Thursday, February 28, 2013

Basic For Whom? Oils vs Acrylics

When you are in convalescent care, there really isn't much to do except eat, in my case exercise twice a day, sleep and read. Many of the people there either can't or aren't much interested in talking so its a great time to catch up on your reading.

My April PaintWorks  came and my wife brought it for me to read. I wasn't very far into it when I read an article by Sherry Nelson, "Basics for the First Time Oil Painter, Part 1" that gave me pause.

Now, I too was afraid of oils all of my life and only as a senior did I take my first oil classes and begin to create something that you could recognize that wasn't mud...the term used for those of us neophytes that make a mess mixing colors in oil. Trust me, its not hard to do either.

Nelson has been painting and teaching oil painting for 40 years and is certainly one of the most enthusiastic painters I know of. Her article just drips with enthusiasm. However, as I continued to read her article I realized that I didn't much agree with her. While I never got the opportunity to teach in front of a class, I was brave enough to sign up to teach both an oil and an acrylic floral painting. In fact, I taught the oil painting to a friend who had never painted before and we were both surprised to finish the painting in 2 1/2 hours. Oils do have a quality that allow you to blend out mistakes but the painting isn't fully dry yet either.
California Poppies using Oil & Acrylic paints

Nelson explains that oil paints are the most forgiving of all mediums. Blunder and clean up is instant and simple. She goes on and on about how easy oils are to clean up, change, etc. Well, maybe for her but I have taken many classes and painted in Las Vegas three times now and I can assure you, oils are not quite that easy. They don't dry and I can show you the clothes I've ruined carrying a wet oil painting. Acrylics on the other hand ARE dry and you can carry them with impunity!

She goes on to say that acrylics are truly a challenging medium. It takes layer after layer of washes to get the color you want. She goes on to say, and here I truly disagree, that "you have to be twice as skilled in acrylics to produce the same quality of painting as you can accomplish in oils."

My first floral in acrylics (now to be fair, I have been craft painting for many years now) was a Bird of Paradise that probably could be done in 2 hours, maybe three hours tops. And its true, the orange, red plumes of the flower were underpainted in yellow and the oranges and reds were put on in layers. I needed to get the shading of the light coming through the layers of petals and that was the easiest way I know of. What she doesn't mention though is that each layer could be applied because the layer below is already dry. Thats right, the acrylic paint had dried. If it were oil? Unless you put drying medium in the paints, depending on the thickness, it could be days or weeks before you could put on the next layer. If you don't wait, you WILL make mud or some of the paint below will contaminate the new layer above.

The truth be told I spend far more hours painting a birdhouse than I have ever spent on any of my paintings. Yes, I can hear the snickers that say and they look like it too. Yet they each bring a different kind of satisfaction and I feel, as an artist, I have come a long way and my paintings are an expression of how I see the world. I think that is all any artist can ask for. As my skill gets better, I expect the painting will get better as either medium.

She goes to say you don't need many paints or brushes and she's right. You REALLY don't need many for either medium. I have fallen into the trap of looking for just the "right" acrylic color. With oil you play around to create it. It can be fun but is often frustrating because you can't quite get the color you really wanted. When I paint with my oils I use a tan and yellow green from Blick that is the perfect color to use straight or with other colors. However, they were never on any palette list, it was something I discovered myself. I never, ever, leave home without them.

I could say more but I think what is more important here is for you to decide which medium you feel more comfortable with. Nelson has 40 years of experience and probably has using the oil paints down to a science. She doesn't even have to think about using her paints.

With the development of water based oils that truly do clean up with soap and water and Golden's amazing line of acrylics that take a few days to dry like oil paints, the lines are continually blurring. One class I had last year in Las Vegas had us using on the same canvas water based oils and acrylic paints. (See above). By the time I got the painting home it was a mess because the oils had not dried yet while the acrylics had. Luckily the teacher gave us extra paints and I was able to correct the smears and finish the painting so Danish friends, who fell in love with it, could take it home. I left it in the garage and it was dry by the time they left.

Oils need some form of turpentine to clean and thin with while painting unless you use the newer, more expensive water based oils. Some artists don't like them because they dry with a glossy, plastic sheen that makes people think they are acrylic. My experience is that they don't dry all that fast. Faster drying needs an addition medium. A good oil painting needs to dry for at least six months before varnish can be applied to seal the elements out. And by then it needs it too! I can remember how different my first varnished painting looked. It had become dry and drab. The glossy varnish brought the colors back and it simply glowed. However, remember, I had to wait six months.

Acrylics use water all the way. Even the more expensive, pigment rich acrylics use water to thin them, create a wash and to clean them. Plain old water. The average acrylic painting is usually dry in an hour or less and can be varnished that same day.

Which is better? I wouldn't even dare to say. Since I started having more success with acrylics I truthfully haven't touched my oils in months. I guess its up to the buyer to say. Is it oil or is it acrylic?

Be sure to check out my Etsy at  Many of the paintings I talk about are on for sale there. You decide. Could you tell which medium was used?

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