ACRYLIC – It’s not just paint!
Acrylic is an amazing medium for fine art painters. Acrylic research and development has taken acrylic far beyond what any other medium, like oil or watercolor, can do.
When we compare acrylic to all the other available mediums for painters, it is like comparing the computer application of Photoshop to an old fashioned typewriter. We can type something in Photoshop, but this program can do so much more. Imagine only using Photoshop to type a letter! We would be missing out on the vast possibilities that Photoshop has to offer. It’s the same with acrylic. To approach acrylic as if we are painting with oil or watercolor would limit the broad range of its painting potential.
The video below is about Acrylic Binders, and is an excerpt from my DIY course The Complete Guide to Acrylic Painting, the ultimate acrylic painting course, using self-guided video instruction.
Binders are also called “vehicle” or “medium”.
Binders combine with pigment to create that wet stuff we call paint.
Acrylic (also called polymer) is the binder for acrylic paints.
Ever find yourself standing in awe (and confusion) at the long row of products in the acrylic section at the art store? It can be mind-boggling! Yet almost all of these products can be divided into two main types: paints or binders.
Three Types of Acrylic Binders
As I mentioned before, acrylic paint combines color pigment with acrylic binder. These are called paints because they have color! Binders represent the rest of those products, usually without color, and can be divided into three main categories: MEDIUMS – GELS – PASTES
Let’s look into these three categories more closely. The differences between them are mainly about consistency, transparency and drying times.
Mediums are thin and pourable, smoothing the paint or surface. Gels and pastes are thick, adding texture to the paint or surface.
Gels and Mediums can be purchased in different sheen types, such as gloss, matte and sometimes semi-gloss. Gloss versions applied over a paint layer or color, will be transparent like the Regular Gloss Gel pictured on the left in the image below. You can still see the black lines underneath the gel very well. Matte and semi-gloss versions applied over a paint layer or color will look translucent or slightly milky, as seen in the middle image. Pastes are opaque, and will cover over paint layers like the Molding Paste on the right side of the image.
Each type of binder, as well as each paint color, has its own quality in terms of transparency versus opacity. You can change and customize the transparency or opacity of paints by mixing them with binders. The more transparent a layer or color is, the more “see-through” it is, allowing an underlying color, image or surface underneath to show through. The more opaque a layer or color is, the more it will cover up whatever is underneath. Adding gloss mediums or gels to a paint color increases its transparency, adding pastes to paint colors increases its opacity.
Adding matte mediums or matte gels to paint creates translucency offering opportunities to replicate wax and other veiling effects. Adding more or less of each of the above creates varying degrees of transparency, translucency or opacity.
Let’s look at glazes as an example. Glazes are made by mixing very small amounts of paint color into mediums. Substitute gels for mediums in this scenario to make contemporary textural glazes.
As you can see from the images below, when mediums and gels become dry, they clear up quite a bit, to something either transparent or translucent, while the paste still remains white and opaque. A small swatch of matte medium and matte gel are applied to the bottom of their gloss counterparts in the photo, to show the translucent quality of matte products.
Another consideration between mediums, gels and pastes are their different drying times. Adding gels to your paints will increase the open time, another way to say that it will slow down the drying time. Pastes dry quickly so adding these to your paints will allow for those paints to dry faster too. There are also some mediums that are meant to dry extra slow and are mentioned below.
My favorite Acrylic Binders
Here is a list of my favorite painting products for each category: Mediums, Gels and Pastes. These products in my list are all by Golden as that is what I use for my own work.
Mediums are usually thin enough to pour easily out of their containers. The gloss versions are white when wet, but dry totally clear. The matte versions dry somewhat semi-transparent. Mediums are pure polymer binder. Here are several choices I like to have around my studio at arm’s reach, with a list of how I use them.
Mix into paints to make them more transparent and/or glossy
Apply to a surface to seal it or make it glossy
Apply over paint to enhance colors
Mix into paints to make them more transparent and/or matte
Apply to a surface to make it more matte
Apply over paint to veil or mute colors
Acrylic Glazing Liquid
Use as a slow drying medium
Mix into paints up to 40% to slow down the drying to apply a color evenly
Apply to surfaces to work wet-in-wet
Mix into paints over 40% to make colors more transparent – into a glaze
Use as a very slow drying medium, same as other mediums.
Add to paint to make color more transparent.
Can be used with the matching slow drying paint line called OPEN. Can also be mixed with regular acrylic paint lines.
Golden has a line of 7 specialty purpose mediums, called GAC’s. For more information on these, read here.
In general, Gels start out in manufacturing as thin mediums, but are put through a thickening process to stiffen their consistency. They are usually packaged in jars or tubes, and can be handled with knives or brushes. Like unthickened mediums, the gloss versions are white when wet, but dry totally clear. The matte versions dry somewhat semi-transparent. Gels are pure polymer binder. Here are several choices I like to have around my studio at arm’s reach, with a list of how I use them.
Soft Gel Gloss
Use for same reasons as gloss mediums, but when texture is desired
Create textural glazes by adding color
Add transparency by mixing into color
Slow down drying by mixing into color
Use to make an Isolation Coat to protect one layer from the next, usually used directly under the final varnish layer. Mix 1:1 with water
Great glue for paper and objects
Apply over white grounds in places to act as a resist
Regular Gel Gloss and Heavy Gel Gloss
can be used same as Soft Gel Gloss but are thicker
Soft Gel Matte
Use for same reasons as matte mediums, but when texture is desired
Create textural glazes by adding color
Add transparency by mixing into color
Can use as glue for paper and objects where you don’t want gloss
Apply over paint for veiling or muting colors
Regular Gel Matte and Heavy Gel Matte
can be used same as Soft Gel Matte but are thicker
Clear Tar Gel
Use for pouring purposes in thin layers. Only dilute with water in dry climates and minimally. Avoid diluting to create marbleized color effects.
Pastes are made with polymer binder, like mediums and gels, however they have other ingredients added to make them thick and opaque. They are usually packaged in jars or tubes, and can be handled with knives or brushes. Here are several choices I like to have around my studio at arm’s reach, with a list of how I use them.
Light Molding Paste
Use as a white paint in mixtures to make tints but keeping colors bright
Add to paint to create fluffy absorbent textures
Apply to surfaces to increase surface absorbency
Apply as a “white-out” over painted areas you want to change completely
Add to paint to quicken its drying time
Coarse Molding Paste
Same uses as Light Molding Paste except it dries more transparent
Apply over painted areas to veil or mute
Use in stencils for relief texture
Add to paint to thicken and make more opaque
Apply over surface to create smooth slightly non-absorbent surfaces
Additives such as retarder and flow release are not acrylic binders. These need to be used in correct proportions as described on their product labels.
All binders can be mixed together with other binders, with or without colored paint. They can also be layered one over the other in any order. Binders can be added into paints to customize your paint. They can be applied by themselves on a surface to customize your surface prior to painting, during painting and after painting. Wow, right?
The information in this article is also included in Nancy’s DIY course The Complete Guide to Acrylic Painting. The ultimate acrylic painting course including over 30 videos with full demonstations of acrylic painting techniques.