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ACRYLIC WATERCOLOR PAINTING
By Wendon Blake
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1998 Donald Holden
All rights reserved.
Why Paint Watercolors in Acrylic?
Acrylic paints have won the hearts of thousands of artists who've been raised on traditional oil paints. But most watercolorists have yet to discover that acrylics can do just about everything that traditional watercolor paints can do, plus a great deal more.
The purpose of this book is to introduce the watercolorist to the extraordinary new possibilities of acrylic. In the pages that follow, you'll discover how acrylic lends itself to all the basic watercolor techniques; but even more important, you'll learn how acrylic can extend the range of traditional watercolor techniques to encompass new technical possibilities which are beyond the range of traditional watercolor. You'll also find it refreshing to learn how acrylic, when used as a watercolor medium, eliminates many of the headaches which can make traditional watercolor so exasperating for the beginning painter.
Before I go any further, let me emphasize one important point: I'm not proposing that the watercolorist chuck out all his materials and begin again with acrylics. Although this book is called Acrylic Watercolor Painting, watercolor and acrylic are different media. Each has its unique character. I see no reason for acrylic to replace traditional watercolor. By experimenting with the techniques described in this book, you'll learn which medium—watercolor or acrylic—is the right one for you. Like many distinguished watercolorists, you might very well discover that you like the two media equally, and will switch from one to the other, depending upon your mood and the effects you hope to achieve in a particular painting.
To demonstrate the extraordinary variety of watercolor techniques that are possible when you work with acrylic paints, this book is illustrated with a diverse selection of paintings by leading American watercolorists. You'll find that paintings done in watercolor are hard to tell from those done in acrylic. Only an experienced eye can tell the difference. And this is just the point! An acrylic watercolor often looks like a watercolor. But acrylic does have its own special handling qualities, which are sometimes like traditional watercolor and sometimes surprisingly different. Be patient. It will take time, trial and error to learn to exploit the full potential of this versatile new medium.
To help you during the getting-acquainted stage, I'm going to suggest a variety of projects; I'll give you step-by-step instructions which you can follow for a while until repeated practice makes these procedures something you do subconsciously, without thought or hesitation. The key word, of course, is practice: like every watercolorist who's ever lived, be prepared to spoil and toss out a lot of paper before acrylic becomes "second nature." No, I take it back: don't throw out all those spoiled sheets of expensive paper! One of the miracles of acrylic is that you can use those sheets again. I'll tell you how in Chapter 3.
What is Acrylic?
But just what is this new medium with the odd name that carries the connotation of the scientific laboratory, rather than the artist's studio?
To make paint, you (or the manufacturer) need three things: coloring matter, a liquid adhesive of some sort, and a solvent. The coloring matter is usually a pigment in the form of dry powder, though sometimes it's a dye in liquid form. The pigment or dye is mixed with the adhesive, which is necessary to stick the coloring matter to the painting surface. The solvent (which is obviously a liquid) is added to the mixture in order to thin the paint to whatever consistency the artist requires.
In oil paint, for example, the adhesive is a vegetable oil called linseed oil, and the solvent is usually turpentine or some petroleum derivative. In tempera, the adhesive is egg and the solvent is water; if you have any doubts about the adhesive qualities of an ordinary egg, just leave the debris of a fried egg on your breakfast plate for a few days, and then try washing it off without some sort of scraper. In casein paint, the adhesive is a kind of glue derived from milk, while the solvent is water. And in watercolor, the adhesive is a water- soluble glue, called gum arabic, and the solvent is obviously water.
In all these painting media, the coloring matter is essentially the same: mostly minerals dug out of the ground and crushed to powder, and the products of chemical companies.
The big difference between acrylic and the other media is in the adhesive. Linseed oil, egg, casein, and gum arabic are all products that come from the world of nature. But the adhesive (or binder) used to manufacture acrylic paint is a product of the scientific laboratory. It's a man-made glue devised by twentieth-century plastics technology. Tiny particles of plastic—visible only to the microscope—are suspended in water, producing a milky fluid which actually has the consistency of thick cream. If you pour this fluid onto a flat surface, then let it dry, it becomes a tough sheet of plastic, clear as glass. This plastic sheet is the same sort of stuff used to make illuminated signs or the bubble-shaped skylight on the roof of my studio. A sheet of Plexiglas is another form of acrylic.
To make acrylic paint for artists, this liquid plastic emulsion is mixed with most of the pigments and dyes used to make the older forms of paint, although science has also developed a number of new pigments and dyes which are particularly suitable for acrylic painting materials. The solvent for acrylic paints and for the acrylic emulsion is water, as you've already guessed. While the emulsion (or the paint) is still wet or even slightly moist, it remains soluble in water. But once the liquid acrylic is dry, water will no longer dissolve it. Neither will soap or turpentine or any ordinary household cleaner. Only a really powerful industrial solvent like acetone will budge the amazingly durable film of dried acrylic paint or emulsion.
To judge the durability of oil paint, all you need is one visit to a museum and one look at all the cracks and muddy colors in the battered masterpieces that line the walls. Looking at the masterpieces executed in tempera, you'll see that the colors have retained far more luminosity than the colors in the oil paintings; but tempera is brittle and so are the gesso panels on which they're painted, which accounts for the scratches, chips, and hairline cracks which mar these delicate surfaces.
The watercolors of the masters have held up better than one might expect. If the artist was clever enough (or lucky enough) to choose non-fading colors and rag papers free from chemical impurities, a seemingly fragile painting has often survived in better shape than bigger, more rugged productions on canvas and wood panels. But too many watercolors of the masters have been ruined by just a touch of moisture, by chemically unsound paints or papers, and by exposure to polluted air.
In acrylic paint, science hopes that we have the solution to all these problems. It's true, of course, that acrylics haven't withstood the test of centuries. But acrylics have been subjected to so-called artificial aging tests and we have strong reasons to believe that paintings in acrylic will outlast paintings in any other medium.
To begin with, acrylic dries to a tougher surface than any other paint used by artists. The surface of a dry acrylic painting will resist abrasion and chemical attack more stubbornly than any other dried paint surface. Nor will this surface deteriorate because of internal chemical change—the chemical instability which is the bane of oil paint.
Second, the acrylic emulsion seems to be capable of sticking to a painting surface with more tenacity than any other adhesive used to manufacture paint. Not only does acrylic cling fiercely to paper, canvas, or a panel, but the paint also retains a certain flexibility; in contrast with the brittleness of tempera, for example, this flexibility means increased resistance to damage because acrylic can "roll with the punches."
Finally, the manufacturers of acrylic paint have eliminated all doubtful pigments and dyes from the palette. This means that acrylic paints won't fade or change color on exposure to light or air. Equally important, it means that two or three acrylic colors, mixed with one another, won't produce a chemical reaction that results in an impermanent color. I might add that each granule of coloring matter is sealed within a glassy film of dry plastic that protects the color—like a fossil sealed into a layer of ancient rock.
Versatility and Simplicity
Permanence aside, acrylic's real claim to fame is its remarkable combination of versatility and simplicity. A dozen tubes of paint—plus half a dozen tubes, bottles, and cans of mediums and varnishes–can give you a more diverse range of effects than any other single medium. Depending upon how you apply the paint (and what you add to it) you can have the pasty thickness of oil color, the lean precision of egg tempera, or the spontaneous fluidity of watercolor. Whatever technique you choose, the entire studio can be cleaned up with just plain water in a matter of minutes.
Your choice of a painting surface is simplified too. Acrylic will stick comfortably to any non-oily painting surface. With the aid of acrylic gesso, you can adapt any reasonable surface—and some pretty unreasonable ones—for immediate use.
For the impatient painter, acrylic dries swiftly when used straight from the tube or thinned with water. On the other hand, not everyone likes his paint to dry quickly. Drying time can be controlled and extended by adding a touch of retarder. So the old complaint—that acrylic dries too fast—is now eliminated. You now have your choice of quick drying or slow drying paint.
Finally, acrylic simplifies corrections. Because it dries so rapidly, you can simply paint out and paint back in a faulty passage as soon as it's dry. Of course, it's true that you can't scrape down to bare canvas, or wash down to bare paper, because dry acrylic paint is so terribly tough. But a few quick strokes of gesso or white paint, and you're ready to start again on a fresh painting surface.
As the title of this book suggests, the emphasis in these pages will be on acrylic techniques for the watercolorist. These techniques are only a small fraction of the total range of possibilities which this new medium offers. But they're more than enough to fill a book all by themselves.CHAPTER 2
Every artist loves good painting tools, and it's tempting to walk into a good art material store and buy everything in sight, especially when you're beginning to work in a new medium. Naturally, the art supply dealer would be delighted to have you buy out the store, and the manufacturers are constantly producing new gimmicks and gadgets to stimulate trade. But the experienced painter knows how little gear he really needs to do his job. In fact, one of the ways that you can tell a beginner from a pro is by comparing how much equipment they carry into the field: the beginner often needs a knapsack, while the pro can carry everything in an old fishing tackle box—with room to spare.
So don't yield to the temptation to collect painting tools and equipment for the sheer joy of it. Begin by buying just a few things and get to know them well; then you can add more weapons to your arsenal very gradually, mastering each one before you buy another.
Fortunately, acrylic lends itself to this kind of simplicity and is a blessing to the painter on a budget. In this chapter, I'm going to list a fair variety of tools and equipment; but I hope to make very clear that you don't need them all! I'll tell you which ones are essential and which ones are optional. I'll also suggest some ways in which you can improvise with humble pieces of equipment that you can find in the kitchen and in the toolbox. These improvised tools aren't necessarily crude substitutes for the real thing; on the contrary, they're often better than the so-called professional gear that you pay good money for in the art supply store. Peek into the paintbox of most professionals and you'll discover quite a number of improvised tools.
When you think of watercolor, you automatically think of sable brushes. They're the most expensive brushes you can buy, but most professionals agree that sables—or a reasonable facsimile—are essential for watercolor painting or for acrylic watercolor painting. The one consolation is that a good sable brush can be a lifetime investment. Although sable hairs seem delicate, they're amazingly durable if you take proper care of them. They can survive the most rugged brushwork and, if they get bashed out of shape, they're so resilient that you can restore their shape very easily. I'll tell you how later in this chapter.
Sable brushes come in two shapes: round and flat (or chisel shaped). Most painters buy some of each. Luckily for your pocketbook, you won't need too many.
In the long run, it's best to buy the largest brush you can afford. The biggest round sable—and obviously the most costly—is the number 12. A really good number 12 round sable will be worth more to you than a flock of smaller sables, which may cost less individually, but which add up to more money when you total up what you've paid for them. The big number 12 tapers down to a sharp little point, which can render much finer detail than you might suppose.
Once you've made the investment in a number 12 round sable, all you'll need will be one or two smaller round sables. A number 7 or a number 8 is a good medium sized brush; its fine point can get into the tightest corners of a picture. For sharp linear accents, you might want to add a number 4 rigger, which is a long, slender sign painter's sable.
When you shop for flat sables, follow the same strategy: one big flat sable and a medium sized one will do. Just as the number 12 is the standard big brush in the round sable category, the flat sable to save your money for is 1" wide. (Flat sables don't carry numbers; they're measured in inches.) A 5/8" flat sable is a good medium sized brush. Don't waste your money on a smaller flat sable; the medium sized number 7 or number 8 round sable can do everything that a small flat sable will do, and a good deal more.
Like the number 12 round sable, the big flat can work with more precision than you might expect: it not only produces big color areas with a few sweeps of the brush, but the hairs come down to a crisp edge which can make clean, decisive lines when you use the tip.
These five sables—three round and two flat—are all the sables you're likely to need. Five brushes are not a lot, but five sables (two of them really big) can still make a sizable dent in your paycheck. Do you really need all five? Frankly, I think you can get along quite comfortably with just two or three. The one really indispensable tool is the big round number 12 or the 1" flat; you do need one large, reliable brush for the large color areas. Second in order of importance is the medium sized round number 7 or number 8. Third in order of importance—and you can get along without it if you must—is the medium sized 5/8" flat.
I've watched lots of watercolorists at work, and I think it's safe to say that most pictures can be painted with one big brush (round or flat) and one medium sized round brush. The other three are great to have, but you can get along without them for quite a while.
Because acrylic can be thinned with water to very thin washes, or thickened to washes that have considerable body, there are times when you'll want to try bristle brushes like those used in oil painting. Since bristle brushes were made for pushing around thick paint, they're obviously right for thicker passages of acrylic paint too.
If you already have some bristle brushes which you've used for oil painting, there's no reason why you can't use them for acrylics. But be sure to wash them thoroughly in soap and water to eliminate any trace of oil or turpentine; as you know, oil and water don't mix, and even a slightly oily brush will have trouble holding water based paint.
Bristle brushes come in four shapes. Long flat bristle brushes—which are generally called flats— have long, resilient bristles, which will hold plenty of fluid acrylic paint and which feel reasonably comfortable on watercolor paper. However, the short bristle brushes—called brights—are just too stiff and stumpy; they'll hold plenty of oil paint, but not nearly enough fluid acrylic. They also have the wrong feel on watercolor paper: they force you to paint with a clumsy, scrubbing motion, which seems awkward and insensitive.
A particularly good bristle brush for acrylic watercolor painting is the little known shape called a filbert. Whereas the long flats come to a squarish chisel point, the filbert is a fascinating compromise between a round and a flat brush. The body of bristles is rather thick and tapers to a rounded point, something like a worn watercolor brush. You can get extra long filberts with exceptionally resilient bristles that have a lot of bounce and hold lots of paint. Of all oil painting brushes, the filbert is the one that handles most like a watercolor brush, but produces big, rough strokes quite unlike sable or oxhair—adding great strength and lively texture if you go for a rugged style of painting.
Excerpted from ACRYLIC WATERCOLOR PAINTING by Wendon Blake. Copyright © 1998 Donald Holden. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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