TIPS AND TECHNIQUES
©Anthony Steffes (2008)
Acrylic Products Explained (using Golden product names)
This is my understanding of ways of using acrylic products to date. This summary indicates the way I use acrylic paints and is not necessarily the be-all, end-all set of notes. Some clarification of product use comes from a workshop with Nancy Reyner, Santa Fe, New Mexico. For specific information and very detailed explanations go to Golden Products website at
Acrylic is the basic binder for all acrylic products. It is a polymer dispersion which is a mixture of microscopic spheres of clear plastic suspended or dispersed in water. As the water evaporates, the spheres move closer together, bond and form an acrylic plastic film. The thorough drying process takes several weeks to be complete and during the process the product shrinks and loses some of its colour intensity.
Acrylic products are all made by adding various things to the basic polymer dispersion. Categories are separated below.
Airbrush Colours are the thinnest of the paints. They dry slowly. Use as watermedia, for staining, or drawing thin lines. They sometimes move if you work rigorously on top of them.
Fluid Acrylics are pourable and are equal in pigment to regular body acrylics.
Matte Fluid Acrylics dry with a flat matte finish.
Open Acrylics stay wet for a longer time and can be used for traditional blending techniques.
Heavy (regular) body acrylics are like toothepaste and spread like butter with a palette knife.
Matte Acrylics are heavy bodies that dry with a flat finish.
Acrylic Glazes contain a lot of polymer and small amounts of colour. These are used for surface glazing, adding a thin transparent film of colour.
Paint Pigments and Variations
Mineral (Inorganic Pigments) are made from plastic and minerals such as oxides, cadmiums, cobalt, and include sienna, umber, ochre. They are generally opaque and stay on the surface of the painting. These can be useful for underpainting.
Modern (Organic Pigments) are translucent and have a high chroma. They change from dark, when thickly applied, to bright, tissue paper like colours when thinned. They work well as stains and sink into the surface well. These are the paints you use to create glazes. Includes Quinacrodones, Pthalos, Doixazines, Anthros and Hansa.
Real Metals include stainless steel, micaceous iron, and gold flake
Imitation metallics include gold, silver, bronze, copper, pearl irridescents
Interference paints are not actually pigments, but particles that reflect certain wavelengths of light. These show best when used over other colours, especially darker colours. Be aware that interference paints can show little or no colour when you look straight on a painting. It is from an angle that you see the reflection better.
Mediums are acrylic with no pigments added. They are used to change the consistency and, shine, and body quality of the paints. They can be thinned with water. All will behave as glues and will bind according to their consistency.
Fluid Mediums change and extend the consistency of paint and include:
Polymer medium gloss is the best medium for building up thin layers in collages. If you don’t like the shine finish with a satin or matte varnish when project is complete.
Matte medium is good for building layers when a lot of paint is going to be applied to the surface.
Open acrylic medium is used to extend the drying time of the paint. If you are painting with open acrylics over gloss medium, it can be quite easily wiped off within a reasonable amount of drying time.
Airbrush thinner is even thinner than open acrylic medium
Acrylic glazing liquid is mixed with small amounts of modern colours to create tinting glazes.
Gels (Mediums) are transparent, semi-transparent or opaque and are the best glues.
Soft Gel Gloss is a good undercoat for painting. It adds texture and smoothness to the surface. Paints will glide over it when applied.
Soft Gel Matte provides a good undercoat that provides an absorbent base for paint application.
Regular Gel Gloss builds a thicker base coat with more texture. It can also be used to bind things to the canvas
Heavy Gel Gloss is used to create deep textures for over-painting
Self-leveling Gel is useful for sealing surfaces where you want a level result. It is usually thinned a bit with water. As it dries it levels and becomes very smooth. This is a good sealer for crackle paste when you are finished painting over the crackle area.
Clear Granular Gel is used to create texture.
Fine, Medium, Coarse, and Extra Coarse Pumice Gel is used to create texture that has a sandy or gravelly texture.
Glass Bead Gel is filled with tiny glass beads. It dries to a glossy, pearlescent finish and retains that pearlescent look after paint application if you wipe it down.
Clear Tar Gel is a heavy self-leveling gel in which you can marble, embed objects, or create thick transparent layers. It is interesting to use this product in several layers as it dries transparent, holding the paint in the shapes you have created. It can also be applied in strings.
Note: at Jerry’s Artarama, a US store you can purchase the beads, flakes, fibres, sands, and granules in a dry state and add them to your gels to have as much or little texture as you wish.
Pastes contain marble dust or clay filler and are opaque. These are strong bonding agents. Their thickness makes them best for gluing in heavier objects or for modeling.
Fiber Paste dries with a matte chalky finish and is an absorbent surface.
Molding Paste is used to create deep textures when you are embedding larger, heavier elements.
Coarse Molding Paste has grit added to it.
Crackle Paste is applied to create a matte crackled finish when dry. Upon completion of projects it is best sealed for adherence with a self-leveling gel. But be aware that the self-leveling gel will make it shiny
Absorbent Ground provides a plaster-like surface for painting. It sucks up colour and can result in some beautiful effects. It can also be thinned with water and used as a way to move areas of a painting back, putting a “scrim” over them.
Additives contain no acrylic binder. Hence the quantity that can be added to paint is limited as they break down the paints..
Acrylic Flow Release is a water tension breaker that creates textures and effects when applied to paint covering a lighter surface. The two paint surfaces must be very different in value and the top layer must be quite aqueous to achieve the effect.
Acrylic Retarder slows the drying process.
Open Thinner slows drying.
Airbrush Thinner thins regular acrylics to liquid quality.
Gessos behave like flat latex paints. They are the bridge between the support and your paint. They can also be used to cover areas of painting for new paint or layering processes.
Clear Gesso is a useful product but very difficult to find
A range of other coloured gessos are available in the US but are extraordinarily expensive.
Grounds are used to produce a desired surface for painting.
Absorbent Ground dries like fine plaster.
Ground for Pastels dries to a fine sandpaper like finish
Digital Grounds which include gloss, matte, and ground for non-porous surfaces are used to create skins on release paper (freezer wrap). These skins can be put through a top-loading printer to produce images that can be collaged into your work. However, be careful of the sort of ink your printer uses. You must test for permanence and water-proofing.
Varnishes used to finish and preserve paintings. Recent books are saying there is no need to varnish acrylic paintings. I do it when I want to change the surface quality (shine) of the finished work. In my experience varnishes have destroyed some metalics and gold leafing.
Polymer Varnish, gloss, satin, matte
MSA (Mineral Spirit Acrylic) Varnish
Archival Spray Varnish
GAC (Golden Artist Colours) is 100% basic acrylic polymer and comes in a wide range of consistencies.
GAC 100 add gloss, extend paint, surface sealer
GAC 200 increases film hardness
GAC 400 used to stiffen fabric
GAC 700 reduces shrinkage
GAC 800 pour skins, levels itself, does not craze when poured in puddles
GAC 900 heat sets, useful to artists painting on clothing
Please excuse my mentioning some products twice. There are some things that seem to fit two categories.
The colours listed below are the colours I use most consistently. Of course, that is not to say these are the best or preferred colours to use. They just happen to be my palette.
For me, a palette is a red, a yellow, a blue, plus black and white. The rest, you can mix.
Set I (always use)
Quinacridone Nickel Azo Gold
Set II (nice to have)
Transparent Red Iron Oxide
Essential Mediums and Products
Glazing Liquid (gloss or mat or satin)
Polymer Varnish (gloss or mat or medium)
Other useful products
Airbrush Thinning Medium
COMPOSITION CHECKS for SOLVING YOUR COMPOSITION
Sometimes you’re working on a piece and you know it’s not finished but you can’t figure out what’s wrong. Considering some of the following composition problem- solving checks may help. Although none of these things should be done just for sake of doing them, the following guidelines are reasonable checks when you sense something is wrong and you’re not sure what should be changed. I have gathered the following tidbits in my travels. However, do consider that if you do all these things in all your compositions, they will all look the same and be pretty unadventurous. Know the rules, and then play with them or break them.
THREE BEARS: create a balance of the following, but not necessarily the same amounts of each
Large object, medium object, small object
Dark values, medium values, light values
High detail, medium detail, plain area
CORNERS: should all be different in some small way
EDGES: should be broken-something goes to the edge of at least two sides of the page
MOVEMENT: leading the eye into and around composition by using:
Repeated lines, forms
Lining up background objects/shapes
Entry and exit points of composition
Light moving through the composition (bright colour)
FOCAL POINT: dominant and supporting focal areas, division in thirds
NEGATIVE AREAS: should be as strong and as interesting as positive space
SPICING FOOD PRINCIPLE : LEAST amount of most interesting and MOST amount of least interesting patterns/forms
NEUTRAL ZONES: some areas to rest the eye
WHITE OUTS: raw white areas that need to be tinted or softened
BLACK OUTS: flat black areas that need to be altered in shape or colour