As a beginning illustrator and very "wet behind the ears" in 1980 when I set out at 22 to make a living right out of art school, all I knew was "fast media" — I had only used oils in a few figure painting classes, and didn’t know the medium well. None of the instructors I had really talked much about the inherent properties of oil, drying time, block-ins, washes, etc., so Oils were a mystery to me until 2000, 20 years later, when I decided to learn them "for reals."
Acrylics dry fast, so that’s what I used when doing all my time-sensitive commercial work. I did a lot of airbrush work back then, so It was an obvious choice. Still, the darks in acrylic dry a step or 2 lighter, and the lights dry a bit darker by the time the water has "flashed off" — so it was always a wait-and-see game, for me.
I decided to try a small figure painting in acrylic, using washes, glazes and scumbling to achieve an atmospheric effect. It was a bit of a trip down memory lane. For starters, some of the still-good tubes of acrylic I have are older than many of the people on my mailing list. In the picture of some tubes of mine, you can see that I dated them, sometimes, so I would know when I bought them — never thinking I would actually have them nearly 30 years later. The tube in the middle, dated 9/85 is a sure tell. But if you’re a Pasadena local, you know that the tube to the left (Modular Color) was from an old product line that was hue and value-based, sold in metal tubes, and in this case, from "Standard Brands" paint store on Orange Grove in Pasadena — that store long ago having changed hands. (The $1.03 price tag is certainly nostalgic!) That store tag means I bought it during my school years, 1977–1980. Yikes-squared!
And it still flows.
I put the near-full "Portrait Pink" tube in the picture to show how useless therefore largely-unused it is.
But I digress…
Stage 1 – The drawing in pencil and then brownish acrylic
I started with a canvas glued to 1/8" luan mahogany plywood. You can’t see it here, but the canvas has been highly textured with modeling paste, knifed– and bushed–on, coated in gesso, and sanded.
Stage 2 – A quick, warm/neutral wash of acrylic:
Raw Umber, Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna, greatly thinned with water
Stage 3 (2.5, really) — I pat it and wipe it down quickly before it dries to get rid of
the drips and brush marks.
Stage 4 – I start re-working the darks before I completely lose my drawing,
then do another 2 or 3 washes over it.
Stage 5 — I alternate between warm and cool washes of color.
Here, a Payne’s Gray wash has been added mostly at the top. By the way, Payne’s Gray is merely a premixed Ultramarine Blue and Ivory Black — it says so right on the label.
Stage 6 — A Yellow Ocher wash has been added, plus some reworking
of the lost highlights using Titanium White Gesso and water.
Burnt Sienna is used in the shadows to keep them from going too dark, for now.
Stage 7 — Creating atmosphere with more thin washes.
Yellow Ocher and Burnt Sienna both have a slight opacity to them — they are not true transparent colors, like Ultramarine is. Therefore, they tend to lighten. This begins to create a "foggy," more unified look to the lights and darks. This also ties the cool highlights back to the color scheme.
Stage 8 — I wash in some local color and re-enforce the highlights.
I want a warm-to-cool graduated background, and I want something light behind the head to bring out the profile, so I start working the cool light on the wall. I also add the red of the drape on the chair, while reinforcing the satin white.
Close-up — A bit blurry, sorry!
Stage 9 — Oil Wash or Burnt Sienna, Ultramarine Blue and Raw Umber, Turp and Linseed Oil
You may object to oil paint being used in an acrylic painting since one cannot paint with both. This is mostly true. The astute among you will know that you cannot paint acrylic over oil — ever. But the reverse is not true. You can paint oil over (dried) acrylic. This is completely archival.
The really super-astute among you will realize that this last stage — where I am leaving off for now — is where I became frustrated with the way the acrylic painting was going, seeing the seemingly endless work ahead to get what I wanted, therefore I "changed horses in the middle of this stream."
Goodbye acrylic, for now. This painting has plenty of potential, and it’s only going to be realized if I enjoy painting it, so… I did what I had to do. For now, I like oils better, and I believe I can finish this faster/sooner and with greater artistic freedom in oils.