Are acrylics just as good as oils for painting in layers?

March 19th, 2009

Are acrylics just as good as oils for painting in layers?

The goal of painting in layers is to modify the appearance of one layer by putting another layer on top. This can be done nicely with both oil and acrylic paint. The problem is, how much paint to use in the second layer? Too little, and the first layer will remain dominant; too much, and the first layer becomes obscured completely, defeating the purpose of painting in layers.

Oil painting has the advantage that you can put on lots of paint, then take some away, put it back again, play with it, to get the thickness, the interaction between layers, just right. It is analogous to putting butter on bread: too much butter, no problem, scrape some off.

With acrylics, you need to build up gradually, being careful not to go too far, because the paint, once dry, won’t come off easily. This is more like adding salt to soup; too much salt, problem.

The different ways we can approach layered painting illustrates why oil painting is a more powerful technique than acrylic. Oil painting in layers encourages a bold approach, even for what seems like delicate, fine work. Acrylic layer painting requires more caution, gives less freedom.

Many people think of acrylic painting as easier than oil painting, but it’s actually more difficult in some ways. Hanneke uses it as a first layer for painting, for example with this still life and this still life. In both cases, she overpaints with oil.

[April 8, 2009]

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