How to Make Acrylics Look Like Oils

In Acrylic Painting by Chris Breier2 Comments

“Apples and Orange” Acrylic on canvas 9″x12″

Many artists want to use acrylics because they don’t require solvents. Making the switch to acrylics can be a challenge though, because they behave differently than oils. In this post, I give away my secrets to making acrylics look like oils.

How do you make acrylics look like oils? The smooth blending that you can achieve with oils is the result of their slow drying time. To blend acrylics like oils, use slow drying acrylics or add a retarder to your favorite brand of acrylic paint. You can make acrylics as thick and as glossy as oils by mixing acrylic gel into the paint.

Blending Acrylics Like Oils

Oil paints are known for being easy to blend. They dry slowly so you can blend them for as long as you want. It’s possible to blend away all evidence of brush marks. When you blend one color into another, it creates a smooth gradient. This is useful for painting smooth transitions of color that are found in skies and bodies of water.

Aside from blending, the ability to create soft edges is another characteristic of oil paint that requires slow drying times. Soft edges are where the edges of an object are blurry, and indistinct. Soft edges look like an out of focus photograph.

So, to make acrylics look like oils, you have to be able to easily create smooth blends and soft edges. Fortunately, it’s possible to achieve both of these effects with slow drying acrylics.

There are numerous variables that affect the rate at which acrylic paint dries. My post about how long it takes for acrylics to dry explains how to control these variables to make acrylics dry faster or slower.

You can watch me paint the still life painting with OPEN acrylics in the YouTube video below.

Use Slow Drying Acrylics to Create Oil Like Effects

Golden OPEN acrylics are a slow drying acrylic. The name refers to the how long the paint is “open” which is the stage where the paint is still workable. They claim they have a working time that’s roughly 10 times longer than regular acrylics (Source).

Here’s a set of 7 colors of Golden OPEN acrylics on Amazon. It includes a bottle of OPEN thinner.

OPEN acrylics work best if you paint in a relatively thin manner. Golden doesn’t recommend painting a wet layer thicker than 1/16″. Painting any thicker than this can cause very long drying times, and the paint can remain tacky when dry. Of course, when the first layer dries, you can apply an additional layer, and repeat as necessary.

You may be wondering what a 1/16” is equivalent to. It doesn’t sound like much but, according to Golden, a thin brush stroke is roughly 6 mils (.006”). (This can be found in the previous link to the product information sheet).  It would take approximately 10 thin brush strokes to equal 1/16” (.0625 / .006 = 10.417). I only include this calculation to show that this isn’t much of a limitation.

Thicker layers of paint take longer to dry, so you may want to apply the paint on the thicker end of this spectrum, while staying under 1/16”. This will allow you to blend the colors for a longer period of time.

Painting with slow drying acrylics is a different experience than working with regular acrylics. It’s much easier to achieve smooth gradients and to blur the edges like you can with oils. To get more ideas how to blend with acrylics, you may want to read my post 9 Acrylic Blending Techniques.

If you normally use quick drying acrylics, you’ll have to get used to the idea that the canvas is going to stay wet for an extended period. It’s not like painting with regular acrylics where you can steady your hand by resting it on the canvas. The slow drying times also makes it easier to get wet paint on everything you touch. So you’ll want to make sure you clean up when you’re done painting for the day.

How to Make Your Own Slow Drying Acrylics

It’s not a problem if you prefer a different brand of acrylics because you can just mix them with retarder. Liquitex offers slow dry blending medium (link to Amazon) and most major manufacturers of acrylic paint offer retarders that you mix into their regular line of acrylics. Utrecht, Winsor & Newton, Sennelier, Grumbacher, and Maimeri all offer some form of retarder for acrylic paint.

Painting with slow drying acrylics isn’t exactly the same as oils, but the end result is similar. I’ve tried Golden OPEN acrylics, Interactive acrylics, and adding retarders to regular acrylics. Golden OPEN acrylics are the only acrylic paint, that I’m aware of, that has the retarder already mixed into the paint.

A benefit of adding retarder to regular acrylics is you only have to buy one line of paints and that gives you the option to use them as fast drying acrylics or slow drying acrylics. It does take a little extra time to mix the retarder into the paint, but you do have more control over how much you add.

Make sure you read the instructions carefully. Most retarders don’t contain any binder, so there’s a limit to how much you can add to the paint. Another issue is if you add too much retarder, the paint may take a very long time to dry. It may remain tacky after it dries.

The Liquitex slow dry medium contains binder and the instructions state that you can add as much as you like to your paint.

How to Create Soft Edges With Acrylics

Creating soft edges with acrylic paint

You can create soft edges with acrylics by using slow drying acrylics. The extra drying time allows you to blur the edge where two colors meet.

When you place two colors next to each other they form an edge. If the edge is blurry, that’s known as a soft edge. This is one of the qualities of oils that you can duplicate by using slow drying acrylics.

Soft edges help create the illusion of depth. You can use them to create subtle effects and make an object appear as though it’s further off in the distance. Oil painters frequently take advantage of soft edges in their paintings.

Hard edges are neat and distinct. It’s clear where one color ends and the other color begins.

Acrylics make it easy to create hard edges that are crisp and distinct. When you put down a brush stroke, it immediately begins to dry. By the time you lay down another color next to it, it’s already starting to set up. Creating soft edges requires both colors to be wet so you can blend them together. That’s why it’s difficult to create soft edges with regular acrylics.

With oils, the two colors have a tendency to soften where they meet because the paint stays wet for a much longer period of time. Although, this depends upon how thin the paint is and the brushes that you use. When you paint one color along the edge of another wet color, they tend to mix. This is what creates a soft edge. You can also use a brush to blur the edges even more.

Slow drying acrylics will allow the colors to stay wet so you can soften the edges with a brush in a manner similar to oils.

The way that I create soft edges with slow drying acrylics is to paint both colors next to each other. Next, I drag a clean brush along the edge where the two colors meet. I’ll wipe my brush off if it gets too many colors on it. Softer brushes work better than stiff bristle brushes because they leave fewer bristle marks in the paint.

Another technique I use is to dip the clean brush in OPEN medium before I soften the edge. You can mix in a small amount of OPEN thinner if the paint is starting to get tacky. The thinner will loosen up the tacky paint so that I can blend it.

Using Interactive Acrylics to Blend Like Oils

Interactive acrylics are made by Chroma Atelier. They’re unique in that they behave like regular acrylics and they dry at about the same rate, but there are two ways you can work back into them.

You can mist them with water to keep them wet. Even when the paint feels dry to the touch the water will reactivate the paint. There’s also an “unlocking formula” that will work on paint that has been allowed to dry overnight. However, it won’t work if the paint has been allowed to fully cure.

You can apply the unlocking formula with a brush or  a spray bottle. If the section you painted the day before is dry, you can mist it with the unlocking formula and work back into it. This is useful for softening edges or blending into existing areas of color. I never tried the unlocking formula because I was able to keep the paint wet on the canvas by misting it with water.

These paints are different than slow drying acrylics. They offer the best qualities of slow drying and fast drying acrylics. You can use them like you would regular acrylics when you want to work quickly. On the other hand, if the paint begins to dry before you’ve had a chance to finish blending, simply mist them with water from a spray bottle. The fine mist will reactivate the paint and you can continue blending. It’s like having two different types of acrylics in one.

They also have a creamy consistency that seems to facilitate blending.

One downside is that they’re not widely available in stores like the more popular brands of acrylics. Here’a a starter kit of interactive acrylics on Amazon.

Use Accurate Color Mixing to Make Acrylics Look More Like Oils

One aspect of painting that you may be overlooking is accurate color matching. The realism that oil painters achieve has as much to do with accurate color matching as it does with blending.

It doesn’t matter how well you can blend colors if the colors aren’t accurate. You can create the illusion of depth in a painting  by the accurate matching the colors.

Match the color and place it in the right location. The illusion of your subject will form on the canvas if you match the colors accurately. In fact, it will create a realistic illusion even if you don’t do much blending.

If you look at my painting “Still Life with Peach,” there’s actually not very much blending in it at all. What creates the realistic appearance is the accurate drawing and color mixing.

Regular acrylics dry fast, so my approach for this painting was to mix the color and place it where it belongs. I didn’t try to blend the areas very much. If you look at the beginning stages of this painting, you’ll see that it’s made up of a patchwork of colors (there’s a photo at the top of the link, it’s part of the post about if using a grid to draw is cheating).

You’ll notice that the areas where two colors meet form a hard edge. If the colors are similar, then the edge is less obvious. One way to hide the hard edges between two colors is to mix a third color that’s an average of both, then paint it between them. This works for small objects, but it wouldn’t work well if you were trying to paint a large smooth background, such as a sky.

How to Make Acrylics Thicker

Heavy body acrylics are fairly thick, but there are ways to make them even thicker. There are a variety of acrylic mediums that you can use to alter the consistency of the paint. Most mediums are available in matte and gloss.

Use Gel Mediums to Thicken Acrylics

Another quality of oil paint is that you can apply it in a thick manner. This is called “impasto.” Oil paint is thick, and the bristle marks remain after the paint dries. A palette knife can be used to apply it in a thick manner, similar to frosting, with stiff peaks or with a smooth surface.

This is Liquitex Super Heavy gel mixed with Cadmium Free Orange on the left. On the right is Super Heavy Gel mixed with Carbon Black. These paint samples are dry, and they’re still glossy and the textures are crisp.

While the Heavy Body acrylics have a thick consistency, it’s possible to make them even thicker by adding acrylic gel to it. The Super Heavy Gel from Liquitex (link to Amazon) is thicker than the heavy body acrylics. It will thicken the paint considerably.

The thickest gel that Golden makes is their Extra Heavy Gel (link to Amazon). It’s available in gloss, semi-gloss, and matte. Mix the gel into the paint to make it thicker and to alter the sheen. The paint will retain the tool marks more so than the heavy body paint.

Thick brush mark textures are a common trait of oil paintings, so you can use these gels to make your acrylic paintings to mimic the look of a thick oil painting.

Keep in mind that adding any medium to acrylics will extend the paint and increase transparency. You’ll have to experiment with how much medium to add to achieve the effect you’re looking for.

Professional Acrylics Are Thicker Than Student Grade Paints

I find that the professional lines of heavy body acrylics are generally thicker than student grade paint. Use professional acrylic paint if you want the thickest acrylic paint.

Student grade acrylics aren’t quite as thick. When you use them in a thick manner, they tend to smooth out a little as they dry. They still show the brush marks, but the texture isn’t as sharp and tend to look like melted plastic.

The professional line of acrylics have a thicker consistency that leave bristle marks that are sharper than what you can achieve with student acrylics. You can see an example of this in my post about student grade acrylics (this link will take you to the section on viscosity which contains the photo).

Use Modeling Paste to Build Textures

Another option is to texturize the canvas with a modeling paste before you begin painting. This is best for when you want to create an overall random texture in your paintings. You can apply the molding paste with a palette knife or a brush. Once it dries, you can paint over it with acrylics.

This is a good technique if you want to create textures similar to an oil painting, but want to save money. Building up textures with molding paste is less expensive because acrylic mediums don’t contain pigments. It’s the pigments that are the most expensive component of acrylic paint.

Keep in mind that extra thick layers of gel will increase the weight of the painting substantially. Golden developed a lightweight modeling paste to solve this problem.

Use Gloss Medium to Create a Glossy Finish

Sometimes acrylic paintings can dry to a flat finish, while most oil paintings are glossy. A glossy surface can make the colors appear more vibrant and increase the contrast. If you’re interested in painting with brilliant colors, then you may be interested in reading my post about how to make acrylics more vibrant.

You can apply a final layer of gloss varnish to your painting to make it glossy. I recommend that you practice on a discarded painting before you varnish a painting you spent a lot of time on. Be sure to follow the directions from the manufacturer.

Another way to achieve a glossy look is to mix a gloss medium into your paints. This will extend your paint and make it dry to a glossy finish. The Liquitex slow dry blending medium is a gloss medium so it will make the paint dry slower, and make it more glossy.

Related Questions

Can You Mix Linseed Oil With Acrylics?

No, mixing linseed oil with acrylic paint is not a sound practice. Oil and water do not mix. Over time there may be problems with adhesion and other conservation problems.

Painting with oils over acrylics is acceptable if the acrylics have had a chance to dry. You can even mix linseed oil into the oil paints. When you switch to the oils, you have to finish with oils. You don’t want to paint over oils with acrylics.

You may be interested in reading my post, can you paint acrylics over oils for more information.

I would suggest looking for an acrylic alternative to linseed oil. What effects are you trying to achieve by mixing linseed oil with acrylics? If you want to increase the gloss and the flow of acrylic paint while reducing the drying times, then you may find that the Liquitex slow dry medium is what you’re looking for. There are numerous acrylic mediums to choose from, the chances are there’s an archival method to produce the same result.

Most gloss mediums will also make the paint feel more slippery when you brush it on the canvas.

Can I Add Olive Oil to Acrylic Paint?

No, adding olive oil to acrylic paint is not a sound practice. Acrylics are water based paints and they won’t mix well with any product that contains oils. The oils may cause adhesion issues in the future. It’s also possible for the olive oil to go rancid before it dries. It’s better to determine what effect you’re trying to create, then find an acrylic medium that will achieve it.

Comments

  1. The beginning of my paintings was in oils, but I didn’t like the long drying times. Later, I began to paint with watercolors, then later with acrylics. I purchased a set of Golden’s A-Z acrylics, and it introduced me to the Golden Open Acrylics, the high flow acrylics, the heavy body acrylics, their gels, pastes, grounds, and mediums. And I ended up purchasing a second set. Then here recently, I wanted to paint with oils, but their long drying time still turns me off, even though I love to paint with them. So I purchased a complete set of their landscape colors in the Open acrylics, And your site is so helpful. I am placing your site on my Favorites.

    1. Author

      Thanks Rosie! I agree, oils do seem to take forever to dry. I find that the open acrylics stay wet long enough so I have time for blending, but they dry fast enough so that I can paint wet over dry if I want. Another advantage of open acrylics is you can use a hair dryer to force them to dry faster.

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