Technique-of-the-Week: Texturing Acrylic Paintings

This is my 100th post! Yay! And it just happens to fall on Technique Saturday: Coincidence? I think so…

Here’s a fun way to paint if you are into acrylics (or even if you’re not, try it!). I like to use various acrylic mediums to give a texture to my canvas or board when I’m making abstracts. There are several ways I do this, and here are some finished paintings with an explanation of each. Below the images you’ll find a breakdown of different kinds of acrylic mediums, so if you’ve never used acrylics, you might want to start at the bottom!

The first two images were created by first brushing a thick layer of Gel Medium all over the canvas, then using a coarse sponge roller (sold in hardware stores for texturing walls) all over it to bring up little peaks. (You could also use a coarse sponge for this and just dab it.) IAfter the gel dried, I started applying colour. My approach to abstract is rather the opposite to most of my work; instead of creating a detailed drawing ahead of time, I like to just start stroking on colour and see where it takes me. That’s not to say that the process is totally random, however; I do try to remember good design principles as I’m going along!

Painting on this type of surface is rather hard on brushes, I found, so I use inexpensive synthetic bristle brushes, usually one or two inch flats. It’s impossible to be precise in terms of line, and the edges between colours are rather fuzzy. However, to me, this is its strength. First I cover an area thoroughly with a base colour, working it down into the texture to assure full coverage. Then the fun part starts — dragging other colours lightly over the base colour to form shimmering, impressionistic effects (without having to paint every dot of colour!). This is called scumbling. Painting complimentary colours over each other can give an especially vibrant effect.

"Cup of the Sea" — acrylic on canvas, 16x16 inches

“Cup of the Sea” — acrylic on canvas, 16×16 inches

"The Dream of Icarus" — acrylic on canvas, 16x20 inches

“The Dream of Icarus” — acrylic on canvas, 16×20 inches

“Ice Breaker” was painted on a cradled board, which is a panel of thin plywood glued to a frame backing, so that it’s like a shallow wooden box. You can paint on either side of it; if you paint on the inside, you get a self-framed, inset painting; if you paint on the outside, you get a painting that stands out from the wall when hung. Either way, you paint or stain the sides to match or set off your painting. The board feels different to work on from canvas; canvas kind of bounces a bit, which is nice when you are doing large strokes, but I find it kind of a pain when working on a more detailed painting.

The technique here is similar to above, except that instead of a sponge roller, I used a palette knife. I put a bunch of stiff gel medium on the surface and just started pushing it around until I liked the shapes it made. After it dried, I coated the entire thing with black gesso, and let that dry as well. For the design, I loosely followed an upside-down photograph of a glacier for inspiration in painting the initial shapes, then put the photo away and started scumbling colour over the base painting. The beauty of acrylics, as opposed to watercolour, is having the ability to paint light over dark; I worked from a fairly dark underpainting up to this arctic sunrise effect by layering on successively lighter colours.

"Ice Breaker" — Acrylic on board, 12x12 inches

“Ice Breaker” — Acrylic on board, 12×12 inches

“Out of Chaos” was a combination of the above techniques; I slathered on gesso instead of the gel medium, which gave a softer peak to my textures. In some areas I swirled it into waves with a palette knife and a brush, and in others I used the sponge roller for little peaks. Some areas I smoothed off with the palette knife so that they were like a smooth. slightly rippled sea. I knew at the outset that I was effectively locking my design in to whatever I did with this mixed texturing, so I took a bit of time thinking about that. When I started painting, though… this one gave me huge amounts of trouble! I couldn’t get the colours to harmonize within my design; I painted over it several times, and almost chucked it. It was originally going to be all sea colours, but nothing I did seemed to work. In frustration I slathered a bunch of Indian Red over the sponge textured areas, and — suddenly it worked! So the title not only refers to the finished image, but also to my process.

"Out of Chaos" — acrylic on canvas, 16x16 inches

“Out of Chaos” — acrylic on canvas, 16×16 inches

“It’s Alive!” was loosely based on a photograph of a flower — and I mean loosely! I kind of took off my glasses and squinted at it, then put away the photo, put my glasses back on (you thought I’d forgotten those, eh?) and painted some big strokes to start off the design. The texturing here is done in gel with a palette knife, but much more smoothly than in Ice Breaker. I used mostly transparent colours mixed with glazing medium which, when combined with the transparency of the underlying gel, give this painting’s surface a translucent, stained-glass quality.

"It's Alive!" — acrylic on canvas, 16x20 inches

“It’s Alive!” — acrylic on canvas, 16×20 inches

“River” didn’t start out to be semi-representational, but it did end up that way after I’d pushed the paint around a lot. That’s what I love about this process — it surprises me constantly! The texturing for this one is much softer (and makes it easier to control the paint, so that is perhaps why it ended up looking more like a landscape!). I used gesso instead of gel with the sponge rollers, which has much less tendency to hold its shape. The little peaks left by the roller sort of slumped into soft bumps as they dried. It was actually a more pleasant texture to work on, and less hard on my brushes.

"River" — acrylic on canvas, 16x16 inches

“River” — acrylic on canvas, 16×16 inches

Some other ways to add texture to your painting ground are to add sand, glass mini-beads, aquarium gravel, or anything else that is reasonably stable. Organic materials take some consideration; dried leaves and grasses are OK; maybe even macaroni, but if it’s moist and would rot, don’t use it if you want your painting to last! The same for anything that might chemically interact — I remember a painting from my grade 8 art class where our teacher had us adding clothes-washing detergent into our tempera paint — OK for a kids’ art class, but maybe not for creating art for the ages! Collaging various sorts of wrinkled papers can also make a really interesting base to paint on; I particularly like wrinkling up tissue paper and glueing it on with gesso or any acrylic medium.

Here’s a little write-up I did to help sort out the differences between acrylic mediums for my students; there are so many kinds that it can be pretty mystifying when you go to the art supply store!

Acrylic Mediums:

Mediums are basically acrylic paint without the pigments. They are made of similar acrylic polymers to those used to bind the paints, and are in fact the glue that binds the pigments together to form a paint film. They come in a bewildering array of types which are loads of fun to play with! They can customize the working properties of any tube or jar paint, and can also be used on their own for a number of things. They also generally extend the working time of your paint, from slightly to a lot.

Fluid Mediums:

I consider the first two of these essential to the acrylic painter’s toolbox.

  • Gloss medium is the one I would not do without. I use it for creating glazes, thinning my paints, and for topcoating a painting to bring all the elements to the same sheen. It is very shiny and clear. Very similar to Glazing Medium (see below) but slightly thicker.
  • Matte medium is what I use for gluing collages, as it does not affect the look and texture of the paper much. It is also good for gluing papier mache. Used in painting, it has a slight clouding effect, so is not suitable for using in glazes, except if you want a veiling effect, useful in creating the illusion of distance. If used as a final coat, it will give a matte finish to a painting. Do not apply too many coats, as it will cloud or veil the painting.
  • If you want a semi-gloss effect, mix the two mediums together.
  • Glazing medium is very useful if you like to work in transparent glazes, as I do. While gloss medium can be used quite well to create glazes, glazing medium is thinner and more flowing.

    Gel Mediums:

    These are heavy versions of the fluid mediums, and have more or less ability to hold their shape independently until dry. They can be used as glue for heavier collage items, to build textures, extend paints, and change finishes. These also come in matte and gloss, and in various “weights”, the heavier weights being the thicker ones. These dry crystal clear.

    Molding Pastes:

    Similar to Gel Mediums, but they have fillers of such things as marble dust, diatomaceous earth, clays, or other fillers, resulting in a white or grey tone to the dried paste. They have various textures to their surfaces, and are fun to play with.

    Other acrylic mediums and additives:

    There are mediums and additives available for all kinds of specialized uses. Generally the labels will tell you what they are for and how to use them in the correct proportions to your paint. Some of these are:

  • Fabric medium allows acrylics painted or printed onto fabric to remain flexible and non-cracking. There are sometimes heat-setting instructions for these.
  • Acrylic flow-release reduces the surface tension of the water in the acrylic emulsion, increasing the slickness and flow of the paint. You can use this for staining techniques or for watercolour-like washes.
  • Retarder: increases the open time of acrylic paints, slowing the drying.
  • Varnishes: a top coat for the painting which is removable with certain chemicals for conservation purposes or cleaning. These often have UV protection as well.

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