What materials I use in my painting process

These are the materials I like to use in my painting process:


AlumaComp aluminum panel as a support for doing acrylic paintings

There are a lot of surface choices today for oil and acrylic paintings. The most popular painting surface is canvas, either stretched around a wooden frame or glued to a thin panel. Canvas was initially used to replace wooden panels so that large paintings would be lighter and easier to transport. Paintings completed on canvas are easier to store because they may be rolled up. The problem with canvas, however, is that it is very sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. As the canvas expands and contracts, it causes paint films and varnish to crack.

Canvas is also susceptible to decay because the back of the canvas is rarely sealed, exposing it to the elements. After I graduated with my Master of Fine Arts degree, I was forced to store my canvas paintings in the crawl space under our duplex in Athens, Georgia. Mold quickly began to cover the backs of the paintings, so I called the curator at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta to see what could be done. His response was, “I do not know why art schools still make students paint on canvas.” He recommended painting on wooden panels.

Wooden panels are solid, rigid, and less affected by the elements than canvas, especially if the panels are backed with framing to keep them from warping. The material still flexes slightly with changes in temperature, so cracking can still occur in the paint and varnish over time. I used wooden panels for years with no issues, but I recently had an exhibition where my paintings were subjected to extreme daily changes in temperature, causing the panels to crack along the grain of the wood. The quality of the birch plywood is also not what it used to be, with empty spaces behind the veneer where knots have been removed. The faults become visible as depressions when the panels have been prepared with gesso. I knew when this happened that I needed to find a better surface for my paintings.

As I was looking through the panels offered at Jerrys Artarama, I discovered AlumaComp aluminum panels. Evidently, painting on metal panels has been historically recorded since before the times of Rembrandt, who painted some of his great masterpieces on copper. AlumaComp panels have a rough side that will accept traditional artist oil and acrylic paints and a smooth side for mounting images. They are archival and will not warp, bend, or decay when properly prepared and mounted. All but two of my paintings from the Lame Ducks series have been completed on these kinds of panels. My experience with aluminum panels has been very positive and I plan to continue using them for my easel paintings.

Surface preparation

a container of gesso for preparing a painting surfaceTraditional surface preparation involves the application of gesso, which is a white paint mixture consisting of a binder mixed with chalk, gypsum, and pigment. The resulting surface is bright white and may be sanded to a smooth finish. Gesso, however, is brittle and prone to cracking, so it is most appropriate for rigid panel paintings. New polymer-based professional artist gessoes are more flexible, while still maintaining the even, bright white surface and archival soundness of traditional gessoes. They are also much easier to apply and may be sanded to a relatively smooth finish. Artist gessoes also use a higher quality polymer than commercial interior and exterior paints available at home improvement outlets.

Because my paintings are completed on aluminum panels, I first apply two layers of metal primer before I apply the acrylic gesso. After three layers of gesso, I sand the surface to a smooth finish and apply one final layer before beginning the painting.


a tube of Golden Open paint

There are a lot of great choices currently available for professional artist paint. The traditional choice, of course, is oil paint. Because it takes a long time to dry, it is the perfect choice for plein-air painters and artists that wish to develop subtle color and value changes in their work. It certainly has withstood the test of time. The problem with oils is that they tend to darken and yellow with age. They also require toxic solvents for cleaning brushes and thinning colors.

Modern acrylic paints have the same extensive color range as oils, but they do not require toxic solvents – only water. Acrylics do not darken or yellow with age and remain relatively flexible, so there is little chance of cracking, provided that the surface is stable. So far, they have also withstood the test of time. Most acrylic paints dry very quickly, even with the addition of extenders. I prefer using Golden Open Acrylic Paints because they stay wet longer on the palette and in the painting, especially on panel paintings, allowing more time for blending and glazing techniques. I find that there is very little I could do with oils that I can’t do just as well with Golden Open Acrylics.

Another advantage of acrylic paint is that you do not have to wait for it to dry six months before applying varnish, like you do with an oil painting. Because I can apply the varnish within about two weeks of the painting’s completion, clients may receive the work in a reasonable amount of time.


Painting mediums are mixtures that may be added to colors to control the drying time or change the consistency of the paint to allow for glazing or more textured color application. With oil paint, the medium consists of a combination of turpentine (for improving the flow of the color), oil (to hold the paint particles together), and varnish (to make the paint film more permanent). Variations in the proportions of these ingredients are necessary as layers are added to keep surface stable so that it will not crack prematurely or flake off the surface. Of course, the inclusion of turpentine and varnish in the medium creates fumes that are quite toxic. Golden Open paint thinner and wetting agent bottles

Slow-Dri fluid retarder painting medium

Most artists that use acrylic paint tend to thin the paint with water so that it will spread more effectively across the surface of their painting. This, however, is not a great idea because it affects the integrity of the paint film, which will affect long term adhesion of the paint to the surface. Golden Open Acrylics has produced a thinner for their product that allows colors to be thinned without affecting the integrity of the paint film. This may be cut slightly with water to make the paint flow a little more easily in the painting, but another additive called Golden Wetting Agent is more effective, making paint flow more like oil colors. I use a medium that is primarily composed of Golden Open thinner mixed with around 20 drops of Wetting Agent and just a little water. It’s a great medium, but I tend to use it very sparingly, as any medium tends to make colors more transparent. This, of course, is a great asset in the last stage of the painting, when most applications are completed as glazes.

I have also found that the paint will stay wet longer if it is sprayed with a fine mist of Slow-Dri Fluid Retarder. Some colors will stay wet and usable for two days or more on my glass palette.


assorted paint brushes

Though brushes are not a material that makes up the actual painting, they are as important to the painting as the choice of surface, surface preparation, and choice of paint. I prefer working with soft-haired brushes because they allow me to create more subtle gradations and more accurate details. I have tried a lot of different brushes from many companies over the years, including sable brushes and Taklon brushes. My favorite brand currently is the Master’s Touch Golden Taklon – Fine Art Series, which I have found only at Hobby Lobby. Most brushes tend to leave marks or pick up some of the paint that they are meant to put down. Not these. Gradations are easier to develop and colors go down more opaquely. The brushes with longer hair (script and liner brushes) seem to last a long time when cared for properly.


It is very important to apply a final varnish to a finished painting to protect it from the elements and damage that can be cause by objects bumping into the surface. The traditional choice is damar varnish, but it tends to crack because it is very brittle and it darkens considerably over time. My favorite varnish for small paintings is Winsor and Newton Artists’ Gloss Varnish. It brings out the colors, increases contrast, and creates a solid barrier between the painting and the elements. It is more flexible than damar varnish, will not yellow with age, and has a UV protectant added to it to keep the colors from fading. I would not recommend it for large paintings because it tends to set quickly, making it difficult to get the varnish even.

paint varnish bottle













My Keep on Ducking painting multiple layers of acrylic paint.

"Keep on Ducking" painting with a Jeep by Kevin Grass

My Clusterduck painting has 3-4 layers of acrylic paint and one final layer of oil paint. 

"Clusterduck" painting by Kevin Grass