What Really Happens When You Stop Trying to Get Acrylics to Behave Like Oils

I have found myself studio-homeless this year. With no other space to work in, I have started painting right in my apartment. It certainly is nice not to have to go somewhere to work; it does make me wonder about living and painting in the same space. I don’t like the idea of my bedroom and my turpentine jar being too close to each other! Because of that, I have been experimenting with water-based media.

I have missed the feel of working with oils. I love the way that oils blend and give me almost infinite possibilities for working. That is something that I wasn’t able to replicate with acrylics, gouache or watercolors.

What I have come to realize, the question isn’t how to get other materials to behave like oil paint, but how to take advantage of the working properties of the medium that I am using. In this case, how should I approach my paintings when I am working with acrylics?

Put down the blending brush

The solution that I have come up with is to learn to love not blending.

When I was in art school, I read about working with edges and rendering form. The author pointed out that there are two ways to soften an edge — physically or optically.

How to soften an edge

To physically soften the spot where the two fields of paint meet, you take your brush or finger, and you blend the color. To soften an edge optically, you mix a new color note that is a step between the two strokes you are looking to soften. Regardless of the technique, you are essentially just reducing the contrast between two paint colors.

Since acrylic paint dries so quickly, I’ve found that you have a very short window of time in which to blend your colors once they are up on the canvas. By adopting layering and mixing intermediary colors, I have started to love the fact that acrylics dry so fast. I could go back in and add new strokes of color to adjust and modify my form in a way that would be tough if that paint was still wet.

By learning to embrace what makes each material unique and letting go of the idea that I am missing out, I’m starting to love the possibilities of working with water-based media.

Balanced Diet | Jeffrey Smith
“A Balanced Diet”, 8×8″, acrylic on Gessorbard panel, Jeffrey Smith