I have always been drawn to works of art with great visual and tactile texture; the kind of work that beckons to be touched, calls for my fingers to glide across the canvas feeling all the little bumps and ridges of the surface.
Of course, I don’t do it, unless it’s meant to be touched, but oh how I want to. I was never as disappointed as when I visited the Museum of Fine Arts Houston to see one of my favorite paintings. When I finally made my way up front for my turn to see Van Gogh’s The Starry Night up close, it was behind glass due to somebody’s attempt to mess with it. I had been so excited to see the thick globs of paint and examine for myself the torrent of brush strokes, but instead, it felt like I was still seeing it in a book…with a glare! Texture is a fascinating element to me. It adds tension and depth, creates contrast and the illusion of reality. Texture makes the visual story interesting and invites us back again and again to discover something new and exciting.
There are many ways to create visual texture in your work, and you no doubt are already incorporating your own tricks and techniques. Since it’s always best to write about what you know, I’m not going to go into the creation of realistic texture (since realism isn’t my end goal); instead, I’m going to focus on building a foundation of texture on your canvas before you ever begin painting.
The first thing I do is grab my favorite acrylic medium. If you are anything like me, the world of acrylic mediums can be a bit confusing, especially in the beginning. There are so many to choose from and each brand has its own qualities and characteristics. When I first began experimenting with mediums I felt overwhelmed until I bought a sample pack from Liquitex. It comes with six 100 ml containers of the brand’s most popular mediums. Golden also has a starter pack with three mediums included. Those are the only two brands that I’ve come across that offer a sampler pack. If you’re interested in using mediums I would recommend beginning with one or both of these sets before you buy a full-size container of something you might not like.
As I said, there are tons of different mediums and each one does something special. Here’s a link to Blick Art and their page on acrylic mediums. I picked Liquitex because they have so many, are a bit less expensive than Golden, and to be honest when it comes to mediums it’s my brand of choice… more about why that is, later. Blick Art-Liquitex Acrylic Mediums
To create texture on your canvas, choose gel mediums rather than liquid mediums. Gel mediums have more body to them, and fluid mediums are best used for lighter applications, thinning paint, adding iridescence to paint, or glazing, for example. For use on a stretched canvas be sure and choose a gel medium, or more specifically, modeling paste that dries to a flexible finish (the back of the container will state whether it dries to a flexible or rigid finish). Note: *Some brands say modeling paste, some say molding paste…they’re the same thing
The fun thing about modeling paste is you can create so many textures in it and every time it’s unique and different! I use a large palette knife, but feel free to try an old credit card, your fingers, a popsicle stick or whatever you want to use. I scoop out more than I will need and smear it around like frosting a cake. I personally don’t like it super thick on the canvas, so I end up scraping the excess off and putting it back in the container. You can scratch into it, add dots with a pencil eraser, or lay a stencil down first and scrape the medium over the stencil to create a raised design onto your canvas. I try to smooth the modeling paste where the top of the canvas meets the edges so I don’t get a ridge of paste, and I also try to avoid getting it on the sides of the canvas. If you do get some on there just scrape off with the palette knife if the medium is still wet, or if it’s dried use sandpaper to smooth it down. I use Liquitex because I like the way it feels when it’s dry. Golden feels rougher to me, and Liquitex feels smoother…it’s purely personal choice. They are both excellent products, and there are many others out there as well.
Speaking of sandpaper…I use it to smooth all over the surface once it’s dried. It usually dries overnight, but it might be faster depending on how dry it is where you live, or could be slower if it’s very humid. Once it’s dried and sanded, then you can begin painting. The cool thing is, as you layer paint it gathers and skips according to the surface texture. To add to this effect I often swipe colors on top of painted layers using a standard size palette knife.
New layers of modeling paste can be added throughout the creative process. You can also add paint to the modeling paste and then apply to the canvas. Be aware the mixture will dry opaque, and I would also suggest using the heavier bodied acrylics to do so. Fluid acrylics will thin the modeling paste more than heavy bodied acrylics.
Here is a short video I created to demonstrate and discuss applying acrylic medium/modeling paste: Applying acrylic medium/modeling paste
A few things I’ve learned along the way:
*Use a piece of cling wrap to cover the jar before putting the lid back on. The jar gets difficult to open unless you are diligent about wiping it clean every time.
*Wipe the palette knife clean with a paper towel before you wash in the sink. This product may clog your sink if it builds up in the drain.
*Take it easy on the texture where you know you may need to paint some details. If I’m painting an animal I make sure it’s smooth where the eyes and nose will be. Otherwise, it’s difficult to paint a smooth line if needed.
*If you’re new to using modeling paste, start with a thinner layer of product on your canvas by wiping more off with the palette knife and work towards using more product. Remember to think of it like frosting a cake…sometimes a little frosting is just right.
*Experiment on a small canvas first, and wait for it to dry before painting.
*Be sure you use a modeling paste that will dry to a flexible finish for stretched canvas. If you work on board or other rigid surfaces you can use traditional modeling paste, but I would still recommend you try the lighter weight variety. The regular modeling paste is much heavier and will add weight to your finished piece. I write rigid or flexible on the lids to help keep them straight and I can see it quickly without having to re-read the labels.
I hope you’ll give acrylic gel mediums a try to up your texture game. It’s not often I can say an art supply changed my life, but this one did. It took my art in a whole new direction and I can’t imagine painting without it. Until next time…
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