Acrylic Painting: Two Secrets
"Beautiful oil painting!" "I love your 'oils'."
Has this happened to you? I have received these compliments about my acrylic paintings for many years. Even my gallery owners have told clients (in my presence) that my paintings were done in oil. Yikes! I have had to do a great deal of verbal correcting such that clients/viewers know which of my paintings are truly created in oil as to those that are in acrylic.
Over time, I have tried to discern what it is about acrylics make folks think they may be oil paintings. For over a decade I have assisted artists with this issue and now it is here for you to read.
A Little Test:
Take a look at the following pieces. Which of these two do you think was painted in acrylic? :
Which Painting is in Acrylic, Which in Oil?
1. Cares to The Wind
Ok, Try the Next Two - Which is the Acrylic?
No peeking ;)
1. Fields of Gold
2. Summer Smiles
Ok, One More Set...Which is the Acrylic?
I know you'll get this one:)
1. Lavender 'n Lemondade
2. Brand New Day
Last Thing First!
BEFORE I REVEAL which is which, I'll tell you in my estimation what it takes to make an acrylic appear like an oil painting. One caveat, this only holds true with representational or impressionistic paintings. I cannot answer for those who use acrylic for non-objective (abstract works.)
2. Yes, 2. I am giving you the second thing first!! This one aspect alone will make for ease in painting and allow you to work wet-into-wet when needed. Not really a secret but how I use it may be to some new to the media:
Retarder is the key element. You may already be using retarder in your paint. Most brands direct you to use it in your paint - up to 15% retarder to paint. I have done this, but found that at 15%, the paint can lift off of the painting surface and/or take so long to dry that the paint is left with sticky feel. Furthermore, it may be become difficult to paint over top even after the paint has dried..
Instead, I recommend using a small spray bottle (like a miniature travel-sized hairspray size) filled with water and about 10 drops or one good squirt of retarder. Shake well. Whether painting in your studio or outdoors, first spray your painting surface to break the tension and allow for the paint to glide on. Don't overdo this part or you'll end up with a very, very wet application of paint (unless this is the effect you desire.)
Second, spray your paints as soon as you squirt them out on your palette, and spray lightly frequently so you to maximize your investment. You can go hours with just a spritz now and then without the need to discard paint.
Third, in your washing cup or jar, place clean water with a few drops of retarder added. Bingo! All three of your painting areas are covered with a light touch of retarder, enough to keep your work just wet enough to extend workability, but not enough to make a mush of your painting.
If painting outdoors on dry or windy days, you may have to add more retarder to your bottle, water cup and palette. When you want a passage or area of your painting to dry, it will in short order...shorter than if you added retarder itself into the paint.
I spray my canvas frequently when outside to keep the painting going. One of the hallmarks of oils is that you can work wet-into-wet. Doing the above allows you to do the same in acrylics.
What about other mediums like extenders, flow release, etc? Unless you are trying to get a layered effect like glazing in oils, you do not need any other mediums, particularly if you are working alla-prima (in one session.) The more "stuff" you put into your paint the more diluted and broken-up the pigments become. The only thing I see using other than retarder is a medium for glazing...a story for another day.
First Things Last
1. Ok, my golden tidbit of advice. No matter if you are working in oil or acrylic, treat them THE SAME. In other words, do not change your strokes, movements or treatment of acrylic just because it dries faster, etc. The more adept you can become with your style of painting across media the more your work will look like oil, period.
I have used everything from watercolor, casein, and gouache to acrylic and oil. When painting I keep everything the same. The only difference is working dark to light (in oil/acrylic) or light to dark (watercolor, etc.) Strokes remain the same.
The only time this changes is if I am creating a very tight, representational architectural rendering for say an A&E firm. If it is a Fine Art painting I am creating, I almost ignore what is in my hand in terms of material to achieve the same look across all media.
FOLLOWING THE ADVICE ABOVE MAY give your painting the appearance of oil, however, with a caveat. When looking close-up you can indeed tell the difference, especially between an oil painting that has a heavy impostor (thick application of paint) vs. an acrylic painting. Why? Because no matter the paint brand, even the new, thicker acrylic brands, acrylic paint just cannot hold a candle to oils. That beautiful, oil impasto is unmistakable.
There are thickeners you can use in your acrylics. Nevertheless, again, these are additives that can dilute the pigments. Therefore, they still do not hold up as well or flow as nicely as oils. I continue to experiment with any new products that come onto the market. So far, the best thing you can do to make your work look like an oil painting is do the above two things PLUS use MORE PAINT. There have been times where I have been able to emulate oil painting texture by simply using more paint...lots more paint.
If you are a very good painter, you will not need to do this as your technique alone will serve you well.
Why all this talk about making an acrylic look like an oil painting? Because when acrylics first came on to the scene, they had a plastic look. They still can. But with practice and patience, your acrylic paintings can make people say, "Great oil painting," as you smile.
Ta Da! Finally...
Ok, Which paintings above are acrylics? Click on any image above to reveal the media and how each was painted. If you want to save time these are the acrylic paintings:
Set 1: Daydream (#2)
Set 2: Fields of Gold (#1)
Set 3: Brand New Day (#2)
I am sure you guessed one or all correctly. But the point is that you CAN make your work look painterly if and when you want to. YOU control the paint, not the other way around. AND, if you want to have a tighter or looser rendering, you can do so...in acrylics!
All the other little thumbnails are acrylics too. You can't click on them but at least you can see more samples.
- Acrylics vs. Oils: How to Make Your Acrylic Paintings Look Like Oil Paintings
Another article I wrote, that goes into more detail on this subject.
- Acrylic Book Recommendations
This is a list of books I highly recommend on general acrylic painting, at my Plein Air Wear site.