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Adventures in Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint by Emma Cownie

You probably think that artists are good at creating paintings/images in all mediums; oil, watercolours acrylic paints. Many probably are, but I am not.  I need to work at it. It’s a bit like being an athlete. You might be great at football but it doesn’t automatically mean you are a great sprinter, tennis player or swimer. Although there are athletes who have successfully switched disciplines, like Usain Bolt, who started his career as a footballer; extra training is needed. I think painting is like that. Almost all of my experience up to now has been in working with oil paints but in the last six months I have been working hard at painting in acrylics.  Why? I knew that in our small house in Derry, until we got stairs put into the attic space, that oil paints and with their associated mess and fumes weren’t going to work.

Unfortunately I feel like I have been hitting my head against a brick wall for several months. I have learnt a great deal, using acrylic mediums and varnishes is very technical, but I won’t go into all the detail of what I have learnt. The strange thing is that the finished paintings looked good but the process of creating them was slow and frustrating. Here are some early examples;

Painting of fram buildings in Donegal
Shadow on the Entrance, Bloody Foreland
House in Inishbofin
House on Inishbofin

 

Stony Wall, Cnoc Fola (Donegal)
Stony Wall, Cnoc Fola (Donegal)
Painting of the view above Magheraroarty_Emma Cownie
Above Magheraroarty_Emma Cownie

This last one is my favourite but it took weeks to complete rather than days. I just don’t have the patience to spend that long on one smallish painting.

I also used acrylic paint for underpaintings for my oil painting, which worked better for me. It enabled be to paint faster, but this approach would be no good in Derry where I couldn’t use oil paints.

Boat at the Pier, Gola_Emma Cownie
Boat at the Pier, Gola (Donegal)
From Magheraroarty to Muckish
From Magheraroarty to Muckish (Donegal)

 

So why was I taking so long to complete these acrylic paintings? Acrylics don’t act like oil paints, that can be a good thing as well as a bad thing. You can correct mistakes easily. Acrylic paint is a relatively recent invention of the 1950s. It’s essentially a plastic. It is amazingly versatile but it’s origins as a polymer  presents a couple of challenges that I have struggled with for some time.  The first issue is that it dries fast. Really fast. I found that it dried on my palette within minutes. I hate wasting paint, so I made my own wet palette, so that the paint on my palette dries within days and not minutes.

It still dried very fast on the board/canvas on which I was painting. That meant that large areas, such as skies, werevery difficult to paint without looking patchy. I learnt to mix up large quantities of paint so that if I needed to, I could repaint a small area of the sky. Otherwise,  the whole sky had to be repainted.

The second big issue I had was somehing called “colour shift”. Acrylic paint dries dark. This is because most makers of acrylic paint use white binder that dries clear, so it looks light when you apply it, but goes dark as it dries. It seems to affect blues and browns particularly badly. I tried painting patches of colour to see who was the worst offender.

Colour Shift
Colour Shift (these are all dry so you cant see the colour shift but my notes tell you what I saw)

 

Although Windsor & Newton’s paints use clear blinder and have little colour shift, I didn’t particularly like them as a paint. I am not sure why I didn’t like them, possibly I just prefered to colour range of other manufacturers. Anyway, in the end I bought lots of Schminke PrimAcryl paints which also use a clear binder and results in only a small colour shift.

Finally, I decided to experiment with indirect painting. This is a method where by an underpainting in grayscale is done first and light layers of colour are applied as a glazes.

Again, its’s not as speedy as painting in oils (although I have used brown-tonal underpaintings in the past – with oil paintings, see here).

So here are two paintings I painted tonal underpaintings, and then added colour through a series of glazes.

Greyscale study of lambing Season at Fanad Head
Greyscale study of lambing Season at Fanad Head
Work in Progress - Lambing season at Fanad Head
Work in Progress – Lambing season at Fanad Head

Painting of Lambing season at Fanad Head (Donegal)Lambing season at Fanad Head (Donegal) – Final version

Greyscale study of Fanad LighthouseGreyscale study of Fanad Lighthouse – painted on a blue ground, which I left in the sky area of the painting.

Fanad Lighthouse (Donegal)
Almost done – Fanad Lighthouse (Donegal)
Lighthouse at Fanad Head (Donegal)
Lighthouse at Fanad Head (Donegal) – Final version with lightened sky

 

This approach seemed to work well for acrylics. Although I am still not as quick as I am in oils, this process enables me to produce paintings with greater depth of colour and more accurate tonal values. It is especially good for getting distant mountains right, something I have struggled with in the past. I am hoping that I have finally got the hang of working with this medium. I think it’s the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end. There’s always so much to learn with painting no matter which medium you use!

 

Some of my resources

Indirect painting and Glazing https://thevirtualinstructor.com/how-to-glaze-acrylics.html

Willaim Kemp’s Art School https://willkempartschool.com/acrylic-tonal-study-using-colour-strings-glazes/

UK stockist of PrimAcryl https://www.jacksonsart.com/schmincke-primacryl-acrylic