Oils, acrylics, watercolors – how does one tell the difference? Why do they matter? Understanding media can help you appreciate art – and the skill involved in using a notoriously tricky medium. It can deepen your intimacy with a painting you love by seeing it through the eyes of the creator. Media can also be a variable to contemplate as you curate your own collection. The wall space in your bedroom might ask for a romantic oil on canvas, while the bathroom calls for watercolor under glass. Here is a quick run-through of four common wet media and the ways in which they can open up an artist's creativity.
Watercolor is a highly translucent medium, traditionally painted on cotton paper. Watercolor techniques can be finicky and prone to accidents - requiring flexibility, unless you have the precision of Audubon. Such accidents, however, can also jog an artist's creativity, summoning their resourcefulness to transform mistakes into blessings. Watercolor pigment, when applied to a damp page, will bloom and spread in unpredictable ways. Katarina Wong uses this technique of wet-on-wet in “Untitled 10” for a marbled background resembling pink burlwood.
Oil paint has a creamy quality - heavier than watercolors and requiring a sturdier canvas. The slow drying time (up to three weeks) of oil paint allows an artist to mull over details and scrape out mistakes at their leisure. This can make oil painting a slow process – John Currin who works primarily in oils completes “no more than ten pictures in a good year, and some years it's more like two or three”(The New Yorker 2008). Oil paintings often have a luminous quality, created by layering complementary colors. The glow of Janet Pedersen's “Blue Music School” capitalizes on this aspect of oils; the blue paint allows the orange underpainting to shimmer through in little glimpses.
The artist who works in short bursts of energy may prefer acrylics. Acrylic paint has a faster drying time, expediting fine details, but also making flat washes or soft blends more difficult to paint. Acrylics are also completely opaque, preventing blending through layering. These qualities can give acrylic paintings a sharper and sometimes harsher look than oils or watercolors. Other techniques such as Jackson Pollock's drip painting also favor the artist with high energy. In “Superdome,” Daniel Rosenbaum uses acrylics to create an almost photorealistic richness of detail.
Silkscreen printing is a complicated multi-step process of burning images onto fine mesh, pulling prints, and repeating the process separately for each color added. When silkscreening, an artist turns methodical, planning the logical order of colors and how they will combine on the page or printing a series of variations such as Warhol's fluorescent Marilyns. In “Line Series Monoprint No. 02” Dana McClure manipulates the translucency of her silkscreen inks for a lively play of color. As with optical illusions, the viewer can see a silkscreen print in multiple ways - pick out a single color and contemplate what its silhouette reveals, and then step back and appreciate the overall impression created by the overlaps of color.
Why be limited to just one medium? Some artists are always exploring ways to misappropriate their tools in resourceful ways. Everyday objects such as conversation hearts could inspire a sugary collage (Untitled by Alex Nunez). Certain media do not mix, like oil (paint) and water (color), but others such as ink and silkscreen are a happy marriage. Understanding wet media is a process that continuously changes as artists invent creative ways to push and combine media. When looking for emerging artists, you may find that a new quirk or strange technique catches your eye