Realist painters whose work we love, including David Hockney and the late Lennart Anderson, have used acrylic to spectacular and varied effect. Though, without directly knowledge of their working process, which bring out the naturally bright and light qualities of this medium, Helen knew this would be a challenge. She decided to try something different: to attempt to use the traditional oil painting process she has used and taught, in order to recreate the density and variety of surface as in her oil paintings. Here is how she did it.
First, she prepared a panel by coating both sides with acrylic gel medium. This keeps the humidity levels constant on both front and back of the paper surface.
Next, she applied a thin imprimatura on the front of the panel with a deep golden yellow, very like those in a typical Dutch oil painting. She did this since, as the Dutch did, she was working from a still life bathed in cool, north daylight, which tends to produce warmth in the shadows. As the painting layers pile up on the lights, the thinner shadows tend to reveal more of the imprimatura color, which helps maintain their warm glow.
Working directly from a still life setup, Helen sketched the motif in vine charcoal. She then squeezed out acrylic paint onto a Daler Rowney Stay Wet Palette®, which she likes because of its ease of use and clean up, and blocked-in the large shapes. The charcoal was quickly absorbed into the paint allowing variation in edges between shapes, much as in oil painting.
Initial shapes were blocked-in differently, depending on value and temperature: for example, darks were mixed with acrylic medium and no white, conferring them a transparent depth, while the lights were thicker and enriched with white, covering the imprimatura and lending solidity to forms.
Where the acrylic really shines, is the ability to layer paint almost immediately. This meant that fresh flowers could be fully rendered by building up shadow to highlight within a single session, and fine details added without the risk of disturbing layers, as can happen in oils. Helen also opted for a palette that, like her oil colors, ranged from dark, transparent pigments to bright ones, and she created a ‘medium’ as in oil, by filling a small cup with a mix of acrylic gel medium and water, and adding this to the darks which were then layered over the block-in. This produced an effect similar to that achieved by glazing in oils, again, without any time delay.
Adding details in the colorful Blockitecture® pieces was also easier in acrylic. To maintain the crisp window details, Helen taped around them, masking off the walls, and filling in the windows with bright color. This type of masking is more difficult with an oil painting, since the surface often rejects the tape adhesive.
Detail showing taping process. The window color was painting between the masked areas.
Finally, additional coats of acrylic thinned in the medium completed the reflections and other highlights.
Background and details added. Completed work. Still Life with Blockitecture, 16 x 16 in., acrylic on panel.
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Helen also used a similar approach in acrylic to painting a figure on linen.
Portrait of Dancer, 28 x 20 in., acrylic on linen.
Detail of above work.
You can learn more about her approach at her upcoming workshop at Chicago's Palette & Chisel Academy of Fine Arts. The three-day workshop runs from August 16, 17 & 18. For more info, visit