I would recommend experimenting a bit before you use acrylics, especially if you’re used to much gentler and subtler watercolours. Acrylic paint can be put on so many different surfaces, canvas and paper are the obvious and most widely utilised bases, but people also use it on wood, stone, plastic and many other surfaces too.
Anyway, time to show you my painting process using acrylics….Ideas, ideas, ideas! Books and the interweb are a huge source of inspiration and handy references. Whether it’s the angle of a bird’s wing, the curl in a monkey’s tail or a colour check, it really helps to have a still life or action snap shot for double checking my work, I want to get the essence of my subjects just right. I sketch, doodle and think about colour combinations and for the example of work in this demo I also made up a sample canvas. It never hurts to do a little prep work when you’re creating canvases as large as I was for this commission and it really helped my clients to decide if they’d chosen the right colours and subjects for their home. It literally gave them something to hold up against their walls and see how the colours, including the sometimes troublesome metallic colours, worked for them.
What was I painting? Well, have a look at the above five pictures of my notebook and sample canvas. What do you see in my abstract doodles?! Hopefully all will become clear soon!
Yes this is a picture of large cardboard boxes, because before you start to paint you have to choose what you’re going to paint on….no I didn’t paint on the cardboard boxes! As I’ve explained you’re not actually very limited with acrylics, but I choose to go down the conventional route and purchase pre-primed canvasses (or rather my clients did!) I was careful to buy matching canvases from the same company so their framing and pre-primed base coats were all identical. It’s easy enough to go to any art supplier and buy smaller canvases but when the artwork is intended for larger spaces it’s best to go to a reputable supplier who will be able to custom make exactly what you want and that’s what this picture is on your left. If you buy a ready made canvas, just be aware that they are not always primed, but you can do that yourself if you want to it’s an easy job. Priming a canvas will stop it from soaking up the paint and give you a firmer surface as well as a ‘tooth’ for the fresh paint to hold onto. I chose not to prime these canvases myself not only to save time but my home studio is a very small box room so space is an issue. I did however want some depth to the mottled base coat that my clients requested so I went over all three of the canvases by swirling on a coat of black gesso primer. It was only really after his point, when the final prep was done, that I actually felt like I had started painting properly.
From now on it will probably be easier if I use just one painting from the set of three, so I’ll use the largest painting in my step by step description.
I mottled on the base colours that my clients had specified and once that was done I drew on the rough design in pen. If you look closely on the photos below you may just be able to make out some of the design.
Once the rough guidelines had been finished I could start with the paint. I was surprised that as I went along I used way more white paint than I had anticipated. Not just as an undercoat to make certain colours ‘pop’ but as part of the painting itself. It worked really well when it came time to paint on the antlers and the eye. I loved painting these the most and the way the white paint stood out at night-time. When the lighting in my art room was switched off and the soft glow of the moon peeped in through the window they just caught the half light. It took my breath away the first night I saw it, it was pure magic! I went back most other nights to see it, even when I didn’t get to work on the paintings, it was although the animals I was painting had a life of their own even though they still were not fully formed. That probably sounds weird, but it’s just like when you feel that a painting is looking at you as you move around the room. You know when something about the eyes are so realistic that you feel like you are being watched all the time? Well, it was just like that and I liked it!
The stag was so tall that I couldn’t reach the top properly without a chair (or turning it on it’s side!), when it came time for me to do it’s hooves I had to turn it on it’s head so I had space to paint them properly! You’ll notice that I use old dinner plates as palettes, they come clean really easily, just a quick soak in water and the paint lifts of like plastic or cling film and any other paint left behind is easily rubbed off them. I learned the hard way not to use acrylics on my plastic palettes, plastic is fine for watercolours, but acrylics stick to them like glue and you’ll break your nails trying to get them clean!
Acrylics never used to be my first choice when painting but they are great if you want texture and strong colours in your artwork. I was able to build up colours and paint over areas that needed extra attention without having to worry about wrecking the entire piece of work like I do with watercolours. Acrylics dry really fast and this allowed me to switch back and forth from areas that were freshly painted and areas that had had a few moments to dry and firm up. It can also give great effects if you catch the paint in the right state too, I can make it smear together or flow or rough up areas depending on what look I want to achieve. I use a water mister/spray bottle to help me paint when the air is too hot it helps to stop the paint from drying too rapidly.
I tried to send emails and pictures to my clients often during the commission so they could see the progress of their paintings. Mostly I was trying to stay in touch to make sure that they got what they wanted. After all they’re the ones that were going to have to live with these huge animals, I very much wanted to get these just right for them.
As time went on I started working on all three at the same time. It was easier and quicker to do a section of one then move onto something different while I waited for it to dry! Finally I finished them and we got them over to their new home, but I left instructions with their new owners to contact me if anything wasn’t right.
It was a couple of weeks later that they came back to and said that they wanted me to add more abstract shapes to the Stags face, so I popped round and spent a pleasant few hours tweaking the Stag. It was good to see the paintings in situ and I was happy to paint a little more. Below are some photos of the three finished paintings.
These two pictures are of the Chameleons. The canvas is 6 1/2 feet long and two feet high.
Above and to the right are photos of the Eagle painting. This is 4 feet square, I have included this smaller picture to show you how effective the metallic paints are, this was a copper colour, but I also used gold on these paintings and a tiny bit of silver too. It was fun to experiment with painting the feathers and building up the textures and depth as I worked.
Below is the Stag painting. It is a large size, 7 feet tall by 4 feet wide and I think it’s my favourite out of the three (but it’s a close call), although I have enjoyed bringing all of them to life and watching their own personalities shine through as I’ve painted.
I’ve often been asked if it’s difficult to let my paintings go, well that’s a good question. The answer is both yes and no. When I am painting what I want to paint it is very difficult to let the pictures go because I’ve done what I wanted to do and I’ve done it for me the way I think it should be done. If I know from the beginning, like I did in this instance, that the paintings are not for me, then no, it’s not that difficult to let them go. I did not chose the colour palette or the subject matter for these three paintings. Neither did I chose the size of the canvases or the medium. Thinking about it logistically we simply would not have the space to hang these on the wall in our own home, but they do look fantastic hanging on the walls of their new home. I don’t love these paintings any less than I do my other paintings, I just work through with the mind set that I am not going to be the keeper for them but I appreciate that I get to do what I love!