It’s Not Like Eating Junk Food

When it comes to putting additives into your paints, it just isn’t the same as eating a Twinkie or bag of Doritos. Additives are necessary in some cases, especially for landscape artists who work with varying conditions when painting landscapes. They can open up whole new aspects of your paint if you are willing to experiment a little and–most of all–don’t get too carried away with them.

Taos Mountain, Trail Home by Cordelia Wilson, oil painting, undated, ca. 1915-1920s. Likely Wilson used an additive to thicken her paint to achieve the impasto effect on the surface of the work.
Taos Mountain, Trail Home by Cordelia Wilson, oil painting,
undated, ca. 1915-1920s. Wilson obviously enjoyed the thickness
of her paint. For artists who want thinner paints, additives are available.

Most often you use additives to change the way the paint will look at the end of the process or to adapt the paint to your painting environment–to deal with issues of environmental temperature and humidity. The latter is especially pertinent if you create landscape paintings. Out there in the elements, whether you are making quick sketches or full-on plein air landscape art, you may have used additives in the past to deal with the elements and get what you need out of the time you had to paint.

For oils, there are binders to lend transparency to the pigments, speed up drying times, or prevent color fading or changing–poppy or safflower oil is often added to white and light colors because they are less prone to yellowing. Plus thinners like turpentine (not the household kind!) and mineral spirits to, you guessed it, thin your paints down. Mediums also can improve the flow of paint, change its consistency, and give a matte or gloss finish to the paint. Some speed up the drying times, others slow it down.

For acrylic paints, there are fewer rules because unlike oils, acrylic additives don’t need to be more flexible or “fat” than the layers beneath it. My favorite is gloss medium–it makes the paint thinner and slicker, and makes the colors more luminous. Matte medium, meanwhile, dries to a nonreflective finish, and you can also combine the two for a semi-gloss appearance. Gel medium is also useful if you combine collage techniques in your work. It thickens paint so you can build up the surface impasto-style, and increases the adhesion ability of the paint. There’s also retarding mediums for reduced drying times, texture paste to build up the surface of the paint, and flow improvers for acrylics.

Watercolor painting by Hsuan-Chi Chen of a bulb of garlic, created using masking fluid.
Watercolor painting by Hsuan-Chi Chen of a bulb of garlic, created using masking fluid.

Watercolor additives can increase color vibrancy and luminosity. Iridescent mediums can make a finished painting look glossy or leave a shimmer on the surface. There are additives that “thicken” the paint–slowing its flow–plus ones that leave a granular finish or make the paints more opaque. Masking fluid is also popular, although you don’t apply that to your pigments, just the surface you’ll be painting on.

I’m still new to all of the ways you can add things to your paints to make them do things that are new and novel and useful, but I am learning a lot from the latest issue of Splash, devoted entirely to exploring texture. It is a guide filled with tips and techniques for watercolor painters and delves into all aspects of the painting process with an eye toward the visual effects I crave. It’s perfect for taking with you when you are out there landscape painting or making quick watercolor sketches on the go. Enjoy Splash 16: Exploring Texture!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

2 thoughts on “It’s Not Like Eating Junk Food

  1. Very nice paintings. I like the onion, still images are an overlooked artform.

    Look at my TheTRMultimedia yutube site if you wish to see some experimental homes from my point of view. I am a retired architect and artist and have many views of the issue from past homes to sketches to concept cheap homes and sheds that might fit into yours and neighbors budget.