December 22, 2013

A Little Box of Wisdom

Why can’t a more like a man?” crooned Rex Harrison years ago in the film version of My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn. He had an odd way of singing that was something halfway between speech and song. Rex Harrison could just as well been sing-speaking “Why can’t more like talking?”

Oddly enough, when I paint in acrylics, I hear Rex Harrison’s ditty in the back of my mind - only the words go “Why can’t more like oils?” Despite years of advice to my students to exploit the strongest characteristics of the medium they are using, I still try to make acrylic paint do what oil paint does. Oils dry slowly and can be manipulated over time. But acrylic dries quickly, forcing rapid work and quick decisions, neither of which I’m particularly good at. At least I can lean upon my experience with Chinese brush painting to work quickly. But then the quality of soft edges and subtle tonal modulations can be lost. Also, I’ve often found that adding ingredients to retard the drying time of acrylics tends to dull the intensity of the colors. So what can be done to make an acrylic painting....more like an oil?

For one thing, I start with tinted gesso over which I then add colors and textures. The final painting goes on top of that using generous helpings of glaze medium that lets the under painting to show through and allows the paint to slide around. In order to move more quickly with the paint I generally do finger painting. I also manipulate the paint rapidly with palette knives of various sizes, sgraffito and wet rag wipes. Seems like a lot of work to get an acrylic to be a lot like an oil.

These were some of the techniques I used in the painting to the right from my “messages in bottles,” series. A visiting friend saw the painting on my table top the other day. “Is this an oil?” she asked. Victory was mine! I thought when she spoke the precious words. Yet I still felt that it was rather frantic work to make acrylics do what oils do better. The little stamp on the form in this painting reads “wisdom.” Would it be wise to remember that I’m an oil painter at heart?

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