Working with acrylics (and keeping them wet)
Acrylic paints have several advantages, especially when painting plein air. They’re water based which makes them easy to use and to clean up after. They dry quickly when compared to oil paints, which makes them very handy when creating work on demand to short deadlines or for transporting outdoors. The fast drying time, however, has drawbacks as dry air and hot temperatures can greatly affect the paint’s workability and texture.
Throughout my painting career I have focused on painting directly from life, plein air, and under all kinds of weather conditions. On hot days, the water suspended in acrylics is susceptible to quick evaporation, resulting in poorly textured paint, often leading to lifeless and flat artwork. The picture Wharf Hill, Winchester is an example of the problems that can arise when painting a scene facing directly into a baking hot with paint drying quicker than I could apply it. I was forced over compensate by adding in more detail than I had intended. Although the painting is relatively technically and tonally competent the paint surface lacks spontaneity and painterliness and the colours look a bit washed out.
Avoiding the sunnier hours around noon and the early afternoon, when shadows are more likely to be non existent and temperatures scorching, is a way to avoid flat, chalky acrylic paintings. Artists have always used parasols or canopies to avoid direct sun and many wear a long brimmed hat or baseball cap to block out the sun’s glare.
The challenge of keeping acrylics moist can be met through various handy and simple solutions. Slow drying additives are readily available and these are mixed with acrylics to extend the working mileage add also add transparency to the paint medium (I’ve practised with a retardant manufactured by Liquitex.)
A practical hands-on method was suggested to me at art college: Create an improvised paint palette made from a rolled sheet of newspaper soaked in water. The paints stay moist for an extended period of time, allowing for a much more fluid medium, drawing up the water from the paper below.
Another really easy solution was recommended to me by plain-air artist friend Andrew Tozer who suggested using a water spray bottle, like the sort you find in the garden centre, and simply spraying the palette intermittently to keep the paints moist. I heeded his advice a few years back when painting a landscape featuring Tower Bridge for a Pintar Rapido event. The picture was painted on a bright summer day at approximately 1pm, with the sun high in the sky. Such conditions would usually lead to an acrylic painting disaster but, with the aid of the water spray, I was able to keep the pigments fluid enough to work freely and stop any flattening and overworking of the picture. The only challenge I had was making sure that the palette didn’t get waterlogged… grey mushy paints are not fun!
Cold conditions can also deaden acrylic paints. I’ve experienced this whilst painting at night in winter with temperatures a around 4°C or even lower... even a spray bottle could freeze!
I continue to enjoy using acrylic paint, despite it’s temperature temperament.