Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tips & Tricks #9: Liquid to Solid – Understanding the Range of Acrylic Paints!

Acrylic paint has, over the course of the last 60 years, developed into one of the most adaptable mediums in contemporary art with a very wide range of applications and effects. In fact, the array of choices one faces in the acrylic paint aisle at BINDERS can be a bit overwhelming, but never fear! Once you understand the basics, it's easy to branch out into the advanced and subtle areas of this fully modern paint.

Just like any other kind of paint, acrylics are composed of two main ingredients: the pigment and the binder. The pigments are, in most cases, identical to those found in oils or watercolors, but the binder, the glue that holds the pigment onto the support, is a polymer emulsion (which is really just a fancy name for plastic).

Plastic, as we are all well aware, is a very adaptable medium, capable of being molded and shaped into just about anything with a full range of hardness to softness, stiffness to flexibility, and acrylic paint carries on those same characteristics. The first thing to understand about acrylic paint is that it comes in several grades of viscosity, which is the relative thickness and thinness, or fluidity, of the paint. The particular viscosity you choose significantly affects the way your painting looks and some techniques will be easier with a particular type of acrylic paint. So lets look at those types and see how they work!

Heavy Body Acrylics
The original acrylic paint came in a fairly thick formulation, softer than most oil paint, but not watery by any means, and that viscosity level, usually known as Heavy Body, is still the most commonly used. Both Liquitex and Golden make a wide range of colors in their Heavy Body lines and it is the typical thickness of other companies' paints as well, including Winsor Newton's Galleria, Talens' Amsterdam and Chroma's A2 lines.

The Heavy Body formulation of acrylic paint is the most suitable for expressive brushwork and Alla Prima style painting, in which paint is applied directly from the tube onto the canvas. Depending on how much you brush out the paint, it will either be very flat, or leave behind a low relief in the form of ridges of paint that squeeze out from under the brush. For more texture, you can layer the paint to create a thicker, more three-dimensional effect. All but the softest brushes are very suitable for working with Heavy Body acrylics, so you can choose soft brushes for a smooth appearance, or bristle brushes to get a rougher look with more visible brush strokes. As always, never use real sable hair brushes with your acrylic paints, as they will dry out the hairs and ruin your very expensive tools!

Super Heavy Body Acrylics
Liquitex has gone one step further on the thickness scale, creating a line of Super-Heavy Body acrylics that use a very stiff polymer emulsion that is similar to the high viscosity oil paints. Super-Heavy Body paints are ideal for creating almost sculptural textures and should be used with stiff brushes like hog bristle. This type of paint is also very suitable for painting with knives!

Fluid / Soft Body Acrylics
The second most commonly used type of acrylic binder is what is known as a Fluid or Soft Body paint. As the name suggests, the viscosity is considerably less than Heavy Body and the consistency is more like a thick liquid. Golden and Liquitex both have extensive color choices in the Fluid range, but there are not many other companies that produce it. Fluid acrylics are suitable for a range of techniques that are quite different than the Heavy Body lines.

The first, and most obvious difference is that Fluid acrylics are thin enough to be poured, allowing for all sorts of dripping and splashing to happen. Of course you can do this with Heavy Body paint by adding water to it, but that will reduce the intensity of the color because the pigment ratio will be lowered. With the Fluids, there is a maximum amount of pigment in the paint, which gives high impact color in a liquid form.

Fluid acrylics are also very good for glazing, a traditional technique of building up complex colors with layers of transparent paint. Typically, a glaze layer wants to be thin, so the paint will be mixed with a fluid acrylic medium to make it transparent and very flat, and since the Fluid acrylics are already so thin, they allow for a much greater amount of control over the intensity of color in the glaze. Fluid acrylics will always tend to level out on the canvas, erasing any brush marks and leaving no ridges behind, so they are great when you want a really flat surface, like when you are doing an underpainting. Soft brushes are best for this type of acrylic paint and the colors can be blended just as well as their Heavy Body cousins.

Acrylic Inks
The last variety of acrylic paint that we'll discuss here is the one that is most often missed, because it's not actually kept on the acrylic aisle with the rest of the paints! In the drawing aisle, along with all of the calligraphy supplies, you will find a wide variety of acrylic inks that are, in fact, just another variety of paint. In this case, the viscosity of the polymer emulsion is so low that the paint is effectively just like water (or ink in this case).

Nevertheless, the pigment load in acrylic inks are usually just as high as any of the other types, so you can still get very intense color from them. Liquitex has a line of acrylic inks, and you can also find the FW Series by Daler Rowney and Speedball's Acrylic Calligraphy Inks. Aside from the obvious applications in calligraphy, acrylic ink can be used much like a watercolor paint and is great for doing washes and other types of stains on paper or unprimed canvas. Use a soft watercolor brush with acrylic inks to do almost the whole range of techniques available to the watercolorist!

Finally, it's worth noting that all of these varieties of acrylic paint can be mixed together with no problem, they are made out of the same plastic after all! So, you can mix Heavy Body, Super-Heavy Body, Fluid and/or ink together to create your own custom blended viscosity level that may inspire you to create something totally original! The sky is the limit with acrylic paints, so experiment, explore and discover, now that you know the basics!

Do you have any tips to add for budding acrylic artists? Please share!

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