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Looking at Acrylics: A New Book

February 17, 2009

I’m prone to some of the oddest impulse buys. I’m not talking about the recent purchase at the Franklin Street Bakery of a “twinkette” (the cake of which was too dense, ditto the cream and chocolate covering, yeah, yeah, even the chocolate covering; but their croissant-dough cinnamon rolls were a little taste of near-Paris!), I’m talking about books. I can’t help myself when it comes to certain books, books on topics I think I should, or would someday need to know stuff about, which means basically everything.

Well the other day at Wet Paint I saw Rethinking Acrylic: Radical Solutions for Explaining the World’s most Versatile Medium, by Patti Brady, on the shelf across the counter and asked to see it. Once it was in my hands I just had to have it. (A friend alerted me to Brady's website after I mentioned my find. I still don't remember to look for these things!)

Now I'll just say, I rarely work in acrylics (see my bird-a-day project for an example of what I do with acrylics) but I do enjoy playing with it—they provide me a way of working loose. What I do is not, however, the extreme abstract type of work that is featured in much of this book. (I say “extreme” and give myself away as someone who loves representational art, and I will not apologize for this; but while it will be a long day coming before I turn to abstract work I do enjoy seeing what other folks are doing.)

What caught my attention about this book is that it really does what the title says, it shows you in a series of chapters the versatility of this medium while also showing the solutions people have come up with to use it.

Even more important, Brady, who is in charge of the Golden Artists Colors Working Artist Program (so she’s the person who gets the artists who can explain this product to would be users!) takes health concerns into consideration and mentions things like the need for ventilation (so the ammonia smells can dissipate) and the need for face masks when sanding back layers. So many books just gloss over that type of stuff.

So if acrylic paint is a medium you want to explore but the varieties available are just too overwhelming for you, I really recommend that you get this book. (You can also go to a helpful store where the employees are working artists and will tell you all this stuff too, but I know not all of you are close enough to such a paradise!)

Brady will talk you through the different gel and fluid mediums, the different types of acrylics (fluid, heavy body…), and she’ll show you how to use the odd-ball stuff like making acrylic skins and using them in your artwork. Mixed media artists will love this book too. I don’t like many of the art examples included (remember I announced I prefer representational art), but I sure am taken with the wealth of possibilities and clear explanations. There is even a chapter on acrylic encaustic! Making faux bees' wax. For the experimenter in me I might just have to try that.

I have only one other quibble with the book. There really isn’t any good discussion of how to manage a palette of these quick drying paints. In photos it looks like the artists are working out of the jars (something that makes me cringe because of the introduction of contaminants into the jars and the skins that can form in the jars and degrade the jar’s contents). I am one of those folks who portions out a small amount, uses it, and gets more as needed, not to be stingy and save materials but just so I am using the product at its peak. But that is probably a habit grown out of my use of PVA in bookbinding (some really interesting things can grow in contaminated glue!).

There’s a Watson Guptill book on acrylics that I can’t recall the title or author name for—I’ll try to find it. That book addresses some of these issues. Maybe it only matters to those of us that are working representationally? No, it matters to lots of people because it is the number one question I get asked by my students and friends who want to start working in acrylics.

I use a Masterson Stay-wet palette, thanks to a suggestion by a local children’s book illustrator who gave a demo at the Watercolor Society. Or I use a disposable paper palette. If one doesn’t mind smells one can also use mediums which retard the drying time, but those don’t work for my nose. Sadly, sometimes all I can say when all other suggestions have been offered is, “work faster.” But it is fun to work in acrylic and if you want to venture into this medium I recommend this book so that you can see what is possible, even if you choose not to go there!

    • Velma
    • February 17, 2009
    Reply

    I don’t paint much. Having said that I do use acrylics, almost exclusively. I love how they can be worked thick or thin, layered, and I love the fast drying. Much more fun, for me, than watercolor. I always feel like I can really use a LOT of paint because they’re relatively cheap. I even like them on paper, my handmade and machine made.

  1. Reply

    Thanks for the book review! I’ll have to check it out.

    Most of the time, I use a Masterson Stay-wet palette. In a pinch I’ll use a homemade stay wet palette with one of those “disposable” food trays with lids, some damp paper towels, and a piece or two of wax paper on top of the paper towels. I’ve also used disposable paper palettes or plastic disposable plates if I plan to work quickly. Sometimes I’ll put a few drops of retarder in my water but that’s all.

  2. Reply

    Hi Roz,

    I was so amazed that you took the time to really “get into” the book. It is fascinating to hear your comments and insights, coming from a more graphic background. Obviously, I wrote it from a “painterly”,,meaning fairly rich and thick with materials..view. Great comment about the “drying” of paint,and how do you do it. Actually, for my process, I use everything directly from the jar, or mix small quantities as I need them……I rarely have large numbers of colors or gels out at one time. I work in multiple layers, so each layer has to dry, and then I add more wet paint or gels. The Stay Wet Palette is a great tool. Love your blog, and especially the dogs!!

    Patti

    • Roz
    • February 18, 2009
    Reply

    Velma, like you I enjoy that versatility, the thin or thick applications! It’s great fun.

    • Roz
    • February 18, 2009
    Reply

    Caroline, thanks for your suggestions, I think they will help everyone. I love that you reuse your jars to make large mixes!

    I typically work small (16 x 20 or less) and the only time I’ve worked large (3 x 5 FEET) I had to mix my paints in small little plastic cups with covers (much like you are talking about) so I see what you mean!

    Thanks

    • Roz
    • February 18, 2009
    Reply

    Sydney, thanks for describing a homemade stay-wet palette. I think a lot of people will want to try this!

    • Roz
    • February 18, 2009
    Reply

    Patti, thanks for writing in! I am a voracious reader and I love process so I find your book fascinating, even though, as I said, I won’t do much of the techniques in them.

    Though I am thinking more and more how some might be adapted to what I like to do and that it the great thing about a book like yours, it gets people thinking in news ways about what they do and that makes them stretch their creativity!

    It makes sense to me, since you are doing layers and letting things with sometimes longer drying times (because of thickness) sit that you wouldn’t have a “palette” issue.

    When you work from the jar like that do you have problems with skins forming in the jars? I know people would really wonder about that. And, if you read this and have time, could you comment about the shelf-life of acrylic paint?

    It was great to hear from a Golden paint expert! You have book that is going to really help people use an very interesting medium!

    • Laura
    • February 19, 2009
    Reply

    Roz, this looks great. I’ve been painting in acrylics on and off for years, but I haven’t exploited the medium to its fullest extent. I tend to paint with them as though they were oils, which is what I learned on. Other books I’ve seen on acrylic paints feature really schlocky techniques which don’t appeal to me, but this one sounds different and useful. Thanks so much for the tip!

    • Roz
    • February 19, 2009
    Reply

    Laura, since you paint representationally like I do I don’t know that a lot of what is in the book will be of immediate interest, but I think that it will give you some info on other things to do with the acrylics, besides the “mimic oils” thing, which frankly is what I use acrylics for because I’m allergic to oils.

    But I do think that after you absorb some of what is presented here you will come up with some interesting riffs for using it in your exploratory series, such as the water on-going one, for instance.

    You never know until you take a peek. I would like to see more representational work now that I have had this little vacation into abstract stuff!

    • Linda Posey
    • March 27, 2009
    Reply

    Does the book show photos of painting techniques that are discussed?

    • Roz
    • March 27, 2009
    Reply

    Linda, yes, the book shows photos of the painting techniques it discusses. There are some step by step photos and there are also gallery sections or features on certain artists doing certain types of techniques.

    • laura
    • May 24, 2009
    Reply

    When I want to keep my acrylics wet, I put several layers of damp paper towels in the bottom of a butcher tray palette. Then I lay vellum tracing paper over that and spritz it a little bit. The paint stays wet for hours.

    • Roz
    • May 24, 2009
    Reply

    Laura, you’re an inventive soul. I simply take out my Masterson Sta-wet (I think it’s spelt that way) palette if I need my paints to stay moist. It has a sponge layer at the base, then a special paper that you saturate. These two elements keep wicking moisture into the paint. You’ve discovered an easy way to do this on your own!

    With the Masterson Sta-wet when I’m done with a painting session I can put on a sealed lid and in this way, using the paint for several hours a day, but always closing it, I can use the same paints for up to two weeks. After that things get a little “interesting” and I don’t want to have a science project so I typically get rid of the paints.

    I tend to work very quickly when I work with acrylics and I tend to only save my paint for another session if I’m working in a series that uses the same color palette. When I was painting my 30 birds in 30 days series I would save the paint on my palette and only change it every 5 days or so, simply by lifting out the sheet of paper the paint sits on, replacing it with a new saturated sheet, and putting out fresh paint.

    So far, no science projects in the sponge or palette!

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