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  • Helen English Artist

So many art mediums - which one should you try?


After a busy week painting, I have been thinking about why I choose to paint in watercolour and the myriad choices which there are for artists. If you talk to any artist, with any level of experience, they will likely give you completely different answers about what they choose and why. I also note that when I expand on the choices below, even my own one, that I explain from my own point of view and do not profess to be an expert in every art form or feel that I have all of the answers even when it is my chosen medium. Art is always evolving and the general rule is that there are no rules, simply personal viewpoints.


In the world of drawing, you can choose to create in pencil, ink, charcoal, colour pencil, and oil or soft pastels, as well as derivatives of these. I am going to discuss these briefly as it is the painting mediums which I would like to discuss in more detail.

Firstly pencil. Now, although pencil may be thought of as the easiest by many, the effects which proficient pencil artists achieve through lines and shading can be absolutely stunning and incredibly lifelike. Ink is a fantastic medium for effects ranging from cartoon to illustrative work. I must tell you about Inktober here, an amazing concept month of social posts in October is an inspiration of diverse visual creations in ink by the many people who choose to take part. It was created by Jake Parker, an American artist and comic book story creator. If you search #inktober on most of the social platforms you can find out what people have been up to, realise what can be done and even get involved yourself. Another drawing tool is charcoal, either in the form of sticks or charcoal pencils. Made of burnt willow sticks, it holds together better than most burnt wood although is still relatively breakable. It can be used, as pencil can, for marking. It creates looser drawings and is a beautiful medium to experiment with. Pastels, soft and oil, are great for creating form and blending with although are very different from one another. Oil pastels can take some getting used to but, with good blending tools and practice, can create stunning results. All of these drawing tools can be used to mark out areas to paint over, giving them dual purposes.


Within painting, the choices are essentially oil, acrylic and watercolour. Of course there are other paint forms, such as aerosols or pouring paint, but these are contain a basic form of paint – acrylic in both cases – combined with other products to create the paint form.

First let’s look at oil paint. The paint of the great masters. I have a good few friends who absolutely swear by oil as the greatest medium due to its great texture and long drying time, allowing an artist to blend long after laying paint on the canvas or other choice of board. You traditionally need turps to thin this paint and to clean equipment after a painting session, which can be smelly, but this is changing. First with low odour turps and now with water-based oils. Water and oil sounds like a strange mixture but it works and has made the life of oil painters immeasurably easier, safer and frankly more social! The downside of oils can be that drying time, and the limitations which it places on styles which don’t require blending and movability. And even with the advent of water-soluble oil paints, their drying time still makes them arguable messier to work with than the alternatives.


Next up, acrylics are made of a colourant and a binder which dries hard, much like pva glue. They dissolve in water – as long as they are still wet - which makes working and clean up a relative breeze. They also dry quickly, which is great for layering and portability. Basic acrylic paint is also quite cheap, compared to other forms, and is excellent for a variety of work. I do also paint in acrylic at times and swapped to using a professional artist brand a year or so ago because they are ‘reasonably’ priced, depending on your budget, and the colours are vibrant and true. They contain a maximum measure of pigment rather than diluted pigment or cheaper colourant and I find that I use a ridiculously small amount of paint in comparison. The down side of acrylics is that they do dry more quickly, even ones with binders designed to lengthen their drying time, and they mostly also become darker as they dry, due to the binder which goes from white to clear as it dries, which can cause problems for colour matching.


Finally, watercolour. Obviously I love watercolour but I have a confession to make. I was afraid of watercolour for many years. I avoided it because I felt like it was a medium which you either get right first time or all is lost. Professional grade watercolours, which are a necessity for blending and depth, are not economical to the beginner so I felt that mistakes would be both permanent and expensive! Now, to a certain extent, all of that is true. You can lift out watercolour to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the hue (dark colours will always leave a mark to some degree), depth of colour (the more water in your mix the easier it can be lifted again), and the dryness (wet paint can often be lifted without a trace, dry paint much less so). Also, if you use watercolour pencils, they are often permanent once dry depending on the binder which holds the pencil lead together. You may notice that I’ve approached this medium the opposite way around to the others because I wanted to finish on the pleasures of watercolour! The first one is how clean they are to work with. A quick wash of your brushes with a little water and you’re done. Any left over paint can be left to dry, if it isn’t already, and then livened up again with water, so there is no waste. For me, there is also an innate joy to watercolour painting. You use the white of the paper rather than the paint for highlights and this gives a painting luminosity. The laying down and blending of paint is fast although the process isn’t necessarily so because you spend more time making decisions and often painting a preamble to make decisions which will be accurate in the final version. With watercolour, you cannot try something out and then paint over a decision to remedy it however the final product is worth the effort. It has energy and softness, and I love it!


My final thought here is that everyone is different and has a different perspective on the type of paint which suits their style the best. I think that it is really important to try out as much as you can when you are creating art - I often spend time with other mediums other than watercolour. If you have a friend who dabbles in a different medium to you, ask if you can try out the feel of their paint or drawing medium to see what it feels like or find a class to try it out - it's great to have a go before you take the plunge! Please let me know if you have any thoughts to add - your point of view is always welcome.

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