Updated: Feb 4
Choosing a medium is entirely up to the individual; some folks work with oils, others prefer acrylics, watercolours, or pastels. I’ve used them all with varying degrees of success, and like to switch around between them depending on the work I have in mind. Each medium has benefits and drawbacks that I’ll try to describe in general for you, based on my own experience with them.
Oils are very forgiving; make a mistake and you can just wipe the paint from a section while it’s wet, or even the entire canvas if you want to start over. I love their slick, velvety feel, but they take a long time to dry, so unless you have a large space to work in and more than one easel or table to set them on, you’re limited as to how many paintings you can work on at a time.
The main drawback is, solvents or linseed oil have to be added to thin them. Solvents speed drying time, linseed oil slows it down. Also, solvents are an absolute must for cleanup, but it's important to point out that they’re highly flammable, not easily disposable, and without adequate ventilation the fumes can get pretty nasty. And if oils dry out in the tube or on your palette, nothing can be done to make them workable again, which can lead to a lot of wasted paint.
Acrylics are very versatile; tube paints are thick, with a consistency similar to oils and they can be applied in much the same way, with a brush or palette knife. They also come in a liquid form contained in bottles. Diluted with water, they are transparent and so can be used in similar fashion to watercolour paints but, unlike watercolours, they are absolutely permanent once they touch paper. With silicone added to the thinner variety, they’re great for poured paintings, which are wonderfully weird and amazingly fun to do, and yield some incredible results. You can't go wrong with poured acrylics! They are fairly clean to work with too, needing only mild soap and water for cleaning brushes while the paint is still wet.
On the downside, they dry very quickly once they're out of the bottle or tube, and thinning them with water makes them dry even faster. A retarder medium can solve the drying problem; mix it into the blob of paint on your palette, or squeeze some paint into a small container with an air-tight lid and mix the retarder into that.
Like oils, nothing can be done to make them workable once they’ve dried out on a palette or in a container. And nothing short of explosives will remove acrylic paint when it's dried into the bristles of a brush.
I've found so many advantages to this kind of paint, making it my hands-down favorite medium! It’s positively magical to work with once you get the hang of its very liquid nature. That's the hard part, and the only drawback I know of. Experimentation and trial-and-error practice is essential, but even failed paintings may have areas that look surprisingly good!
The colours are vibrant, highly concentrated and paints can be mixed together to create new hues. Thanks to their transparent or semi-transparent quality, you can layer colours instead of mixing them together, because each new layer lets the colour beneath shine through. Only water is needed for thinning and cleanup is easy with mild soap and water.
A huge advantage to watercolour paint is the forms it comes in, and all of them are wonderfully portable. Tubes are small, and the paints can be squeezed out onto a little palette, ready for use with a sopping-wet brush. They can be left to dry out in the wells of a palette made specifically for watercolour paints; a bit of water is all it takes to quickly and easily make them workable again. ‘Cake’ watercolours come in little pans, either individually or in sets. All you need to do is soak a brush with clean water, and work it over the dry surface of the cake; this will liquefy the paint and your wet brush will pick it up. There are pencil and crayon forms as well, both of which can be lightly sketched onto paper and then worked over with a wet brush. However, good quality brushes are absolutely essential, and care must be taken in choosing papers to work on.
A post with more information about choosing brushes and paper is on the way!
To be completely honest, the last time I did anything in pastel was a whopping twenty years ago! After seeing some of the amazing pastel paintings in the Facebook groups I belong to, it's a medium that I'd like to learn much more about, and I'll return to it sometime soon. When I do, you can rest assured that I'll share everything with you. In the meantime, here is a pastel portrait I did such a long, long time ago. With so many years gone by, seems like it was a galaxy far, far away, too!