Five in the hand


Dear Artist,

Painting techniques are easily adapted for oil and watercolour, but fast pleasure is found by going for them in acrylic. Speedy drying times and the knowledge that mistakes can be covered up in an instant keep the process uncommitted and playful. Here are five that enliven the act of painting and are generous with surprises:


“Alpenglow feelings, Bugaboos”
2012 acrylic painting
by Robert Genn

My second-year painting prof called them “suckerblends,” which I took to mean that they snuck into your heart and made you love them forever, like a sucker. There was a time when many painters believed that a smooth gradation was impossible in fast-drying acrylic. To avoid getting gummy, pre-mix two or three separate, smooth colours into a yogurt-like consistency with lots of medium and water. Pour the colours in little puddles and use a fan brush and broad arm motion to drag them towards each other. Becoming a gradation phenom should take somewhere between ten and ten thousand hours — outside of school time.

Not for the faint of heart and totally worth the leap, glazing is where a transparent, usually darker, tone is washed over dry, previously painted passages. Create a watery-thin glaze by mixing a small amount of semi-transparent colour (phthalo blue is a nice place to start) with 95% medium and water. Making sure the under-painting is completely dry first, pour a pool and wipe it off. Control intensity and highlight areas with your fingertip tucked into the corner of a rag. Try glazing over a painting you think is finished with an opposite on the colour wheel to tone down garish passages and amp up greys. Come to light once everything’s dry.


Detail of water lilies
1920-26 oil painting
by Claude Monet

This is when you use a hog-hair bright or other semi-stiff, course bristle brush to lightly drag new colour over the surface of dry or almost-dry passages. Key-in dazzling vibrations by using the complementary or a colour surprise. Like blossoms on the pads of water lilies, deft dabs of warm and cool will ripple magic.




“From The North Shore, Lake Superior”
oil painting
by Lawren Harris, 1923

Cutting in
At the end of a painting, Canadian Group of Seven member and landscape revolutionary Lawren Harris flipped his canvases upside down to cut-in graphic skies. Edges are neat and designed with style: where the mountain meets the sky, cloud pockets, treetops and spots of light, the forest behind, edges of all persuasions. Opportunities for well-designed negative shapes lie waiting to be realized if you look to the in-betweens and the upside-downs.


At the risk of sounding like a broken record, a coat of final varnish protects and beautifies. Cure an isolation coat of acrylic medium for at least 24 hours and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Then apply polymer varnish with UVLS — cut 50/50 with water. Brush it on quickly or pour it and wipe with a lint-free rag. The more even the coat, the less chance for bubbles, blooming, holidays (those spots you missed) and dust particles. I won’t speak for the personal, discretionary magic of pet hairs.


“February Shadows, Rio Grande”
acrylic painting
by Stephen Quiller



PS: “Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.” (Malcolm Gladwell)

“In acrylic, happiness comes a bit faster.” (Robert Genn)

Esoterica: Like a quiver of arrows, a handful of techniques keep happenstance and joy at the ready. The heart-skip happens when you get your nose up to the painting surface and can feel its aliveness. You see a record of the act of painting and the embodiment of your handwork, inclinations and understanding of this infinite and archaic technology. “I do not advocate utilizing a set formula for painting,” said Stephen Quiller. “There are many ways to paint and each expression should take its unique path. That is why acrylic is so rewarding — if you understand the medium’s potential.”



  1. May I respectfully disagree with Sara on this, at least from a 60 year watercolorist. All of the advantages she attributes to acrylics are also available to the watercolorist. If there is any difference at all it might come in the varnishing part. But even that is now available to the watercolorist who wants to use materials that allow going beyond the need for framing with glass. As for quickness, I’d love a “fast brush” shot-out with the acrylic painters out there. And, I’m not talking about some worthless scribble. May I remind every reader that watercolor is no longer just a parlor pass-time for very proper young ladies, or just a “quick study” for a future “real” painting in some other media.

    • As a sometimes watercolorist, I would appreciate details of the specific materials that can be used with watercolors to utilize acrylic techniques.

      Thanks much,

      • I humbly direct you to “Watercolor Unleashed” book and 3 videos through North Light Shop by moi, Julie Pollard. :o) The fluid acrylic technique I love to employ in my transparent watercolors can be tweaked and adapted to practically any personal style of painting. I use it for acrylic and oil paintings as well. Love to paint!!

        • I am interested in how to treat a watercolour with varnish and not have to use glass. Do you cover this in your book or know where I can find the information? I want to use archival methods and materials, and not just go with whatever I find by searching the net.

          • Hi Susan, though I have been too timid to try it, one of the encaustic instructors at R&F Handmade Paints in NY showed me a technique where one dips a watercolor into clear beeswax and hangs it to dry on a line a few minutes. She said the beeswax can be buffed to a shine from time to time and provides perfect luminous protection. The beeswas did not change the colors in any way. What she showed me looked fantastic. But I’m still afraid to try it!

          • …. Archival wax is soft, comes in a can, and can be applied over paper, then polished with a soft brush. I do this over my Japanese rice painting, H20 paintings. Encaustic wax can be applied when the wax is hot, melted. If it is too thick, it will crack and fracture unless the paper is mounted on a solid surface. Please allow me to put forth this question….. WHY do so many say, “I was to afraid to try it? Get a piece of paper, put some paint it, then wax it or varnish it. Put it away for a week, or a month. WOW! THEN spill you coffee on it…….Learn something, be brave. It won’t bite you and by golly, ya might learn something about yourself. How carefully do we need to be taught?

          • Trying with a scrap is one thing. Taking a work on which one has spent several weeks and dipping it into hot wax (naturally incredibly thin as it needs to be hot, and therefore thin, before one can dip into it) for the first time is naturally intimidating. One can be braver than most, most of the time, and still feel apprehensive when trying something for the first time, without guilt or apology.

          • One does not need to mount a work dipped into pure, hot beeswax onto a solid surface. In fact, the works we were shown at R&F Handmade Paints were specifically shown to hang freely. Becuase the works were dipped into the hot wax for a very thin coating – once – they did not develop the many-layered coatings to which Nancy may be referring for traditional, layered, encaustic work. T

  2. Hi Sara

    You may already know but your readers may not, but there is a special show for Canadian historical painter and member of the famous Group of Seven, Lawren Harris at the Hammer Gallery in Los Angeles starting this week. Notably, Steve Martin is one of the curators and this is the first time Lawren Harris has had a one man show in the USA. The show has iconic pieces from the National Gallery in Ottawa, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and the McMichael Gallery in Kleinberg, Ontario. This may be a game changer for Canadian art as top collectors from all over the world should be scrutinizing these incredible works. Your Dad had a great friendship with Lawren and I am sure he would be very excited for Lawren and Canadian art in general as a result of this opportunity. I hope you get to see this show. Particulars are online at the Hammer Gallery.

  3. Hi Sara, many thanks for a valuable and rare post about these essential techniques. Something worth adding from my own observations is that glazing tends to accentuate the warmer end of any colour’s potential while scumbling (which I understand to involve translucent lighter colour over an already dry darker one brings out its cooler side. The range and subtlety that can be achieved by remembering these phenomenon often surprise and delight me.

  4. Thank you so much for this fabulous information! I can’t wait to go home and try these out. Having mediums is one thing, knowing how to use them through tried and true methods is another thing altogether! Thank you Sara!

  5. Great info. I’ve used acrylics since the late 60s. Whether using them with water, mediums, ground marble,/pure sand or collage, acrylics are always fun and surprising. I also build/hand paint scale models + dioramas, from sci-fi to castles – and I use the same acrylics, mediums and varnishes.

  6. Hi Sara,
    Thank you for the article. When I realized glazing with oils was so toxic, working large canvases in the garage, I decided to come up with a formula to create the same effect with acrylics. To my surprise, it worked extremely well and I was delighted with the results. So now after much trial and error, I can enjoy the process so much more, especially indoors during the winter months. I only wish I had your wonderful blog to refer to way back when. I’m sure you’ve helped many painters with this information.

  7. Great post. While primarily
    a watercolorist, I love to switch to acrylics, pastels or graphite on occasion. The tips you posted will certainly give the acrylics a more painterly look. Can’t wait to try them.

  8. This wonderful post held so many important points that I want to implement and take into consideration, that I just want to get right down to trying the ideas right now! Thanks for the points to ponder…I’ve only been working with acrylics for a couple of years, but feel that there’s a whole new world out there where acrylics shine with permanence compared to watercolours, batiks, and works of art on paper!

  9. I put away the acrylics to work in oils a couple of years back; I wasn’t quite pleased with the quality of the surface–too plastic. Now, I’m thinking of pulling them back out to use for underpaintings, using oils for the finishing layers. Acrylics do encourage spontaneity, impart an air of immediacy and are exhilarating to work with. Oils however have a rich surface quality and are wonderful for toning down exuberant passages. This article was encouraging. Plus I really did love mixing up batches of fluid palette colors that were readily available to my impulsive nature!

  10. Thanks for this reminder Sara! I watched your dad implement a few of these in a workshop. The most fascinating one was the glaze. I loved what it did. Cheers!

  11. Will the isolation coat and the UVLS work on collages, assuming the work is already covered with a thin layer of acrylic of some kind?

  12. Norm Ferguson on

    I started out paining in oils. I have tried acrylic and many of the above techniques but I always end up frustrated. After the leisure pace of using oils, I found the quick drying acrylics never allow for retouching of a shading or a blend into the main color. I must be the type of artis who likes to set up my main colours and then work them on canvas into my final image. Apologies for the babbling.

  13. “Alpenglow feelings, Bugaboos” What a spectacular painting! Reminds me of my trip to Jasper years ago. He expressed the light so beautifully…beautifully…

  14. Hannah Brushett on

    Hi Sara, I am very new to the world of art. (painting). I am working in acrylic and loving it.
    Thanks for your e-mails and tips.
    Hannah B.

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