Explaining the different types of Paint for Artists

Explaining the different types of Paint for Artists

I’ve been painting for most of my life, and have tried most paint mediums at some stage. The first real paint I got my hands on was water-colour, due to the artist next door giving me my own set and teaching me how to use them. My first painting I sold was a water-colour but I really wanted to work with oils as I admired the luminosity and texture the medium achieved. The working time as well was a factor as water-colour didn’t allow the same grace, drying almost as soon as it was applied and not allowing any room for error.

In my teens I started working with oils and although I enjoyed using them I started to get impatient with the drying time during winter and now selling my work regularly I needed to get it finished a lot quicker so I moved onto acrylics which I still use to this day. Of course I’ve dabbled with pastels both oil and chalk but neither were to my liking and although I still sketch a lot with charcoal, it doesn’t have huge selling potential so I use it for practice and study work only.

 Things you need to consider when choosing a painting medium are-

Cost: Watercolour paints are the cheapest to set yourself up with; all you need buy is a set of basic colours, a brush or two of different sizes, water-colour paper , and a board with brown gummed tape if you intend to stretch the paper. This is done by immersing the paper fully in water, lying it flat on the board and taping down with the brown gummed tape so when it dries out it is flat. Reason being that when you then paint on it, it won’t buckle or bubble up.

Poisonous substance hazards: I myself ended up with high levels of chemical poisoning which although not entirely caused by the things I was using for my art like turpentine to clean out the brushes, it did contribute to it. This was when I used oils so hence the move to acrylics was also for this reason. You also need to consider small children if you have them, as you would not want them to have access to the solvents used in oil painting for example. There is also the risk of allergies flaring up when you use solvents although you can get low-odour versions as well as water-based oil paints (How these are not acrylics is beyond me…but who am I too argue that point!). Poisonous pigments, such as cadmium red, can be resolved by using a non-toxic hue. Where pastels are concerned, if you want to use the chalk variety, you need to keep in mind that they can product a lot of dust; which you can inhale. Try to not blow on your work to remove loose pastel if you think this is for you.

So back to the paints –

Acrylics – once thought to be the poor man’s oils its now considered a top medium to use and is just as expensive to buy if you use quality brands.  The best thing about acrylics is that they usually dry very fast as well as being able to be manipulated if a longer drying time is required by adding a retarder medium that slows the process down; it  can be also be mixed with water or acrylic mediums and gels. When the paint is dry (Usually only a half an hour on average.) you can over-paint the areas you have worked on without disturbing the underlying layers. You will need to remember that acrylic colours dry a shade darker than when they were applied. I personally use the Golden brand as I like the quality and lumionsity that makes them seem almost like oils on a finished artwork. An interesting note on this brand is that they have a range called 'Open' which extends the worknig time when using them, a nice inbetween type paint if you are moving from oils and also for things where you want to blend a bit longer, i have some for things like sky where I want to blend and blend and normal acrylics set too quickly.

Acrylic paint can be used thickly as an impasto style like with oils and the addition of an impressive array of pastes and gels allow different effects to occur with this; you can also go the opposite extreme by working in thin washes, like using watercolour or glazing in oils. Its water-resistant, so it’s good for murals. When adding mixed media it works better than glue for sticking things to your work, so it’s really good for collages. For cleaning up you are able to wash your brushes out in water. You need to keep in mind that acrylic paint once dried becomes completely waterproof, so it cannot be removed by rewetting the paint. It is also difficult to remove from a brush if it's dried in it although I have had success with an artist’s soap when dealing with this situation.

Oils – the main advantage of oils is that they dry slowly, allowing you plenty of time to work as well as being great for blending. If you’re not in a hurry and are happy to work on more than one piece at a time, they would be a great medium for you. Once dried, oils can be over-painted without disturbing underlying layers. It does pay to make sure you are using the same mix of medium i.e. if you use turpentine and linseed oil that you don’t thin the  top coats too much as they will split and crack when the heavier undercoat dries, this can take as long as 6 months to a year for them to dry fully. Oil paints can be used thickly as an impasto style or in thin, smooth glazes. A downside to oils is that you need to mix them with solvents and oils, so you will need to work in a well-ventilated area. You often have to wait several months to a year to ensure a painting is dry before you can varnish it, a way around this if you wish to sell an unvarnished piece is to offer a coupon for the artwork to be varnished by you on such and such a date. You do need to remember why you use varnish however, it’s a protective coat but it also evens out the matt and shiny surfaces, so do you really want an unfinished piece that may not be at its best out there? With cleaning up, your brushes need to be cleaned with white spirit or similar solvent; again ventilation is important for this. You can get water-based oils which are produced by several paint manufacturers, ask at your local art supplies store like Gordon Harris. Oils are renowned for their rich, deep colours which maintain their intensity when dry.

Water-colours – water-colours are mixed with water and clean up is easy in that you also use water to for that too! If paint squeezed from a tube has dried up, it is reusable by adding water and on artworks if the paint is dry it can be lifted off by rewetting also. You can buy watercolour in dry block form or in tubes, both are fine. One of the problems with water-colour is that it’s hard to hide or fix mistakes due to it being transparent. Where the finished colour is concerned water-colour is the opposite of acrylic in that it dries lighter than when it is applied. As water-colour does not have white you need to utilize the paper for that, either by remembering to leave areas white or by using masking fluid. It takes a bit of practice but once you have the knack it’s a nice medium to use and your finished piece is ready to frame less than half an hour of completing it. 

Pastels: The best thing about pastels is that there's no waiting for pastels to dry. Both the oil based and chalk varieties are easy to use, colours are mixed and blended on the paper, so no need for palettes or mixing plate. These are available in a wide range of colours and easily blend to produce more. Pastels are easy to use outside the studio so great for plein air work. Oil-based pastels can be thinned and blended with turpentine creating a completely different effect if not used.,  try scrapping it off to reveal other colours underneath, a technique known as sgraffito which is what I used for the image to this post. Different brands of pastel can vary in softness so if inter-mixing so make sure you check that they will work well together. Soft pastels tend to be liable to smudging and the pastel coming off the artwork. A good framer will ensure you have a gap between the matt and picture for any loose particles to fall between. You can use a spray-on fixative to stop this happening but it will change the colours slightly and some artists say they don’t like the caked feeling it gives the finished work. Best of all there are no brushes to clean up.

What you choose is entirely up to you, and you can always move onto other mediums later on, I did, and I’m glad I have experimented with the others to know the pros and cons and that I’m getting the best out of what I use now for the type of work I do.

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Posted: Tuesday 26 January 2010


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