Acrylic as a Second Language

Pressed with the need to create a painting for the big front window of Arden Gallery for my September

Installation: Quadrate 1 in the window of Arden Gallery on Newbury Street, Boston

solo, I pulled out some old acrylic paints and brushes, purchased two gallons and several large tubs of gel, set up the easel, and immersed myself in a medium I hadn’t touched in over a decade.

Normally I paint in encaustic, but I didn’t want to put a wax painting in the gallery's window because I wasn’t sure what the trajectory of the sun would be in late summer and thus how hot the window area would get. (Wax + intense heat = puddle.)

I've been involved with encaustic for so long that the wide variety of gels are a new (to me) development in acrylic painting. I had the idea that by mixing acrylic paint with polymer medium--the way I mix encaustic paint with wax medium--and by applying clear layers of the polymer medium to create physical and optical depth, I might achieve something of the substance and luminosity of encaustic.

Well, I did. And I didn't.

Quadrate 1, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 inches, 2006

Once I got over trying to make an "encaustic painting" in plastic and gave into the idea that I was making an acrylic painting, I got into the process. There are some similarities between what I'm doing in the two mediums. The acrylic paint dries almost as fast as the wax paint cools, and by using combinations of no gel, some gel or a lot of gel--mostly semigloss--with various paints that are by nature opaque or semi-transparent, I can create some of the same play of opaque, translucent and transparent hues that I do with wax, with something of the same built-up texture. And, of course, I'm still making the same kinds of paintings: repetitive geometric compositions whose focus is color.

But there are differences. Unlike molten wax, which literally flows off the brush, acrylic paint mixed with gel is slippery; it needs to be pushed, pulled or dragged across the canvas. Since I normally work on panel, I’d forgotten about the "boing" of the canvas; I feel as if I’m painting on a trampoline. While I can wipe or scrape the acrylic while it’s in a plastic state, working it after it has begun to polymerize is messy and gooey. The paint was not meant to be worked that way. Yes, it’s always interesting to push a medium into new places, but scraping a semi-polymerized surface is literally ripping the skin off the painting. It doesn’t yield the way wax does. In fact the yielding surface is one of the reasons I turned to encaustic.

I’m not about to give up encaustic any time soon. Wax is an extension of my hand. But working in a second medium is like speaking a second language. Your ability to get around in the world, and certainly to communicate, increases immensely. Particularly with regard to larger-scale painting, acrylic lets me "speak" upright at the easel with fluency and to transport the work with relative ease. So we’ll see where this goes.

I certainly have enough gel left.