The story of my painting evolution.

Say you want to start painting but you have no idea where to begin. Let me help you.

I am thirty-seven and I started painting when I was twelve years old. Over the years I have worked my way through watercolours, acrylics, and now I am focusing primarily on oil painting for my personal work. But depending on my mood I will jump between mediums. Maybe my personal experiences can help you to decide what’s right for you.

Before I was introduced to painting I had mainly used pencil crayons for my “serious” artworks. I think because it’s so accessible for so many kids (hello, Crayola) pencil crayons get written off as being kind of a juvenile art form. There are artist quality pencil crayons that can be used to create beautiful drawings – same goes for pastels, charcoal, graphite. But ever since I was introduced to watercolours I have considered myself to be primarily a painter.

Oh and save for school-mandated projects I have never wanted to make a sculpture – I express myself through my brush. 

First watercolour, c. 1995.

I started out with watercolours and was taught by a real watercolour artist for a number of years. Over time I transitioned from primarily painting with watercolour to dabbling in acrylic, then primarily acrylic until quite recently (summer 2018) when I decided to take the plunge and take up oil painting for my personal paintings. Because I have a lot of experience, I’m comfortable moving between each medium depending on my mood or my vision for the finished work, but for many years now I have tended to gravitate towards heavier-bodied paints (acrylic, oils) for paintings that I think are important or significant.

Watercolour c. 2003. I used to spend a lot of time painting the flowers in my dad’s garden. It may be a cliché but watercolour is so pretty for flower painting. You can see in this painting that my control really improved over the years.

I still paint with watercolours regularly, but I usually view these sessions as a warm up, or a break from the more serious work I might be focused on with my oils. With my art room set-up as it is, I can just swivel my chair around from my easel and push myself across the room to my watercolours waiting at my art table when I need to switch things up. If you’re open to how the paint behaves and flows, and if you are accepting of some lucky mistakes here and there, watercolour painting can feel very relaxing and just help to loosen you up. 

One of my favourite, but unfinished, watercolour paintings. I should really get this framed. This was done sometime during undergrad.

So how do you choose what type of painter you want to be? There are definitely many,  many artists who identify primarily with one type of paint and don’t really veer off course to dabble in any other mediums. There are definitely practical reasons for this – from a financial and storage perspective it is definitely easier to focus on one type of painting. And if you are new to painting and trying to learn you will probably be well-served to pick one and stick with it for awhile.

For me, I never felt totally comfortable with using watercolours. I have been able to achieve some level of personal success and sense of control over this type of paint, and I do go back to it regularly, but I just hate that you’re always kind of one wrong brush stroke away from ruining your entire painting. That’s a lot of risk and I’m pretty risk-averse. It’s a very clean type of painting. The paints are so beautiful and translucent and luminous and meant to show the beautiful paper underneath. If you do make a mistake, the work to fix it can ruin the delicate surface of the paper (drawing even more attention to your mistake) or any extra unnecessary layers of paint (to try to cover things up) can take away from the spontaneous properties that make it special to begin with.

Watercolour is such a good medium for whimsical, pretty paintings. Vizsla E. Kandinsky, watercolour on paper, 2018.

So even though I have created some watercolours that I really love, and even have framed around our house, I find this to be the exception for me, rather than the rule. I also tend to prefer watercolour and ink paintings (like my east coast series) because using ink to create more detail within the painting is very attractive to me – it is pleasing in a way that I can’t achieve with watercolour alone. I guess that’s my rigid nature coming out but I like when things are defined and under control. It’s not just paint, it extends to the dogs, my hair… I like to be in charge 🙂

From my east coast watercolour series, based on our summer 2018 travels. I love, love, love watercolour and ink paintings of interesting buildings.

When I was in my teens I started getting into acrylic painting. Oils seemed like too much of a jump and I had to transport a lot of art projects back and forth between school and home so drying time was definitely a concern – acrylic (being water-based) was just the natural next step. I now feel that I like a heavier-bodied paint because I like the feeling that I am “sculpting” an image in two-dimensions on my canvas. Maybe I sound a bit weird but I know my brushes and what they can achieve with what pressure at what angle. One brushstroke can really be so powerful or central to the entire work.

One of my first acrylic paintings. A study for OAC art class. I really don’t like this, but I love the colours. I just had no control over this paint. So frustrating.

For a long time now with acrylic (and more recently with oil paints), I have practiced painting with a very conservative number of brush strokes. The fewer the better I feel to convey the essence of the subject. When I get away from this, when it gets to be too fussy, too fiddly, something important is lost. All the planning and thought in the world should go into the painting beforehand so that the actual process of painting is very easy. My best paintings are also usually the ones that take the least time to paint. 

Another early acrylic painting. I remember really disliking this but now looking back… maybe not so bad? Again, love the colours.

Even though I feel very comfortable painting with acrylics now, for many, many years I struggled with acrylic paint because I didn’t know how to use it properly. I was trying to paint with acrylic on canvas like I did with watercolour on paper. As a result the paint just seemed too thick to me, it dried quickly, it seemed plastic-y. I couldn’t achieve the details that I wanted to.

Beesa! Compare this with my recent oil portraits of her. I found it really difficult to achieve any detail with the acrylic paint – I love this painting for nostalgia purposes, but I don’t think this is a very good painting skill-wise. Part of my evolution though!

If I can offer any advice, my top suggestion would be: for any type of paint you use, you should always buy the best that you can afford. As you go up in price point usually you’ll have a greater pigment load to binder ratio which means that your paintings will automatically look better. That alone will feel like an improvement.

Teelo. 2018. A year of huge growth in painting. I am so happy with my progress this year and it’s like something truly clicked for me. For the first time I really felt in control of my acrylic painting. A great feeling.

In the past year or so I’ve really levelled up in a big way with my acrylic painting because I started to work with it rather than against it. My approach became more sculptural. I take more time now to consider every brush stroke before it happens. This has been a huge game changer for me.

Other breakthroughs: I started painting in layers and creating an under-painting. I spent a lot of time getting to know the nature of the paint and then one day it really was like a switch clicked for me. I look back on my old acrylic paintings and I just cringe, but I’ve included them in this post to (hopefully!!) show my progress.

Now I really love using acrylics and I continue to use it for all of my commission-based work.

Oil painting!

I made the switch over to oil painting this year for my personal projects for a number of reasons. Even though I’ve made a lot of progress dealing with the properties of acrylic paints, I still felt limited by the super fast drying time. There’s a stage during painting when literally the entire painting surface is just tacky-sticky and no good can come of that. That’s the time when bad things happen to good paintings. The level of luminosity and realism I have been able to achieve with my oil painting so far has been so rewarding. I also feel like I can achieve more detail with oil than acrylic. It seems to work better for me when thinned down than acrylic paint – it doesn’t seem to lose its structure as quickly.

Detail of Beesa portrait. I think this is my best work of 2018 🙂

So, what do you do if you’re just starting out? What type of paint do you pick if you just want to try painting for the first time and you’re standing in the middle of the paint aisle at your local art store feeling intimidated by all the artsy looking people milling about? What do you do?

For ease of use, watercolour and acrylics are both water-based – water to thin, water for washes on paper and canvas respectively, water for clean-up. Soooooo easy. And actually, oil painting is only slightly less convenient in terms of having to use solvent and painting medium. Really, if I was advising someone on what type of paint to pick if they’d never painted before, I’d ask them to consider their favourite paintings and artists – what medium do they work in?

I put off oil painting for a really long time because I was intimidated. I told myself acrylic painting was basically the same (it’s not!!). The motivation I needed to change came this past summer when I saw the work of Canadian artist Heather Millar at Details Fine Art Gallery in Charlottetown. She is a phenomenal artist, one of my favourite contemporary artists, and such an inspiration to me. I am in awe of her talent and mastery of technique. When I experienced the impact of her beautiful oil paintings in person – I knew I had to try it for myself. I have so much to learn about oil painting, but I am grateful for the change and the opportunity to grow into a medium where I can really express my vision for painting.

Next oil paintings on deck!

No matter what you pick, the progress you make with painting technique and colour theory – it’s pretty transferable to some extent between mediums. If you want to paint, the most important thing to do is to just get started. Like today. Don’t wait. There’s no time like the present. If you want to paint give it a try! And if you do, let me know how it goes in the comments below. Thank you for reading and happy painting!

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13 Replies to “Which Paint to Paint With?”

  1. You mentioned something I really need to work on — limiting the number of brushstrokes. As you’ve pointed out, it’s usually true that the fewer the brushstrokes, the better the results. This is where I get myself into trouble. I’m constantly fiddling with the brush and paint, trying to get a line “just so” — and making a big mess of it, which leads to more brushstrokes to try to correct the problem, which leads to more tweaking, and more mess. Thanks for the reminder. I have to learn to put the paint down with a brush stroke and leave it alone!

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  2. I really wish schools would introduce kids to oil paints. Growing up I loved art, but didn’t so much love the mediums I was using. I found pencils tedious (but it was my main medium), watercolor too difficult, and acrylic dissatisfying and difficult. In college I was finally introduced to oils and I immediately turned into a painter. The vast majority of art I’m drawn to is done in oils, so it only makes sense. I still use other mediums here and there, but oils are really my go to. It’s unfortunate that so many people avoid them because they’re intimidated by using solvents and they think the paint itself is super toxic. When the paint is probably less toxic than acrylic since it’s just pigment in oil (not considering toxic pigments which are used in acrylic also). Then there is the fact that you don’t even have to use solvents if you don’t want to. I haven’t used solvents in almost two years and never will again.

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    1. Amber, thank you so much for this comment. Even as an adult and with the internet and so much information available, I have just personally found that the oil painting information is overly complicated and kind of steeped in tradition – which is good and bad. That’s why I try to share what I know, even if I’m learning a bit as I go – I think it’s’ valuable to offer some pared down, basic advice and some discussion too. I absolutely love being able to discuss these trials and tribulations with other artists like yourself who are experiencing similar things. At the end of the day, many, many artists are “self-taught” to some extent but I’m glad to be finding this community of like-minded people. BTW I visited your site and saw that you do not use solvents which is very intriguing and I admired your very cute beautiful dog 🙂 We have three pointers and it is a unique class of dogs – the most lovable, loyal little monsters. Thanks again for your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for checking out my site. In my opinion, trying out going solvent free is a worthwhile experiment for anyone concerned with the negative health effects of solvents. It made sense for me to try it since I wasn’t willing to switch to acrylics and didn’t want to invest in water soluble oils when I had a whole bunch of regular oils. I love the portraits you’ve done of your animals, especially the painting of your dog on the white chair. I love the pointing breeds. They’re definitely an adventure to own, but well worth it.

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