07 Aug Great Art Blog Autumn 2016- ILA Acrylics: A beginners’ guide
Posted at 12:20h in Great Art Blog
This month I’ve been looking at the I Love Art range of Acrylics., shown below…
I Love Art Acrylics by Gerstaecker
If you’re new to Acrylics or indeed to painting generally, looking for an inexpensive range like these ILA paints is a great starting point. Use them to learn how acrylics work, experiment and get the feel of the full range of techniques. When you’re feeling more sure of your skills and confidence, branch out a little, and experiment; trying a small number of colours from a couple of ranges. Buy in small sizes and then start to put together a palette of colours and additives that you really like. From my experience, the best approach is to have a core range which you concentrate on, and really understand, but add to this some special colours or effects from other ranges which compliment the way you work. These things are very personal, for instance two of the additional colours I go back to time and time again are; Payne’s Grey which is a dark bluish grey, more subtle than black and great for mixing, and Titanium Buff which is a very soft neutral colour which is also really useful for mixing for instance with Burnt Umber to create convincing skin tones.
* When I buy a new paint, colour or brand, I make a swatch in a small sketchbook, recording the colour name and manufacturer. I find this really useful when I am looking for a particular colour in a piece of work, and also when I need to re-order…it’s a good idea to put a star against colours and paints that you especially love.
Water based, so there is no need for solvents, just water.
Made from pigments,( pure colour) mixed with a milky acrylic binder. The binder dries very fast and becomes clear as it dries- you therefore need to work quite quickly or consider adding a retarder to slow down drying times, if a speedy approach doesn’t suit you and the way you work.
Because they dry so fast, they are great for a wide variety of techniques and for building up one layer of paint on top of another in complex layers.
Because the acrylic base is milky-looking when wet, colours tend to look darker dry than when they were wet.
Most acrylics dry to a slight sheen, but they do vary between ranges; some are very matt when completely dry and others more satin. Some ranges offer gloss versions- e.g Abstract by Sennelier.
Key Features of ILA Acrylics:
They have a high degree of opacity…
They are lightfast when dry
They dry to a satin matt finish
They come in 24 colours and will work on almost any surface except for greasy or waxy ones.
They offer great value for their cost, so are a very economical way of starting out!
A good way of getting going with any new material is to make swatches of all the colours; this gives you a handy reference, but importantly also begins to give you a feel for how the material works.
As you can see above, I tried out all the colours, recording the colour names beside each swatch.
*It’s important to make the swatches without adding any water or gel, so you have a record of how the colour looks straight from the tube.
In this case I did my samples on clear acetate sheet strips (the kind of thing they used to use for Overhead Projector Slides!)…this may sound strange but can be useful if you want to try out a new colour against the colours in a piece you’re working on. On the right you can see that the swatch is laid onto an area in a colour sketch- this helps as you can get a feel for how a new colour will react with existing work >
When I’m not using the acetate strips for colour testing, I fix them into a sketchbook as above with a little white-tac, so they can be removed when I need them.
I thought it might be worth thinking about how I tend to set myself up for working in acrylics. They are a highly pigmented and therefore highly staining medium, and very permanent when dry, so it is worth taking the time to set up carefully.
I work on a large flat table protected with a couple of layers of newsprint, which I like as I can wipe my brush on it, make notes etc…
I tend to use a small glass sheet for a palette, but a plastic palette or even a paper plate also work really well. Lots of people like the ‘stay-wet’ palettes you can buy, but to be honest, I’ve never got on very well with them and they can be expensive if you do a lot of work. I use a paper plate if I know I won’t have a lot of time for clearing up, since I can chuck it away when I’ve finished, and a glass sheet when I might want a longer painting session, and need my paints to keep going for longer…In this case I put a sheet of white paper underneath so I can see the colours clearly, and keep a spray bottle with water to hand to mist the colours lightly if they are getting too dry. I also use clingfilm if I need to stop for a bit, but want to return to my colours later-just cover really carefully, pressing the clingfilm lightly in contact with the paint and sealing firmly against the glass surface.
Following on from above, be MEAN when putting out blobs of colour so you don’t end up wasting loads.
I also have a hairdryer ready, as it is great for speeding up layers of paint, so you can move on to the next technique whenever you want.
I have a range of brushes ready, stored bristle upwards in a pot, plus plenty of paper towels, a couple of pots of water, and some small pots for acrylic gel-I keep the little pots that come with washing liquids, which are ideal!
Keep changing your water, otherwise as with all water-based media, your colours will get very muddy.
For clearing up, I have a bowl of warm water and some hand wash fluid which I find is ideal for cleaning brushes. If you’re not used to acrylics, you need to know that they will set rock hard on a brush if not washed out quickly. I tend to drop brushes I’ve finished with, or that have become too dirty, into a bowl of water to keep them soft, until I can spend a few minutes cleaning and drying them properly.
Before painting with your brushes, make sure you have blotted them on paper to take out excess water-this may sound obvious, but it’s so easy to ruin a good piece of work, simply by forgetting to do this.
* For detailed advice and information on brushes, please see my GA Blog from January 2015.
Which colours do you need to start with?
First of all, you need to know that it isn’t necessary to buy the whole range, in fact in some ways it’s better not to as you will be forced to practise mixing your colours which is a really good thing! For acrylics a good starter palette is as follows (*I’ve added the equivalent colours from the ILA range in brackets):-
Cadmium Red ( Primary Red) * French Ultramarine (Ultramarine) * Cadmium Yellow (Primary Yellow) * Burnt Umber * Raw Umber (This range has Raw Sienna instead-not an equivalent, but also very useful for mixing) * Yellow Ochre * Titanium White * Permanent Rose (Quinacidrone Pink) * Cobalt Blue * and Cerulean or Phthalo Blue ( Turquoise-again not an exact equivalent but there to create fuller range of colour mixes) * Black
Black is on the list, but isn’t absolutely necessary- you can make great darks by combining other colours and the result is more subtle and interesting. Check out Impressionist painters like Monet and Pissarro who used very little or no black at all. People who are new to colour mixing, tend to overuse black, which means their colours end up quite ‘muddy’ and dull, so if you use it, be sparing!!
A really good use of black however is in creating subtle sage greens- try mixing tiny amounts of black into yellow, and the resulting greens are useful as they are very hard to achieve in other ways. In the picture below, you can see that I’ve taken three different yellows in turn and added increasing amounts of black to create a range of greens…this is just a small selection of the colours it’s possible to make, and actually reminds me to say that just spending time practising mixing colour is really beneficial…after a while you will find it becomes automatic and instinctive, and maybe a little addictive too!
*Note that the colours produced using Naples Yellow as a base, are more grey than green.
**The top line shows variations produced by adding a little white to the mixed colours, making softer, more pastel shades.
White is super important in acrylics and I always go through loads of it, so it makes sense to buy it in larger quantities, which are more economical.
The photo below shows a range of brownish shades, mixed by combining the following:- Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna, Orange, Vermillion and White. For colour mixing practise, try something similar: choose a range of related colours, and play with mixing them in different combinations. Obviously you can increase the range further by adding black as well, but be careful to use tiny amounts otherwise the strength of black pigment will tend to overpower any other colour you are using.
*Try to keep all your samples in sketchbooks, so you can refer to them as your own personal colour chart-for mixed colours try to note down the ‘recipe’ for any you particularly like so it’s possible to reproduce them.
What should I work on? One of the best things about acrylics is that they work on almost any surface except greasy or waxy ones, which means you have enormous flexibility about what to work on. As with mixing colours, it’s not a bad idea to start be trying out a range of surfaces to find which ones you prefer.
For experiments: colour tests, samples and so on, I tend to work directly in a sketchbook ( It needs to be one with good quality thick drawing paper, to prevent the paint going through the surface), or on heavy-weight drawing paper, acrylic paper, or watercolour paper. Acrylic paper is perfect as it has a pleasing texture a bit like canvas, though very subtle and is designed to be able to take a bit of a battering! Heavier watercolour papers can also be good as they come in a variety of textures from perfectly smooth to very textured. Good heavy weight drawing paper is ideal to start with as it is inexpensive and great for colour tests etc…
You can even work onto brown, packaging card; in fact the kind that Great Art uses for packing materials is perfect, and so long as it is clean, unprinted and not greasy, shouldn’t even need priming. The sample above is painted in ILA acrylics on unprimed brown packing card, using two key techniques; soft colour blends for the petal areas, working quickly to blend wet into wet, and stippling for the flower centre, building the colour in layers to create a thick heavily textured result.
I also enjoy working on fabric, which is great for wall-hangings and so on-the quick samples above are all on white cotton, which you can get very cheaply from local fabric shops. All you need to do to work on cotton, is cut it to the size you need, iron lightly and then tape fabric down onto a board or table with masking tape. * Paint comes through cotton more than paper, so if working on a table, protect first with a couple of layers of clean newsprint to avoid disasters!
As you develop your work, and want to produce more finished pieces, there are loads of options available. Canvas works really well with acrylics- please see my Spring GA blog 2016 for loads of background on what to choose, but you can also stick with paper or go for a wide range of newer surfaces including canvas boards, shown above.
Canvas Boards: are easy to work on, and easy to store as they don’t take up much room and come in loads of different sizes, from these tiny ones upwards. These choices really are down to personal taste, but will also depend partly on whether you find you like to work upright, on an easel or prefer to paint on a flat surface.
Key techniques to try:-
Try painting smoothly, just moistening your brush slightly with water before picking up your colours-blend from one colour to the next, creating a soft graded appearance (Top L.H.S of LH page)
Try building up thick dabs of paint with a stiff brush in a stipple technique( for this you need to use your brush almost vertically and without any water) ( 2nd down on L.H.S of LH page)
Try starting with some undiluted paint, and gradually add a little water at a time to produce a ‘wash’ effect (R.S of LH page).
Try over-laying blocks of dilute paint in washes ( 3rd sample down- L.H.S of LH page)
Top 3 samples on R.H page-paint opaque undiluted colour in solid blocks and allow to dry while you do something else….L.H sample has lines in white wash/ middle sample has dry brushed white to create a soft texture/ R.H sample has swirling strokes of yellow and white wash.
Bottom samples on R.H page- both have a solid base colour in black which has been allowed to dry…The left hand sample has blocks of washes in white and yellow ochre applied with a wide flat brush. The right hand sample has lines in wash and dry brushed texture.
Acrylic Gel: This is a clear acrylic medium which is creamy when wet, but dries clear. This is something I would buy early on in your experience of using acrylics, just because it is so useful.
You can use it to make acrylic ‘skins’; more of which later in this blog. You can add it to your paint to create a translucent version to make a glaze, and it is also really helpful when you want to blend colours together fluently . Acrylic gel is also a great glue if you want to ‘collage’ elements onto your paintings. I keep an old plastic spoon for putting it out on my palette…you can see in the picture that it has a similar thick creamy consistency to the acrylic paints. Experiment with adding small amounts to paint colours to create translucent glazes.
In the sample on the right, I applied my paint onto a coat of wet acrylic gel, which gave a fluid feel. If you work quickly the paint really flows and you can create interesting effects which would be great for suggesting water etc…
In the sample below, I’ve blended my colours with vertical and horizontal brush strokes, using a little additional gel to help the blending.
glazes using Raw and Burnt Sienna and really liked the
warmth and subtlety of these samples. Unlike watercolour
washes, glazes made with acrylic plus gel medium and acrylic
washes are totally permanent when dry, so you can work over
them without disturbing or lifting the colour underneath- This
is a key feature of acrylics and the reason they are so good for
The picture above shows more experiments and techniques, this time using black and white only.
* Experiment with using your colour on different coloured grounds too-here I worked on some black drawing paper, and was impressed with how well the colours showed up against the dark background- this is a real test of any art medium.
Masking Tape: Can be used around the edges of work to create a precise and defined clean edge. My advice would be to avoid cheap masking tape though as I’ve had bad experiences of it simply refusing to peel off, and thereby ruining work. I’ve used a blue masking tape here as it shows up better in pics, but any good quality masking tape should work, including that labelled ‘decorator’s tape’ in DIY stores. As above, simply mask around your edges, then paint allowing the paint to dry slightly before peeling away the tape. DON’T be tempted to reuse the tape as it won’t work! You can tape areas within a piece that has already been painted with acrylics to create straight edges in a new layer, but make sure in this case that the existing paint is really dry first, to avoid damage.
**Always minimise how long the tape is on, as all tapes will bond eventually.
Try applying dabbed paint using a scrunched up paper towel to create textures-this usually works best over an underpainted wash or opaque layer.
Sponges also work beautifully with both dilute and undiluted paint-I use a natural sponge as in the picture and find that they can be used over and over again so long as you wash them out quickly with some warm soapy water. Spongeing is great for dappled textures.
The samples above show masking taped edges and layers created using a range of different techniques.
practise piece to try…I worked on a 20cm x 20cm
canvas board and played with loads of the techniques already discussed, using a limited colour palette.
In the detail right you can see a technique called s’graffito- this allows you to draw into wet paint using a sharp tool, to create a strong linear effect.
If you’ve painted an undercoat in a contrast colour it will be revealed when you scratch through the wet paint on top.
Modelling Paste: Modelling paste is a great way of adding texture to your work- great in the foreground of landscapes for instance to reinforce the idea of perspective.
but they come in a variety of textures from smooth
to very coarse. I normally use a cheap plastic palette
knife or stiff hog hair brushes to put it out as
it can be quite rough on fine brushes. The samples on the right are on black simply as they show up better. The left hand column samples are applied with a very stiff old brush that I keep for this sort of thing, and the right hand column ones are applied with the plastic palette knife. The textures you can make are pretty limitless, according to your imagination; from suggesting the weave of a fabric to a rough ‘bark like’ texture. As with all acrylic based media, make sure to
wash out brushes as soon as you have finished, palette knives should come clean with a good wipe and a rinse. It is also possible to colour the paste before applying simply by mixing with acrylic colour- see the blue samples on the right. Of course you can also paint over your texture when dry using any acrylic technique you like.
When you feel you’ve got to grips with some of the techniques discussed, a very simplified landscape in a limited colour palette is a great next step. The two above are quick sketches for larger pieces, which I’ll work on later…it’s a planning stage for me but also really useful for building confidence.
Try to avoid being too detailed and tight, instead aim for a free interpretation of a scene with lively brush-strokes.
And lastly a fun thing to try, Acrylic Skins:
Acrylic skins are created with thin layers of acrylic gel, which can be painted and have fragments of paper or thread, fabric and so on embedded in it. Artists are increasingly using skins as a way of adding further layers to their work, but in a way that allows for precision.
Making an acrylic skin is a fun way of experimenting with acrylic paints, and I’m adding an idea for how they can be used to complete a simple, practical project using a blank white cotton bag….hope you’ll give it a go!
Making the skin: For this you need a sheet of glass or a Teflon non-stick sheet-some plastic sheets also work but acetate sheets don’t.
Mask an area the size you need with masking tape, and then cover the area inside the tape with a good layer of acrylic gel. Two layers is safer still as it will give you a skin that is easier to handle. Allow the layers to dry properly before continuing- sorry, this bit is frustrating. Leave the gel at least over-night to cure properly. The masking tape not only outlines your area but is key to being able to peel off the skin when it’s finished. Don’t worry if the gel doesn’t go on perfectly flat and even, it will just add to the interest of the final effect.
You can apply the gel with an old decorating brush or even a Silicone Blade.
Working on the Skin:
Once dry, you can collage papers or fabrics, or add threads, print on top of or paint the skin in any way you like…but for this experiment concentrate on trying out your newly acquired acrylic painting skills!
As you can see above, I painted my skin with my ILA acrylics, using free brush-strokes and creating a pattern of squares and circles. This is an ideal chance to be really experimental, and if you don’t like an area, simply wipe it away whilst still wet, or paint over it when dry.
When you’re completely happy with your final result, leave your skin to dry out fully and cure again, at least overnight to make certain.
Next carefully start to peel your skin off it’s base, starting in a corner and lifting the masking tape to help you do this. Gradually lift the whole skin, taking care to keep it flat and avoid it sticking to itself. This bit is fiddly, but worth taking time over…put some soothing music on and don’t rush!
*I’ve made one large skin here, but it’s much easier to start with small ones, which are easier to peel.
Only when you have released the whole of the skin should you carefully remove the masking tape- don’t try to peel it off as this might tear your skin, instead use a sharp pair of scissors to cut it all away.
Your completed skin is now ready to go. To store it ready for use, keep it between pieces of smooth clean paper, which you can layer, then it won’t stick to itself.
* You’ll notice that one side is shiny- the one that was next to the glass or Teflon sheet, and the other has the more usual Acrylic soft sheen or slightly matt look depending which acrylics you used. You can use either side, and a combination can look very interesting.
It is really easy to cut your skin into small or large sections according to how you want to use it-just make sure that your workspace is nice and clean; a cutting mat is ideal. Be careful not to stretch the skin.
To apply sections of skin onto a painting, simply decide which side you want to use and coat the reverse carefully with some more acrylic gel. Press this into place and rub down lightly using a brush to work the skin into any contours or textures on the painting. So long as you have covered the piece well with gel, the bond will be really excellent.
**Skins will adhere temporarily to a picture without sticking with gel, which is really useful as you can try them out before committing to a position.
Applying skins to a white cotton bag: Skins stick beautifully to fabric using the method already described, so they are an easy way of decorating a plain bag, without problems of colour running and so on.
Take a plain white cotton bag and iron well to remove any creases. Smooth out on a work table and place a sheet of card inside to prevent any excess gel medium going through and sticking the two sides of the bag together.
Cut your skin into sections and play with your arrangement until happy with the design, then glue down using acrylic gel. Do be sure to get a good bond, by completely covering the reverse of each section with gel, and then pressing down firmly…take your time over this.
The close-up of the finished bag above shows that I overlaid pieces of skin to get the result I wanted, making sure to press each new addition down really firmly to create a permanent bond.
Make sure you leave your bag somewhere flat to dry, before doing the other side if desired. The bag won’t stand up to washing, but is wipeable and I find pretty durable too.
Start with the limited colour palette, and add new colours and additives as your confidence and experience grow- don’t buy too much to start with as you’re likely to end up with colours you never use.
Buy double the amount of white.
As with paints, buy a small selection of brushes in different shapes to start with; a few each of round, flat and filbert brushes should be fine. Sizes: maybe a size 18/ 12/ 10 in flats, 6 and 8 in filberts, and say a size 4 and size 2 in pointed rounds. Everybody has their favourites- I love flats for instance, and you will soon discover the brushes that suit you…my GA Blog for January 2015 will give you all the information you need.
Common mistakes are to add too much water, which over dilutes the paint, and too much black in mixing which makes muddy colours!
Acrylics really do stain and fix permanently to pretty much everything, so cover your clothes and work area well to avoid disasters. If you do get paint on clothes, deal with it immediately; remove as much surface paint as possible, then wash in cool soapy water-avoid hot water as it tends to fix the stain forever!
Record everything in sketchbooks-keep notes about what you like and don’t, and keep all your swatches and samples too. Be disciplined about recording which paint you’ve used and colour recipes, as gradually you will have a super useful resource which you will refer to over and over again.
Above all though, just the act of handling the paint to record colours and experiment with techniques, will build your skills and confidence. Don’t rush into producing ‘finished’ paintings, put the time into the learning process first.
My Materials List:
I Love Art Acrylic paints made by Gerstaecker-see the range: http://www.greatart.co.uk/Acrylic/Selection/I-Love-Art-Acrylic-Paints.html
I Love Art brushes (Acrylics) by Gerstaecker: http://www.greatart.co.uk/I-Love-Art/Paints/Brushes-and-palette-knives/ I used a mix of the Acrylic White Synthetic brushes which are ideal and very durable, and some of the Mongoose brushes for a softer, more responsive feel.
I Love Art Canvas Boards by Gerstaecker- I used 20cm x 20cm boards, but there is a really good range, and they are a great quality and cost-effective option: http://www.greatart.co.uk/2016-Catalogue/I-Love-Art/Canvases-Papers/I-Love-Art-Canvas-Boards.html
Gerstaecker Acrylic Gel in Silk Matt finish: Code 24136 http://www.greatart.co.uk/Gerstaecker-Acrylic-Gel.html
Gerstaecker Modelling Paste in Coarse finish: 20973 http://www.greatart.co.uk/Gerstaecker-Coarse-Modelling-Paste.html
Daler Rowney System 3 Acrylic Pad code: 18831 http://www.greatart.co.uk/Magazine-8-Offers/Acrylic/Papers/Daler-Rowney-System-3-Acrylic-Pads.html
Daler Rowney Heavyweight Drawing Paper pad code:16536 http://www.greatart.co.uk/Magazine-8-Offers/Other-techniques/Drawing/Daler-Rowney-Heavyweight-Cartridge-Pads.html
ARTY’S White Cotton Bag Code: 42074 http://www.greatart.co.uk/Textiles-Hobbycrafts/Textiles/Other-Fabrics-Garments-Bags/Arty-s-Long-Handled-Shopping-Bags.html
*All available from GreatArt UK at: http://www.greatart.co.uk
I Also Used:
Plenty of paper towels, washing up liquid and liquid hand soap for cleaning up
Newsprint for my work area
Glass or paper plates for a palette, plus either glass or a Teflon sheet for making Gel skins.
Plastic Atomiser Spray for misting paints Code:23722 http://www.greatart.co.uk/Plastic-Atomiser-Spray.html
Natural sponge Code: 23237 http://www.greatart.co.uk/Natural-Sponge.html
An old brush for modelling paste and a decorators brush for making the acrylic skin.
Good quality masking tape.
Plastic palette knivese for working with Modelling paste-fantastic value and great for painting too! Code: 24511 http://www.greatart.co.uk/Set-Of-5-Reeves-Plastic-Painting-Knives.html
Cling film for keeping paint a little longer.
Next GA Blog in the Spring, meanwhile happy painting!