By Justin Gerard

I am a chronic experimenter.
Most of the following test pieces were done between client projects. They are all victims of a continuing campaign whose goal is a better understanding of the mediums available to the contemporary illustrator.
Some of these experiments seem to give good results:

Oil, thinned with 80% Galkyd, 10% linseed oil, 10% OMS mixture* over Golden Heavy Body Acrylic underpainting on gessoed panel, sanded smooth.

While others seem to give rather poor results:

Oil, thinned with Galkyd Lite over Golden Acrylic Ground for Pastels, over FW ink underpainting, on paper glued to MDF.

Both cases help lead to a better understanding of the tools available, and how to use them.

This quest for understanding is complicated enough with the wide array of classic painting mediums that artists have used in the past and that are still available, but to make it even more complex, modern paint manufacturers add new mediums to this list every year.

Holbein has released an acrylic paint that can be lifted out after it has dried.

Winsor & Newton has released an oil paint that can be thinned with water. (You heard right: Thinned with water.)

And Golden releases new acrylic products every other week, all of which behave in new and ingenious ways, from drying instantly to a matte finish, to staying workable for days, to actually painting the painting for you while you eat french toast that it made for you.

Golden, you totally rock.
The same goes for supports, brushes and essentially any other tool a devilish cunning marketing division can conceive of.

While many of these new products may be just marketing fluff, some of them are quite useful and provide the artist with materials that are more archival, faster-drying and safer to use than tools of the past.

But do they result in better art? Or just more efficient art?

Is all this really necessary?

A critic of this approach might suggest that this chronic experimenting is a misuse of one’s artistic energy. That the artist’s energy is better placed in slowly perfecting his skills with a particular medium over the course of a career.
And truly, some of the greatest contemporary master’s techniques are stunning in their straight-forward simplicity. Paul Bonner, whose amazing work looks like it must involve every medium ever conceived of, as well as unimaginable dark powers, says merely that, “Mostly I just mix up some watercolor on a dinner plate and start painting.”

Oil, thinned with M. Graham’s Walnut Alkyd Medium over Holbein’s Acryla-Goucahe, on gessoed MDF.

Our critic might also suggest that this sense of chronic experimenting could lure the artist into believing in “silver bullets” that can somehow make up for deficiencies in drawing ability and craftsmanship.

We hear that an artist used some exotic medium and think, ‘if only I had that exotic medium, my work would look as good as his.’ Those of us who’ve tried this experiment are familiar with its generally dismal results. A special medium can offer small comfort to a poor composition.

However, while we must admit that the silver bullet is perhaps the wrong way of looking at it, there is something to be said for understanding the tools available to the contemporary artist.

And we may site examples like James Gurney, a painter who actually does appear to know a vast amount about every medium ever conceived of and uses each of them as necessary to achieve his artistic goals.

Tests showing varying degrees of success and failure
with Winsor & Newton’s Artisan Water-Mixable Oil Paint and Mediums
When I do these experiments, I tend to keep tight notes as well as take photos of the various stages. In my notes I record details, like drying times, workability and surface quality.

Not only does recording the steps help me to remember how I did a particular piece, but it also helps me remember not to shoot myself in the face when I am half-way through another piece executed in the same manner. Often at the half-way point a piece reaches what some illustrators call “The Ugly Stage” where if the artist doesn’t have a firm knowledge of how the piece will look at the end of this stage, he may literally kill himself.

While these experiments are not always helpful, and can result in some dismal failures, I find them extremely helpful in sorting which tools work for me and which tools don’t.

Winsor and Newton Griffin Alkyd Oil Paints, thinned with a 75% Liquin, 25% OMS mixture* on MDF.

* Denotes a mixture that might well kill you dead without proper ventilation.