IN athletics cross training is used to include a broader range of muscles exercised so the athlete doesn’t develop an imbalanced physique. More importantly athletes cross train to expand the mental approach to their field of expertise. Business leaders have borrowed the concept to learn the entire spectrum of skills needed for their particular business. For example a CEO might spend several weeks on an assembly line learning how a product is made from start to finish. The exercise would give the CEO a broader understanding of the company’s reason for being.
In like manner I switched from oils to acrylics to test my abilities and see if acrylic paint had anything to teach me about the art of thick paint. And I learned quite a bit. The first thing I learned was that many of the prejudices against acrylic are unfounded. Many claim that oils has a richness that acrylics can’t match. However on close examination the lack of richness is from failing to use broken color, something that happens almost accidentally with oils. With acrylics you have to design the broken color. If you mix colors on the canvas you are going to get non-mixed colors, colors with very discrete edges because of the quick drying time of thin applications. These applications will look dead compared to a similar application of oil paint because there will be no intermingling of paint on the canvas. In other words painters were inadvertently assigning weaknesses for the wrong reasons. I found that if you use the techniques described in this blog (specifically entries 3 and 4) it is impossible to tell the visual difference between oil and acrylic. Additionally I found that when I painted wet-into-wet with acrylics I couldn’t tell the difference between the tactile quality of the two mediums, a claim nearly every oil painter makes.
However I could easily see and feel the difference when I applied thin acrylic paint onto a dry canvas. It seemed like the canvas was sucking the paint off my brush and drying instantly in parched, dead patches of color. Each stroke had a brittle edge and the painting began to look like a series of matt, lifeless swipes. There was no intermingling of color and few vibrational effects. So the trick to introducing vibrational color is to have plenty of paint on the palette and use LOTS of intermixed paint on the brush. The thicker the application the slower the drying time and the more you get the vibrational effects so loved in oils.
Ultimately the only difference I was able to see was that I couldn’t scrape the canvas if I applied too much texture. However after I gave my ceramics tool a razor sharp edge I was able to cut away large clumps of dried paint. It worked better than I thought it would. The only caveats are you have to be careful not to cut the canvas and it is a slow process. Golden Acrylics is sending me an additive that will make the paint film brittle like oil paint and it may solve this problem. If so that will mean I will be able to work back into a scraped canvas quickly and nearly indefinitely, building up both rich texture and painting wet-into-wet over previously thick passages. Another odd quality of acrylics is thick applications dry considerably thinner than the wet strokes. The impasto illusion is preserved visually, but it may bother thick paint purists who want those thick impasto strokes to remain exactly as they were applied.
On the positive side acrylics naturally encourage hard edges. And since I naturally use too many soft edges acrylics is a good remedy for that weakness. It also allows for nearly instant glazing possibilities since it dries so quickly. I tend to glaze too heavily in oils but less so with acrylics so again it is a good remedy for that deficiency.
The experiment is ongoing and I want to paint at least one more large acrylic painting. I doubt I will abandoned oils in favor of acrylics. But meanwhile acrylic has taught me a great deal about my own weaknesses. More importantly it has brought into sharp relief why I love thick paint and allowed me to see more clearly the problems and challenges of that technique. As mentioned in earlier entries, if you can’t see a problem you can’t fix it.