics the greenest?
by Kristi Bridgeman, Victoria, BC, Canada
I would like to know people’s opinions on environmentally friendly mediums. I went with acrylic because it didn’t require toxic thinners, but since then water-based oils have arrived on the market. Are acrylics in fact the greenest choice? I try to avoid the worst colours by reading the labels, and I pour off the muddy water into my garden rather than down the drain. But, I am told that for sensitive people, acrylics can give off fumes and of course many colours in all mediums are composed of toxic materials. I don’t want to encourage the production of these toxic materials if I can find alternatives.
Do any of your readers know what the latest stats are for friendliest paints? Are there any studies or books detailing the most current ‘friendliest’ companies, mediums and colours? In particular, I would like good alternatives to titanium white and quinacridone gold. So far I can’t find anything. I am also a Mom with limited time, so something short of grinding my own pigments from scratch is my preference.
While we are on the subject — what about green watercolour paper and canvas choices?
Enjoy the past comments below for Pulling out all the stops…
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Mary Timme of Aurora, CO, USA who wrote, “I am totally in love with the line about ‘acrylics allow a great fugue’ and with all the ‘stuff’ you hear about acrylics, I just think this is a perfect comeback line. If a comeback line is what you need.”
And also Cam of St. James, MO, USA who wrote, “I have created murals worldwide for almost 30 years in acrylics and still learn with each new project. The more you use them, the more you learn to master them.”
And also Winy Jacobs of Cuijk, Netherlands who wrote, “It’s true a little fight some times between the two in any case, in my way of doing, acrylics win more, and more it’s a nice material… but in the end I like more the oil when the painting is ready. To work with I like much more with the acrylic just like you said it’s so flexible. I like that. Thank you bey bey.”
And also John Slorp who wrote, “I predict this will cause a firestorm of protest and opposition. Acrylic is a ‘dead character’ medium. It looks like plastic… not like plasticity… no how it’s spread.”
And also Brenda Marks of Silverton, OR, USA who wrote, “While Reyner’s book may be good, I really, really like The New Acrylics by Rheni Tauchid. The Tauchid book is less ‘how to’ and more about ‘what if.’ I think it really encourages exploration and includes wonderful examples of artists’ work to illustrate the applications.”
And also Tinker Bachant of Sautee Nacoochee, GA, USA who wrote, “I painted for years with acrylics and then 32 years ago, was introduced to pastels. That became my medium of choice, and has served me well. While I’ve no intention of abandoning them, your letters and your video have encouraged me to have a go at acrylics again.”
And also Susan Kellogg of Arlington, VA, USA who wrote, “When younger, I could never paint with acrylics due to the frustrating fact that when they dried they became a different tone than when they were painted on wet. Later, I had to give up painting in oil for several reasons including pulmonary impairment. Fifteen years later, I want to paint again and wonder if the color-change issue I found too complicated to deal with has been improved? Eliminated? Resolved?”
And also Margo Buccini of FL, USA who wrote, “Acrylic paint will never dry slowly enough for those of us who love blending oil paints. Manipulating the paint is great, but nothing takes the place of knowing the principles and elements of design and drawing. Then, the fun is in knowingly breaking the rules and seeking your own vibe.”
And also Luc Poitras of Montreal area, QC, Canada who wrote, “Many acquaintances have tried to use acrylics to mimic watercolour or oils. Some were disappointed with the results. Those that where ecstatic used acrylics as a medium in its own right. For me, that’s the way to go. They may be plastic, but they’re great plastic!”
And also Jada Rowland of New York, NY, USA who wrote, “My grandmother believed in the ‘Universal Mind’ — that all of nature is connected and all our thoughts are shared simultaneously. Often, when your emails roll in over the electronic transom, I believe it, too.”
And also Nancy Reyner who wrote, “Thank you so much for mentioning my book, Acrylic Revolution in your last letter. I appreciate the PR. I was inspired to send you a copy after reading one of your comments about acrylic paints, and thought it might give you some added viewpoints on the medium. Your wonderful sense of humor comes through in all your writings. I always get a laugh!”