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How to make acrylic paint look like enamel

enamel-like finish with acrylic paint

When I see the word “enamel” a vision comes to mind of a beautifully smooth brushless glossy surface. The word is now commonly used for a variety of paint types, and I’ll avoid getting too technical here, (as I’d rather focus on the point of this article, which is how to customize fine art acrylic paints to create a brushless, smooth and glossy surface) by using a simple description from Wikipedia:

 “… the term “enamel paint” is used to describe oil-based covering products, usually with a significant amount of gloss in them, however recently many latex or water-based paints have adopted the term as well. The term today means “hard surfaced paint” and usually is in reference to paint brands of higher quality, floor coatings of a high gloss finish, or spray paints. Most enamel paints are alkyd resin based….” (For more information on enamel click here for the full Wikipedia article.)

 Here are several ideas for painters, to obtain an “enamel” appearance on a painting using fine artist’s acrylic paint:

 (1)  Start with a paint that is naturally or formulated in a thin consistency: Use the fluid acrylic paints that come in bottles, or the new super thin (but with highly saturated color) High Flow acrylic paints. Thinner consistency paints offer a smoother application with less visible brushstrokes or texture. The thick acrylic paints that come in tubes and jars have thickener added to them to look and act like oil paint. These are great for adding texture, but will take more effort on your part to get them to look smooth. By using the Fluid or High Flow paints you still have strong color, but won’t have to dilute with water or medium to thin to reduce texture.

(2) Customize your paint by adding thin mediums to make a thinner color mixture:  Add to your paint color some hard, clear mediums like Golden’s GAC500 or GAC100. These can be added to thick paints to help thin them, although the color will become less intense, so if possible use thin paints to start with as stated previously. Adding these mediums to your Fluid or High Flow paint colors will make them harder and glossier, increase refraction and increase leveling capabilities. Additionally add up to 15% retarder to this mixture to slow down drying, enabling even smoother applications.

(3) Position brush properly for smooth applications: Apply paint or mixtures onto your surface using a soft wide flat brush, spreading thinly by working in small areas at a time. Keep brush positioned on a low angle to your surface for smooth applications, instead of a 90 degree angle or perpendicular to the surface which will create more texture.

(3) Alternate layers of paint with medium: Another option is to first apply a thin layer of pure paint color undiluted onto your surface and let dry. Do not add any water or medium to the paint color. If using a thicker paint sand smooth after drying. Over this dried paint color layer, brush apply a thin layer of GAC500 (or any thin undiluted gloss acrylic medium). Let dry. Repeat by applying another layer of paint color, then another layer of medium. Repeat as many times as you like, waiting until each application or layer is dry before applying the next. By building up in layers alternating between paint and medium you can achieve a very smooth brushless highly refractive surface. If your paint color layers are holding brush strokes you can lightly sand each layer when dry with waterproof sandpaper, using water to keep any sanded particles from getting airborn. Wipe off the sanded areas while still wet with a soft rag.

(4) Pour the paint: Add some paint color to a glossy pouring medium, and apply onto your surface by pouring. This eliminates brushstrokes and easily creates the perfect enamel look. Spray the freshly poured layer lightly with alcohol immediately after pouring and while still very wet to eliminate bubbles. Click here for more tips on pouring. Also, my new book, Acrylic Illuminations has an entire section with many techniques on pouring. Click here for easy (and discounted) purchase through Amazon.

Video Demonstration from Acrylic Illuminations


26-4Nancy Reyner’s book, Acrylic Illuminations: Reflective and Luminous Acrylic Painting Techniques, demonstrates many unusual painting techniques using acrylic. Click on the link below to see one of these techniques demonstrated in a video, called Embedded Pearlized Color. This technique uses specialty paints called Interference paints, along with layers of acrylic gloss gel to create a special reflective effect. Click here for the link.

Unusual Technique from Acrylic Illuminations

Here is an example of  “Soft Melted Effects”, from Nancy Reyner’s book, Acrylic Illuminations: Reflective and Luminous Acrylic Painting Techniques. This technique can transform hard edges into soft by embedding them texturally into a wet gel layer. Soft edges make blurred forms, offering the illusion of receding forms in space. This can enhance any style, whether real or abstract while adding variety to the composition. To purchase the book, click here.



Paint: one or more acrylic paint colors 

Substrate: any primed painting surface

Tools: paintbrush, painting knife or other spreading tool

Products: a matte or gloss acrylic gel

For clean-up: water, water container, paper towels or rags 


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStep 1: Rough Out an Underpainting
On a surface paint an underpainting using any style or technique. This ice cream cone with violet background uses Cobalt Turquoise, Burnt Sienna, Vat Orange, Raw Umber, Carbon Black, Titanium White and Hansa Yellow Light.



Select an acrylic gel. Gloss dries transparent while a matte gel appears veiled or cloudy. Using a knife or other spreading tool, such as a spatula, heavily apply gel all over surface at least ¼” in depth. Here Heavy Gel Gloss is applied. Continue to the next step while wet.



Step 3: Paint Into the Wet Gel
Using a brush or knife, apply paint color on the wet gel. Heavier gels allow smoother applications of paint, while softer gels record the application texturally. Gel appears white when wet, temporarily hiding the underpainting. If you need to control where the paint is applied for this layer scrape the gel away from small areas at a time with a knife to peak at where forms are then push gel back into place. Tip: Remember to use white as it’s easy to forget to use it when the wet gel is white. Continue to the next step while wet.

Step 4: Embed Edges
Using a clean knife glide over the edges pushing the color down into the depths of the gel layer. Move the paint around to soften and blur until satisfied. When the gel is dry the underpainting and overpainting will visually merge as seen here.



A Whole New “it” Brain


The popular book A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink, exemplifies a new movement towards rebalancing our left and right brain hemispheres. He postures that the high paying executive jobs now filled with left-brain information types will be replaced by the new desirables – the “creatives”, who are more in tune with their right side. Our current educational system encourages left brain thinking while art schools tend to encourage the right. Even though Betty Edward’s book, Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain, has become a household phrase, our right side has been belittled and downplayed as the lesser brain functioning power for decades. The key is probably somewhere in the middle, to create a balance between both sides for a healthier, happier, productive and functioning society.

In meditation the left brain (words, analytical judgments, etc) is subdued so the right side (spatial, timeless) can better evoke the desired calm. In Kimon Nicolaides’ best-selling book, The Natural Way to Draw he writes that while focused in the right side of the brain there can be no mistakes. In meditation, just as in creating art, the right side is dominant. It is interesting that both meditation groups and attendance in art workshops are gaining in popularity. The activity of viewing art, however, offers another opportunity to utilize the right side as well.

In the act of seeing, our eyes have the ability to perceive two different ways: optically and tactilely, and each of us tends to favor one over the other. Seeing optically we focus on the light and dark qualities and color. Seeing tactilely our eyes extend tiny illusionary “hands” outwards almost like touching the viewed objects, and we see sculpturally noticing the tactile qualities. Those favoring the tactile approach first notice a painting’s surface quality or texture. When next visiting a museum or gallery, take a moment and notice where your eyes wander; what attracts them, and what remains unnoticed on the walls. When artists give attention to all aspects of an artwork; the light and dark, the color, and sensuousness of the surface, then the artwork has the potential to attract a wider audience by appealing to both types of viewers.

photo credit:

Painting Ideas with Acrylic “Skins”

What’s a skin? It’s a separate piece of acrylic without any backing or support.  Any acrylic product when applied to a non-stick surface and left to dry, can be peeled off producing a piece of acrylic with no backing. This piece of acrylic, or “skin” can be used as a collage item in a painting, or as an entire layer of a painting.

What non-stick surfaces will work? Plastic garbage bags, plastic painting drop cloths at home improvement stores that are whitish and cloudy, plexi sheets called HDPE (High Density Polyethylene), Freezer Paper (found in grocery stores – not to be confused with wax paper) and protective plastic binder sheets found in office supply stores.

Which type of acrylic works best? The quick answer is that any acrylic product will make a skin. But to delve a bit deeper, let’s start by thinking of acrylic in two broad categories. There’s paint and binder. Acrylic paint has color, while binders come in 3 basic types: mediums, gels and pastes. So any paint, medium, gel or paste can create a skin, which means a skin can come in any color, opacity/transparency, thickness, sheen, texture or combination.

Some painting ideas with skins:

Make a variety of skins and store them for later use by stacking them together with freezer paper in between so they don’t stick together.

Cut the skins into specific shapes with scissors and glue them onto an acrylic painting using a gel as glue.

Roll them into shapes to add a three-dimensional relief onto the painting surface.

Create large sheets of clear skins, paint something different on each one, then arrange one on top of the other to create different effects (pictured below)

photos from Nancy Reyner’s book, Acrylic Innovation. To purchase the book, click here.

Create large sheets of translucent skins by using matte gels, or thin layers of paste, and adhere over a painting to create the illusion of depth. Optionally you can continue to paint over this skin, or add another skin layer.

Viewing Paintings

A previous blog article I wrote on the “S” curve stimulated some email questions on how to see subtle underlying shapes, such as the classic “S” curve in paintings. Negative space, (or the illusion of space perceived in between forms) is perceived via our lesser used right brain hemisphere, while shapes or defined forms are seen with our more frequently used left brain.

As an experiment, place your hand flat on a table in front of you with fingers spread out. Our left brain takes control right away and so we see our fingers. I believe it is difficult if not impossible to see from both sides of our brain at the same time. Now try to look at the spaces in between the fingers by keeping your eyes fixed on those spaces, until our eyes turn them into interesting shapes. You will need to switch from left to right brain hemispheres to fully view those spaces in between the fingers. Our left brain is our default system, so it is easier to look at forms while it takes more of a conscious effort to see the spaces in between. In paintings to see the space in between the forms takes more of a conscious effort too.

To find subtle forms in a painting then, requires a conscious switch between our two brain hemispheres while viewing the painting, and also as artists, while painting it. When we allow ourselves time to view a painting with our right brain (viewing the negative spaces), you will begin to see or form larger geometric patterns such as the “S” curve I mentioned. Each work of art generally uses at least one geometric shape as an overriding principle to hold the smaller shapes together. Other common geometric shapes found in paintings are diamonds, pyramids, circles and squares. These are forms that we as humans will naturally impose onto images. I believe that any painting you find interesting, be it an Old Masters famous painting from the Renaissance, or a contemporary one in a local gallery, will have some form of underlying geometry in its composition.

What’s a Glaze?

Even though I’ve written several articles on glazing I came to realize that “glazing” is often misunderstood and could use some defining. So, what is a glaze? The most common answer is that a glaze is transparent. Well, that may be true, but that is only one part of the answer. My definition of a glaze is a bit fuller: “a subtle transparent evenly applied layer of color”. Let’s look at why I define it this way.

The new modern pigment colors (ie Quinacridones, Phthalos, Dioxazine) are often called transparent, so can these be used as glazes? Not by themselves, and here is why. When they are applied thickly they are opaque. When they are applied thinly they are transparent but are so incredibly vibrant that they will overpower anything they overlay.

Let’s take a moment and ask why we care about glazes anyway. When would using a glaze be an appropriate technique? Let’s say you were painting a portrait commission in a realistic style, and after months of hard work the portrait was as perfect as you can get it. Continuing this imaginary scenario you then proudly show the portrait to your client who feels the skin tone is overall too yellow. So what do you do? Argue with the client? Not a good idea. Take the painting back to your studio, remix all the colors and repaint the entire face again? Also not a good idea. There is an easier solution. Applying a transparent layer of a purple color (purple is the opposite or complement of yellow on the color wheel) to neutralize the yellow coloring.

So now lets get back to our discussion of the modern colors. By wrongly assuming that any modern color is transparent and therefore by itself would make a good glaze, we could grab our tube of Dioxazine Purple and apply it thinly (so it’s transparent) over the entire portrait face. Now to our horror we see that this purple color, even though it is transparent is so intense it has turned the face to a vivid purple. We could try to convince our client that this modern style might be a better approach to their portrait, or we could take another look at my definition of a glaze again. Being transparent isn’t enough for a glaze to be of help in a situation like this. Remember the full definition of a glaze is “a subtle transparent evenly applied layer of color”. So still using the Dioxazine Purple we have the transparency, but how do we get the “subtle evenly applied” qualities?

Start a mixture on the palette using a clear polymer medium (if you are working with acrylic) and add a very small amount of the Dioxazine Purple (about 1 part paint to 10 parts medium), mix it really well with a knife so it’s all homogenized, making the color more subtle. To apply it evenly, however, we need to slow down the drying time. Adding up to 15% retarder to this mixture will slow down the drying. Another alternative is to use Acrylic Glazing Liquid (contains 15% retarder to 85% polymer medium gloss) for your medium. Now with a smooth flat brush, apply this mixture (1 part Dioxazine Purple to 10 parts slow drying medium) in a very thin application to obtain an evenly applied transparent layer of color. And voila (!) our overly yellow portrait is now neutralized to a more acceptable flesh tone. Use glazing for shifting colors as well as many other uses.

Even though my directions are for use with acrylic paints, the same applies with oil. Just substitute an oil medium instead of the acrylic mediums I mentioned.

Secret Tricks to Pouring Acrylic

How do you get that cool effect? Contemporary paintings are notorious for sporting a wide variety of special effects, especially when the imagery is abstract. Most of these effects, I have found, are obtained by pouring. Pouring is a simple concept. It’s a way of applying paint without using brushes, knives or other application tools. Just grab a large container of acrylic medium and pour it out onto a surface. Simple? Yes. Messy? Yes. Easy? Often, no.

Pouring is most commonly used to get a “surfboard finish”; a super glossy, brushless and smooth rich layer of color or clear coating on a painting. This is often obtained by using toxic resins. However, there are ways to get the same results with non-toxic acrylic. (This is the focus of my pouring presentation, recorded live, and available for purchase in a 70 minute DVD for $20. If interested please email Nancy at

In addition to the surfboard finish, pouring can offer some new and unusual special effects to your work. With pouring its easy to think of Jackson Pollock. It can be a great way to add some fun into your painting process, smooth out unwanted texture on your surface, get marbleized effects, and rich colored glazes.

Here are some basic tips from my DVD to get a flawless “surfboard finish”:

(1) Use a rigid surface to keep from buckling while drying.

(2) Use a medium that is made specifically for pouring, like Golden’s GAC800. If using other fluid mediums, such as Clear Tar Gel or Self-Leveling Gel, dilute up to 40% with water and spread thinly to avoid crevicing.

(3) Apply a stain sealer, then prime the surface before pouring to keep stains from coming through the surface into the poured medium.

(4) Pour on a surface that is level, so while it dries it won’t shift.

(5) Immediately spray with alcohol after pouring and spreading to eliminate bubbles.

(6) For deep pours apply duct tape around the edges like a wall, seal the seam with a gel, then pour as deep as you want using GAC800. This is the only medium that I know of that can be poured deeper than ¼” without crevicing.

Other techniques covered in the DVD: Smoothing out a textured surface; Deep pouring & embedding; Transparent and Opaque Colored Pours; Poured Collage Shapes; “Dirty Mix” Pours; Jackson Pollock Drizzle Pours; Marbleized Pours

This 70 minute DVD, Secret Tricks to Pouring Acrylic, will be available for purchase (by March 1, 2012) for $20. If interested please email

I Don’t Get It!?

Ever been to a museum or art gallery and can’t figure out why a painting is on exhibit? It may not look finished, make sense, feel attractive, or give any idea of its meaning. I recently received an email from a New York City artist asking for help in understanding a painting by the surrealist Yves Tanguy (pictured below) that he saw in the Museum of Modern Art, titled “He Did What He Wanted”, painted in1927. In his email the artist said he tried to figure it out, knew it was surreal, but still felt lost. Even the wisest of us can feel a bit miffed while viewing an art exhibition. Here are some ideas I have on this topic:

Art comes in a wide variety
Our world is diverse. There are many different types and styles of paintings, as well as people, each of us with a different perspective, different ways of viewing and creating art. So it follows that there will always be some art we prefer, others we don’t, and some that we will not comprehend, and may not care to either. If you don’t understand it, or like it, just move on until you find one that interests you.

Being on display does not always designate quality
Museums are educational institutions. They collect art for a wide variety of reasons, but in general try to purchase works that had an impact in the way we now view art history. Viewing an artwork on display in a museum, with our contemporary eyes, may not give us any connection unless we know about that artist or artwork, or have donned a pair of headphones. Even if this artwork is created by a designated “master”, this may not be their best work. That is because great masters like all artists, created a wide variety of  works, and some may be great while others are lukewarm. Museums may only be able to purchase a lesser quality work by a master due to finances or market availability. Keep in mind that just because a work of art is in a museum it may not be of high quality, and it may not speak to us.

If the work doesn’t communicate anything to you, then let it go and move on to another image that does. Its more fun to keep looking for work that moves us then spend time with ones that don’t. When I go to a museum I give myself one and a half hours max. After that I no longer have the viewing attention. In that time I wander around in search of one painting that will really move me. Once I find that one work I will stand in front of it for long periods of time to soak it in. What I am soaking in is not always intellectual or analyzed, but more emotional or felt. I go to a museum for that experience, not to see if I can understand all the works that are on display. Sometimes I will go to a certain exhibit to see what the curator had in mind – try to figure out what the educational message is from the show as a whole. But in general I like to view art for the “high”, the emotional and spiritual impact I can get. This, then, gives me motivation to keep painting, to see that art does and continues to have value to the human spirit.

About Ives Tanguy
As I first mentioned, in the email that inspired this article was a painting by Ives Tanguy. Here is a link to read more about him.

He is very well known as one of the surrealist masters. I am not drawn to this particular work of his, however, I am aware that paintings look very different in person then from a photograph. The full impact of a work of art comes from all the factors, some of which are missing when the work transfers from paint to photograph: factors such as size, surface texture and sheen, quality of the pigment and color refracted by light, handling of the paint, and the artists “signature” in the brushstrokes. So I will keep from making any judgments until my next trip to New York.

Surrealism is an important movement in art history, and is still a major influence in contemporary work. Here is a link to read more about surrealism:

During the time when surrealism was popular to a specific group of artists, there were other parallel movements in the culture such as the early development of contemporary psychology. Surrealism is based on our collective unconscious, so images, forms, shapes and colors are utilized to create a dream-like state in the viewer, and to evoke personal connections. This was a big deviation from other works of that time, that strove to create a very specific place, time and snapshot of reality. This particular work by Tanguy presents a grouping of forms (geometric and “real”) in a landscape that will mean different things to each of us. As Carl Jung discovered, there are certain forms that mean the same thing to us, thus forming our collective, which is better stated in his books on the collective unconscious. When we look at historic works with contemporary eyes we may not find anything of interest. I do believe, though, that a really great work of art will connect to our human spirit in some way throughout time.

Ives Tanguy, “He Did What He Wanted”, 1927