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February 11, 2009

Test Drive: Slow-Drying Acrylics

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I whimpered and whined about my frustrations when trying to paint using acrylics here. My gripe was that acrylic paints dried too fast, at least for slow-working me.

In Comments, co-blogger Friedrich von Blowhard mentioned (among other things):

I've painted extensively with acrylics, far more than with oils. For me, they work best when you work very quickly, mostly achieving gradations by painting wet into wet or using drybrush effects. It's a good medium for sketching, particularly outdoors. Some practice will get you going in that direction. The problem with acrylics is mostly their lack of, for want of a better term, luminism. That is to say, to really see an finished acrylic painting it needs to be very well lit. In a dim room, acrylics lose all color intensity and can get quite murky. Oils seem to require much less intense illumination to give up their visual effects, especially bright color.

More information can be found in this Wikipedia entry.

Help might be on the way for frustrated painters such as me. The folks at Golden have introduced a line of slow-drying acrylic paints. They call the line "Open" (heaven knows why), and information on it can be found here.

I presently paint using water-soluble oils. That's because I don't have to deal with messy, smelly solvents. The main disadvantage of this type of oil paint is that drying is slow, sometimes on the order of weeks. The result is that I sometimes have to set a painting aside before, say, doing details; I'm afraid I'll smear the existing paint. The slow-drying feature is also a disadvantage when traveling. Again, there is a risk of smearing.

Slow-drying acrylics might be useful in circumstances where I'd like the painting to dry overnight yet still be able to "work" it for more than the 20 or so minutes conventional acrylics allow. Golden claims that their Open line allows working for a couple of hours or even more, which seems like a reasonable time. So I took a gamble and bought nine tubes of the stuff -- a palette range sufficient for experimentation.

I should mention that I took up painting because I wondered how good at it I might become if I worked at the craft. Long-time readers might recall that I've been complaining about my poor college art training as far back as my guest blogging days.

Most artists and art teachers insist that the only way to reach one's potential is to paint, paint and paint some more. Alas, I haven't done well by that criterion. Over the last four years I've attempted perhaps two dozen paintings. That's because (1) I have a life to lead, (2) much of my creative time is spent blogging, and (3) oil paint dries too slowly for a project to hold focus. (Yes, I could paint alla prima in oils, but I'm not that good yet; maybe later.)

For what it's worth, below is a painting I just completed using Open acrylics. It's the third that I've attempted and I figure that it's not too horrible to post here.


I wasn't trying to do anything fancy; the objective was simply to see whether I could produce a conventional painting similar to what could be done using oils. The subject is a woman's head. I do mostly these because I think pretty women's heads are more difficult to paint than heads with lots of "character." Plus, painting humans is a good test of competence because viewers can easily tell if something is wrong thanks to their familiarity with that kind of subject.

The woman portrayed above is entirely imaginary -- no photo references used. My palette was limited to three main colors -- Cadmium Red Light, Ultramarine Blue and Yellow Ochre -- along with white and black. The support (an art term for what the picture was painted on) was a cheap canvas board, which offers a surface that's a bit rough for painting faces.

So far as Open acrylics are concerned, so good. I don't find them as good as oil paints, but they seem to be ideal for me right now, given my need to crank out more paintings to get whatever skills I have up to snuff. Based on the example above, making conventional paintings using acrylics without special effort now seems possible. Fancy effects such as washes and impasto or combinations of those with conventional passages remain to be evaluated (by me).

Comments by readers with slow-drying acrylic experience are welcome.



posted by Donald at February 11, 2009


The various "gel mediums" and optically active paints that have come on the market in the last 20 years have already done much to address the "luminism" issue mentioned above which might have been accurate for the early generations of acrylics. Judicious blends of pigmented acrylics with clear gel results in far more luminous color. Some of the "optically active" materials can seem to glow in low light rather than becoming darkly opaque.

Golden has been very active in advancing acrylic paint technology. Folks interested should poke around their site and explore. Slow drying is just one of the many features one can now find available.

Posted by: Chris White on February 11, 2009 5:55 PM

If you want fast drying, you can get that with oil paints. You just need to buy alkyd paints.

I don't know if they sell alkyd paints anymore, but you can sure buy a medium with it, such as Liquin or M. Graham's alkyd medium, or one by some other manfacturer.

Why paint with plastic?

Posted by: BTM on February 11, 2009 7:53 PM

BTM -- Actually, when I took up painting (again) four or so years ago I tried acrylics and then alkyds. The problem with the latter is the need for thinning and cleaning solvents that make painting a smelly, inconvenient chore compared to water-thinned oils and acrylics.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 11, 2009 8:33 PM

Leaving drying times aside for a moment, I find that the greatest threat to both spontaneity of brushwork and luminosity of color is overworking. Even when your initial layer, or underpainting, is little more than a thin wash of color(s) there is a distinct limit to the number of thicker layers of paint that can be applied over it before a congested lusterless "dead" look settles in. Plus, the "lift" of the white canvas is lost. This limit on layering doesn't mean that subtlety has to be lost. Wet into wet, basically one layer, can result in the most subtle color combinations, including happy accidents, which the artist, of course, then decides to keep or remove.

Given that the deadening of a painting is the greatest risk run when it is reworked it seems to me you would want a slower drying oil, which would still be workable if you got back to it soon enough after your initial session and which, even if semi-stiff, could be scraped off down to (almost) the canvas, so that the reworking would be fresh in the particular area that needed reworking.

Posted by: ricpic on February 11, 2009 9:13 PM

So good to check out Donald's progress as a painter. The cyber-acquaintance and the techie/practical issues to do with actual paint really deepen the interest.

Makes me curious to see some of Ricpic's work. Possible? A link?

Posted by: Robert Townshend on February 13, 2009 12:09 AM

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