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Pick Your Paint: A Beginner’s Guide to Paint Mediums

A beginner’s guide on painting mediums to help you achieve your artistic goals.

Hello everyone!

Since this is the first of many exciting blogs to come, I wanted to begin by addressing a topic that I have already been receiving a lot of questions about over quarantine. If you’re like me and the rest of the general population who have been hunkering down at home these past few months, you may have successfully avoided catching COVID-19 but ended up catching the painting pathogen instead. Now that all the fuss over the joys of watching sourdough rise has died down, many of you have traded in your spatulas for brushes but aren’t quite sure where to start. Whether you’re just looking for something to keep an ever-increasing case of FOMO at bay, or seriously interested in developing a life-long hobby, I’ve taken the time to put together a small beginner’s guide on painting mediums to help you achieve your artistic goals!

Whatever medium you choose will typically depend on several factors: your personal style preference, what you want to paint on, and how much time you plan to spend on it. In art, when we refer to mediums we usually mean the materials that an artist uses, but a medium also refers to what is used to bind the paint pigment together. An easy way to think of the differences in paint mediums is to remember that they all consist first of a colored powder substance— the pigment— but vary based on what medium is used to bind the pigment powder together to make it brushable. Ok. You’re basically qualified to give a tour of The Getty now, but if you’ve got your sights set on The Met, you’ll need to keep reading.

Acrylic Paint

Although probably the most popular choice for beginners, acrylics are so versatile that they are also used in the works of famous artists like Andy Warhol. If you’ve ever purchased a paint-by-number kit, you know this kind of paint dries fast enough that you can quickly layer enough of it to hide the fact that you painted by number at all. This is because the binding medium used in acrylic paint is synthetic acrylic resin— a fancy term for tiny plastic polymer molecules that give this paint medium both some of the brilliance of watercolors, and the thickness of oils. They are also used in dentures, but sadly not many of us would consider them art.

Acrylics are not as transparent as watercolors and do not have an oil base, so they can be used on an endless number of surfaces, such as paper, canvas, wood, cloth, concrete, brick, and metal.

Acrylic on canvas, 40 x 50 inches

A perfect example of the versatility of acrylics can be seen in the example pictured above, where the paint is manipulated to create a wash-like surface in the background, but it can still hold texture and form in the more concentrated brush strokes at the center.

Watercolor Paint

Just as implied by its name, watercolor uses a water-soluble gum binder, and the opacity of the colors as well as the thickness of the paint are determined by how much water you choose to add. Even if it dries up while you’re watching your favorite show on Netflix, you can always add more water to it and use it again!

The particular brushes and paint you use are important, as with any painting medium, but I find that there are two most important factors with watercolor: paper and process. If you want to create watercolor paintings that don’t look like wet napkins, then your first choice in paper should probably not be whatever you can dig out of the printer. Watercolor paper is heavier and has stronger fibers that prevent the paper from warping when it absorbs the water. Additionally, some watercolor artists prefer to use a wet-on-wet technique, in which the paper is brushed with water first and wet paint applied after, or they will use a wet-on-dry technique where wet paint is applied to dry paper.

12 x 12 inches

In the watercolor pictured above, you can see how more water was used to create the fluid areas resembling ripples or smoke, and less was used to create more distinct lines and details in the face.

Gouache Paint

Like watercolor, gouache uses a water-soluble medium as a binder and appears nearly indistinguishable from its more popular peer; however, their opacities vary greatly in practice. White chalk is typically added to gouache to make it more opaque, which is why it is often considered the poster paint of watercolor. Due to this additive, gouache also dries faster than watercolor and is less runny. If you’re looking for a little more control of your medium, and prefer a more matte finish, you might consider trying gouache instead. The safest surface for this medium is gouache paper, but depending on what paint you purchase, canvas may also be an option.

When looking at this painting for example, you can see elements of watercolor in the fluidity and vibrancy of the paint, but some of the larger color-blocking throughout the piece is more characteristic of gouache.

Egg Tempera

If you have ever seen Botticelli’s Birth of Venus then you have already beheld the medieval magic of egg tempera. This painting medium consists of pigment, water, and egg yolk, and is a bit more temperamental than other mediums as a result. Using water and egg yolk to bind the pigment means that this paint can be very thin and requires many, many layers applied over time. If you tried to apply tempera like acrylic paint, it would likely crack due to the thickness. You might also face the same result if you try to use it on paper or canvas, which is why the traditional surface used for this medium is a gesso-coated wooden panel.

Egg tempera on panel, 12.5 x 19.5 inches

Although this type of paint requires a little more TLC, it’s an ancient favorite for a reason. If you look closely at the above painting, you can see the delicate accumulation of cross-hatched layers that almost seem to “hold” light.

Oil Paint

Following the trend of naming after binder, oil paint pigment is most commonly mixed with different types of linseed, poppy, safflower, or walnut oil. An oil base means that this type of paint requires more time to dry, preventing you from quickly applying layers, but also allowing you to mix colors right on the canvas if you so choose.

Oil paint has some of acrylic’s surface versatility, as it can be applied to wood, paper, or canvas, but these usually need to be primed so that the oil does not seep through. You can also spice things up a bit by what tool you choose to apply it with. For example, while a paintbrush has its advantages, I use a palette-knife to apply paint in a way that allows more experimentation with form and texture, as is pictured below.

Krista Schumacher, Big Sky

Oil on canvas, 12 x 12 inches

Hopefully this insider’s look into paint mediums has inspired you to give one or more of these a try yourself! Although I did say this was a beginner’s guide to paint mediums, you probably know a bit more about them than the average beginner now. You are officially ready to add a few tubes of paint to your Amazon shopping cart if you haven’t already!



Krista Schumacher is a palette knife oil painter based in La Jolla, California.  Schumacher was awarded Southwest Art Magazine's "Top 21 Under 31" and was the 2018 Launchpad Artist for Art San Diego.

Schumacher received her graduate degree from the School of Art + Art History at the University of Florida.

Follow Krista on Instagram and Facebook.

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