Choosing between oil and acrylic paints

Agenor’s Friends, acrylic on unstretched canvas, 92 x 86 inches

I was in an art store affixed to a local art school some months ago when a woman walked in asking the store clerk about the difference between oil and acrylic paints.  She was signed up for a class at the school in which you could use any medium. Since she was new to painting, she didn’t know what to choose. Being the busy body helpful person that I am, I considered offering some free advice. But the very complexity of the question put me into a kind of mental paralysis. So I just stood, blank stare, looking like a nosey store mannequin.

Anyone who has used either medium very much knows they are like night and day. I used to play around with acrylics in high school when they were still fairly new as a medium. Back in that era of my artist life, they posed no particular problem since I didn’t know much about paints anyway, my method was “go with the flow.” And to newcomers in the art world, I say take full advantage of the beginner’s mind and beginner’s luck. Nature loves a rookie.

However, after I had spent years and years painting with oil, I took up acrylic paints again because an artist friend was using them to wonderful effect. I got my palette and soon thereafter was ready to pull my hair out for frustration. The big mistake I made was in trying to make them behave like oil paints:  to make them do the things that I could so easily do with oil.  Well, it don’t work that way.

Cabbage and Potatoes, oil on paper glued to panel


I gave my whole palette to the friend just to get the paint out of my life. Later, though, I bought more acrylics and began to accept that they have their own virtues. In time I made some paintings that I really loved and one painting of which I am especially proud, Agenor’s Friends (top of the post). All that came later of course.

Still life of assorted bottles and props, acrylic on canvas


Ever since that random encounter (I eavesdropped on the clerk’s advice), I have wondered how I would explain the difference in the uses of the two kinds of paint. I have found no particularly satisfying explanation. For one, it really depends a lot on how you approach painting as to which medium you’re likely to find more congenial and someone who has never used either one isn’t like to have an approach yet.

And thus the only advice I know to offer to a beginner is this:

Get one of the kinds of paint. Flipping a coin is a good way to decide. Don’t invest the whole farm. Just buy a beginner’s set. Take a course with somebody who uses that medium. Or find a book. Check out Youtube for demonstration videos. Use whichever one you choose, learn some basics, then after a season give the other one a try.

Know that they are fundamentally different! One dries fast, the other dries slow. But, friends, I cannot impress upon you what a difference that makes!

(This post was inspired by something I saw at another blog. Smile.)


Art and not art

I’m not silly enough to attempt to define art.


I’ll stick with “we know it when we see it” (knowing full well that nothing could be farther from the truth in these contentious times in which we live). Instead I simply invoke the idea of “Art” [fill in the blank here] so that I can say that lots of things that artists do are not art, but are sometimes instead preparations for art. I made the drawing above to be telling myself where various objects would sit on the still life table that I was arranging in my thoughts. So the drawing isn’t art, but it provides some first ideas concerning something that might afterwards be art.

Musicians understand this readily since there’s a whole lot of not-music that must be made for music to happen. Before all, you have to learn to play the instrument. Some drawings are the way you play your scales and arpeggios. Some drawings are more diffuse like a jazz player’s chord chart.I happen to love a not-art sort of drawing. I love freedom in its many guises.

A certain kind of drawing is like tuning the instrument. Or warming it up. A clarinet is going to sound a little different after the player has warmed it up. The vibrations of playing open the wood and the reed. And the musician and the artist also especially have to warm up the other instrument: the mind.

There’s all kinds of drawings. Drawings that sort out visual problems or ideas. Drawings that we do for pleasure. Drawings that are meant to be fully presented works in their own right. We’re all familiar with these. My father’s surgeon decades ago drew a very unscientifically illustrated picture to communicate how he would do my father’s colon resection — this, on the night before the surgery, and the lines wiggled this way and that, following the surgeon’s words. And when this virtual colectomy was concluded, he handed the paper to Daddy who eventually gave it to me (post-surgically — after everything was good again). I, in turn, put it in the back of a volume on Edouard Manet where the drawing remains to this day.

The surgeon wasn’t an artist and that drawing was about ideas expressed as a pictogram, a scribbling image where appearance didn’t matter as much as narrative. (I don’t recall the surgeon saying “I’m not an artist” as so many laymen do when taking up a stylus. I loved him for that. Drawing is not a special club to which only some people are allowed to belong. He just started talking and drawing.)

But what about another kind of drawing that isn’t art. I was just coming out of the Chinese restaurant with our take-out food when three birds flew across the parking lot at about the level of my head, turning instantly in formation to avoid me as I walked, whizzing past me to wherever they were going. I was wondering what it would be to draw the birds in flight. I never did properly “see” them in the way I see things that I draw in my life as an artist. They flew too fast to really see. And I have no use for them in the art I’m making now. But it would be interesting to attempt to draw what I remember.

However, I’m not sure what I saw. Did I see the birds’ bodies? In that instant that my brain thought “birds — wow — they’re flying right to me” did I also see the parking lot or much of the rest of the scene (my car, buildings across the street, other cars, power lines, miscellaneous urban stuff)? I think of their bodies in flight, their relationships to each other, the three of them flying like a squadron. These visual memories have nothing to do with art. If I draw them, I don’t think the drawings will be art.

I painted a spider ages ago because it had built its web on the front porch. But the painting is just a painting, and merely contains some thoughts about what a spider looks like.


If the art part of my artist’s brain is like a room, then these images — both the ones I drew and the ones I didn’t draw — are like things tossed in the back of a closet. They aren’t art. But they are intriguing small incidents in the course of a life.