Finding a Happy Medium

Now that I’m comfortable using both watercolors and acrylics, I often debate which of the two media to use for a particular painting. Some subjects lend themselves more to one medium than the other. And some approaches – how I want to depict my subject – lend themselves more to one than the other. But sometimes the decision isn’t so clear-cut.

110801 Shutter Rose 2

Watercolor, illustrated in example #1 above, is more free-flowing and tends to produce less contrast of value, since the pigments tend to fade by about 10% as they dry, just as a colorful wet stone fades as it dries in warm sunshine—and for exactly the same reason. To achieve stronger contrast, watercolor often requires multiple glazes (and therefore more patience).

110707 Shutter Rose (acrylic)

The denser acrylic, shown in example #2, retains its color better as it dries, since the pigment is supported by polymers rather than water. Its texture also makes it more conducive to controlling the blending of colors and gradation of values. Either medium can produce hard, crisp edges; and either can achieve soft blends.

I find it easier to anticipate my range of values with acrylics. Certainly they allow me to cover mistakes, adjust edges, or redesign a composition in mid-stream more easily than I can with transparent watercolors. Yet there is a certain lightness of feel and sense of spontaneity achievable with watercolor that is much more elusive with acrylic.

In general, I use watercolor when seeking a sense of airiness or spontaneity. I choose acrylic when I want more control over edges and tonal variations.

120706 Shutter Rose 3

Sometimes I can’t decide, so I tackle the subject in both media to see which I like better. I’m often more satisfied with one than the other, but sometimes I’m happy with both. And sometimes I know I can improve on both so “take it again from the top,” as I did in example #3. Can you tell which medium I selected?

What do you think? Can you see the differences the choice of medium makes? I would be interested to hear which of these compositions you prefer, and why.

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