After exploring watercolor for several years, I recently gave acrylic painting a try for the first time.
Watercolor is more fun! However, there are some characteristics of acrylic that make possible some things that just aren’t with watercolor.
Here are some of my initial thoughts and comparisons.
- Set up. Watercolor is way easier in this regard. You just take the paper and start painting. With acrylic, often it is necessary to use gesso to treat the canvas before you use it. I have been using something called a canvas panel, kind of like a piece of cardboard with a canvas-like texture on the front, so gesso is not necessary. In addition, traditionally, people lay down an imprimatura before doing oil paintings (or acrylic), an initial layer of semi transparent paint more or less the color of tea, though this doesn’t seem to be strictly necessary.
- Mixing colors. This is where things start to get different. The biggest difference between watercolor and acrylic is with acrylic you use white paint. This makes for some interesting colors. Traditionally in watercolor, they say, white is provided by the whiteness of the paper, and since watercolor is transparent, the paper will show through to varying degrees depending on how thick the paint is. In practice though, this means that it is sometimes hard to get certain kind of colors, kind of those more pastel kind of colors, bright yet pale. Often with watercolor, a thin wash that shows through lots of paper can look washed out. With acrylic, you mix in that white painting, And it is lots of fun.
- Mixing colors 2. The other thing I still have to experiment a little bit more with but watercolor paintings just seem to be more sensitive to mixing. I.e. a little bit of color added to another color makes a big difference. I’m not sure if this is because of the nature of the paint or the fact that water color often involves very thin mixtures with lots of water, so adding a bit of another color easily changes the whole thing.
- Composing. The task of figuring out what to paint and how to fit it onto the canvas/paper is the same no matter what. Tricky of course, but really no different, whether it is watercolor or acrylic. So this part transfers over easily.
- Layering. Watercolor is all about layering but this thing is you have to be sure it is dry before you add another layer, otherwise you won’t have distinct layers — or of course very strategically add in paint to the drying paint and see what happens. This is where the headache and the wonder of watercolor comes in. With acrylic there is layering, in the literal sense of adding something on top of something else. But it is not nearly so dynamic. You can let the acrylic paint dry, and it will make it easier to add new paint on top, but even if it is not totally dry, it is pretty forgiving and you won’t make a mess if you add new paint at the wrong time.
- Building value. This is the most talked about difference. And it was also the hardest transition to make for me. Simply put, with water color you work from light value to dark value and it is the opposite for acrylic. But light to dark is so ingrained in me at this point that I even do my value sketches this way using a pencil. It takes some getting used to, that’s for sure, it is a different way of thinking. Apply the darks. Then build up the lights. Sometimes it seems easier to apply darks against the lights. Like for example in the painting I did with orange sky, the sky is lighter value than the trees, but since the trees are more intricate than the sky, it is easier to build the trees out into the sky than to imagine the “negative space” of the leaves and build the sky into the leaves. It was really easy to add “sky holes at the very end rather than preserving them from the first layer.
I know that watercolor has this reputation for being very challenging. After doing some work with acrylic, I’m really not sure that reputation is deserved. The thing that really makes or breaks a painting, as far as I’m concerned, is composition, and that stays the same. Acrylic painting isn’t easy. There is no easy way.
I still felt that familiar feeling, in the middle of the painting, of sort of wresting with the painting, of feeling like the painting wants to collapse into itself, to have no form. Perhaps this is simply the challenge of transferring an idea and an image in the mind into reality.
This isn’t to say that acrylic or watercolor are equally easy. The problem with watercolor is the way that it can turn into a mess if certain parts of the painting aren’t dry at certain times. It turns into a mess in a very subtle way, leaving the artist thinking, “What just happened?” So it seems that acrylic is a little more encouraging for the absolute beginner. But once you move past some of those initial road blocks, the challenge is still there, of making my imagination link up with the paper.
So ultimately, from my perspective, nothing beats the range of colors and textures possible in watercolor. And the water rolling around on the page is just so fun! And so disappointing when it goes wrong!
So I will stick with my preferred medium, but continue to try acrylic to see what it might have to teach.