Let me show you my best painting secret!
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Many artists worry about painting with oils over acrylics. It is a question I receive very often. Also whether you can paint with oils on paper. See more of that here. But I digress. Oil paint will happily adhere to dried acrylic paint. But do not paint with acrylics over oils. In order to answer this question thoroughly I have a demonstration for you. I am using the old master approach of a monochrome grisaille. Except I am going to use very modern acrylics. Lets dive in!
Why Acrylics Come Second to Oils
Acrylic paints are a marvel of modern times. They stick to anything that does not repel water. That is a lot of things - not least of which is your canvas or painting panel. Then they come in tones of vibrant colours, are non toxic and relatively cheap. No solvents. Plus they dry quickly. What is not to like?
Well many people still have doubts about acrylics as a fine art medium. Especially collectors who still lean towards oil paintings as the holy grail of art mediums. Fair enough oils do have the weight of art history behind them. Oils also have a richness in colour that acrylics may not match. Arguable, but perceptions are important in the world of art. Artist quality acrylics are excellent paints. Yet they are are still in the shadow of oil paints. But you can still use them.
Why Underpainting in Acrylics is a Good Idea
What if you can settle your painting's value structure, composition and drawing quickly and confidently before you start painting in oils? All on your canvas? Sounds like a good idea and it is. Beginners and experienced artists can use this approach with acrylics. Paint your first layers in acrylics in a loose fashion. If this "first draft" looks wrong you can make changes or head in another direction.
Beginners will gain much confidence and learn important concepts without the worry of mixing oil paint. One of the biggest fears of beginner artists is mixing colour in oils. Take this out of the early stage and give yourself a better chance of getting the colours correct later on.
Five Great Reasons to Use an Underpainting:
I want to focus on item 3 in the list above. One of the techniques the Old Master painters used is called grisaille. Essentially this means painting a monochrome version of the subject. Usually a grey or earthy colour like burnt umber was used. Imagine a black and white photograph. This method is also called indirect painting. The artist is not painting direct from life, but is building up a painting from monochrome to colour in many stages.
The beauty of the monochrome method is that the light, dark and middle value shapes are established. Values are concerned with the lightness or darkness of a shape. Get these correct and your painting has a head start. The Old Master would then apply transparent glazes of oil paint thinly over the dry grisaille. White would be added gradually to the opaque areas, but essentially the colours would be influenced by the value structure in the monochrome.
This approach does make the painting easier as you imagine.
What About Direct Painting?
You may be more familiar with the direct approach to painting. Think of the Impressionists painting in thick opaque oils direct from nature. No glazing in layers or grisaille. But as I explained above a monochrome underpainting settles the vital value structure of the painting. Once this is done you can mix colour to the correct value and paint it over the uderpainting.
Yes you could complete the underpainting in colour too. Either approach is valid and I have a course all about this. But why a monochrome? I use monochrome studies precisely to teach artists about values of shapes. Getting accurate values is so important. You can only benefit greatly if you try a few monochrome studies before heading into colour mixing.
Still Life Painting Demonstration
Recently I reviewed a set of Rembrandt oil paints by Royal Talens. You can watch the video below. I mentioned that the paints did inspire me to try a painting of a still life subject. Mostly to test out the vibrancy and workability of the paints. I also decided to use acrylics as a sort of grisaille. However the painting would follow a direct approach thereafter with the colours.
You can watch Part One of the painting demonstration below.
Part 2: Add the Oil Paint Layers
Now the fun continues with the juicy oil paint layers. Except that it can also be intimidating to face the finishing stage of a painting. Especially after a nice start with the acrylics stage. But we have no fear ... onwards brave artists!
This painting is made extra special because I am trying out the Rembrandt paints by Royal Talens. They are something special alright. The finest texture ever and buttery too. No mediums needed in this paint.
The video below gives a detailed run through of this stage of the painting. I have been thorough in describing the process and you can see it for yourself. I also give a recap at the end with the final painting in its frame.
Full disclosure: This was not an easy painting despite the subject being fairly simple. The reason? I started the oil stage with one idea looking at the Old Master idea of glazing over a grisaille. Except I then painted in my preferred impressionist method of thick opaque paint color. Which in a weird way made me second guess myself. Never a good thing.
Overall I still believe that an acrylic underpainting is a good thing for the reasons mentioned above. Once that is done simply go it in oils in the method you prefer. For me that is loading up lots of that buttery paint and getting it on alla prima.
Now you can try out this method for yourself with your own paintings. If you want to learn more about painting in oils over acrylics you will be interested in my course From Acrylics to Oil Painting in 5 Easy Steps.
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