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How To Modify an Acrylic Painting with Water-Soluble Oils

Updated on September 15, 2015

Modifying an Acrylic Landscape Painting using Water Soluble Oils

Sometimes you think a painting is finished, but something keeps nagging at you. You know there is something that needs to be changed but you just can't pinpoint it.

In 2006 I did an acrylic landscape painting of three chickadees on branches next to a lake. I kept looking at it and felt there were things I should do to improve it, but I really wasn't sure what they were. Just recently I have identified the problems and have started repainting several areas using water-soluble oils to bring more warmth and depth into the painting.

I was able to finally identify the problems after taking a painting course this past winter that gave me guidelines for painting a more effective and eye appealing landscape. More extensive reading about landscape painting has also given me new insight into color and depth.

In order to get the water-soluble oils to flow easily on the acrylics and form a good bond, I wiped a very thin film of walnut oil over the entire painting. I made sure that there was no pooling of oil by lightly wiping it with a soft paper towel to pickup any excess.


Too Many Dark Tonal Values

The first thing that bothered me was that there was so much darkness in the painting. When I applied the grayscale finder to different areas of the painting, I found that there were large areas along the left side that were #8 and #9 on a scale of 1 to 10 where white is # 1.

According to a course I took this Winter, the darker masses should only be #6 or #7 with an occasional #8 where areas receive almost no light such as under the edge of the rock.

The values under the birch log and the water in the shadowed area were also mostly #8's. So, these three areas were places where I had to do a lot of value adjusting to make them more interesting.

If you want more information on grayscale, I have written another lens that may be of interest to you. Grayscale and Tonal Values


To lighten the different areas, I started by adding golds and lighter greens to the left trees bringing the tonal values down to 6 and 7.


I also lightened areas under the rock giving more of a feeling of reflections, but I did retained the dark value immediately under the edge.

Under the birch log, I added some lighter foliage, keeping the darker area just under the log to separate it from the greenery.


I lightened the dark area of the upper rock. In the original it was an 8 or 9. With the changes, it is now 6 and 7 which makes the head of the chickadee stand out against the lighter background.


The shadowed area of the water was the most challenging. I tried to keep the reflections of the trees above and introduce some sunlight in the areas in between.

I'm not sure if I am completely finished with this area. It will depend on how it looks when all the changes are finished.

The color values now are 6 and 7 rather than the 8 and 9 they were before the changes were made.


No Complementary Colors

It also bothered me that everything was mainly blue and green with a little gray, white and brown. There was just no warmth in the painting. I felt that the addition of some reds to complement the green and yellow-oranges or golds would complement the blues.

To bring more warmth into the painting, I started by adding some gold on the bark of the birch log.


I added cadmium reds to the left corner and just to the left of center at the waters edge. I toned the reds down with a gold wash.

I also used the gold wash over most of the greens and yellows to unite the colors and add warmth to the painting.

Lastly I added blue and gold to the rock to pull in some the color of the sky and warmth of the sunlight.


No Visible Horizon to Add Depth to the Painting

The whole background of the painting felt flat to me. There was no distinction between the sky and the water. My eye was never pulled into the painting.

Although the chickadees were the main focus, they just seemed to sit in the front of the painting with no connection to the rest of the world.


To correct this, I created a horizon by adding distant low-level hills to separate the sky from the water. The colors are muted to give the feeling of distance to the land mass. It was important to keep the colors very muted so that they did not distract you from the main focus of the birds, but yet help bring you into the painting.

I lightened the sky and water above and below the land to add to the feeling of distance. I gradually added blues to the sky as it came forward toward the edge of the canvas. I also gradually added blue-greens to the water to bring it forward to the darker shadowed area.

Before and After



Here is the comparison of the starting painting and the finished one. The water-soluble oils applied smoothly and easily over the thin film of walnut oil. If I didn't like how something came out, I could just wipe it off without effecting the under painting of acrylics.

The whole thing feels much better now. It has some warmth to it, depth and yet the focus remains on the chickadees.

One thing different in this revision is that I did not refer back to the original photo of the rock, trees and background. It gave me more freedom to do what felt right rather than what the photo showed.

I am trying to get to a point where photos are just for reference rather than duplication.

The detail of the birds will still come from photos but everything else does not really need to be that way. ----- Lakeside-Chickadees


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    • Judy Filarecki profile image

      Judy Filarecki 6 years ago from SW Arizona and Northern New York

      @SacredCynWear: Thanks so much. I'm glad you liked the lens. It is amazing how just a few changes can totally change the feeling of a painting.

    • SacredCynWear profile image

      SacredCynWear 6 years ago

      Wow!! The after painting is so much more involved, and certainly does have more depth.. what a great lens, and I love how you covered all of the aspects of the transformation!! This lens is wonderfully written!

    • eganj1 profile image

      eganj1 6 years ago

      hello from a fellow Etsian, some great tips here