Chris Saper Tests Gamblin Solvent-Free Gel Medium | Road Test (April)

Gel Medium Goes Green
An artist tries Gamblin Solvent-Free Gel Medium in the studio and en plein air.
By Chris Saper

This article is from The Artist’s Magazine (April 2014). If you enjoy it, subscribe for 10 full issues, or purchase the whole April issue for more instruction.

As a commission portrait painter, there are two qualities I look for in a medium: first, the ability to control impasto (thick, heavy application of paint) in the early, ever-changing layers as a contour takes shape, and second, the ability to unify the viscosity of a variety of paints out of the tube, unmatched in their ages and manufacturers. Yet, as a relatively new plein air painter, I look for different things: the ability to create impasto quickly and to easily transport and manage a medium on site.

I was thrilled when The Artist’s Magazine asked me to try Gamblin’s Solvent-Free gel medium because I was already a huge fan of Gamblin products. Now that I’ve started working outside (plein air landscapes) as well as in the studio (portraiture), I could try Gamblin Solvent-Free gel medium in both settings.

Kirk Larsen: American Artist (oil, 28x22)

Kirk Larsen: American Artist (oil, 28×22)

Flat & Impasto Both

While there are some commission portrait artists who get it right, right off the bat, I’m not one of them. It takes me many layers to nudge and make minute adjustments to the drawing, color, and values in order to meet the expectations of my clients. As a result, I need to keep my working surface very flat, devoid of ridges or impasto that will later impede my ability to make seamless modifications to a dried surface. I found that the Gamblin Solvent-Free Gel medium gives me the control I want, from very smooth underlayers to very lively impasto in the final layers.

Manifest Brushstrokes

During a workshop excursion to Sedona, Arizona, I experimented with Gamblin Solvent-Free gel medium in creating large piles of paint, mixed with enough gel (not exceeding the recommended 1:4 maximum ratio) to allow my brushwork to show up and remain in place.

In summary, I was able to experiment with Gamblin Solvent-Free gel medium in both studio and field settings and in situations that required different ways of handling the medium. I’m happy to say the solvent-free gel medium performed beautifully in both; it’s now a regular addition to my daily paint setup. (See the demonstrations below.)

Hair Takes Shape In The Studio

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Step One: Wet Into Wet

When I paint hair, I work wet into wet. Even if the surface is dry, I’ll remix the base color to permit flowing color and easy value transitions. I photographed this early stage of my portrait of Max in raking sunlight so you can see that the dark first layer of the hair is very thin, allowing the weave of the linen to show, in contrast to the background’s impasto. In the center of the hair, I placed a dab of the Solvent-Free gel medium so you can see its cast shadow.

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Step Two: Thicker Paint

By adding just a few strokes of thicker paint, mixed with the Gamblin Solvent-Free gel medium, I’ve been able to paint more thickly and gain opacity in the paint layers that will comprise the final layer of paint.

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Step Three: Final Coat

For the final coat of paint in Max (oil, 20×16), I’ve left the impasto in the subject’s hair and added additional impasto effects to the shirt, as I like to manage the final surface quality in much the same way as I manage edges: creating a visual path for my viewer’s eye.

Gamblin Gel Medium En Plein Air

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1. Here is my easel set in the landscape of Sedona. I set out the paints on New Wave’s Grey Pad, a disposable paper palette.

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2. I thinned a blend of earth-colored pigments to give me enough fluidity so that I could quickly draw the major shapes.

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3. In this photo, the clear gel is holding its shape after being squeezed out of the tube. At the lower left, the gel’s thixotropic property (tendency to liquefy when moved) is evident, and you can see that the mixture can be flattened.

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4. Using Gamblin Solvent-Free gel medium and ultramarine blue and cerulean blue in different proportions with titanium white, I prepared the sky mixture.

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5. Applying sky color to the linen board, I found I could maintain the impasto in the brushwork, due to the gel medium’s full-bodied properties.

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6. Gamblin makes the claim that you can use its Solvent-Free gel medium to clean brushes in the field. Not only did the medium clean my brushes, it cleaned and moisturized my hands, too!

This article is from The Artist’s Magazine (April 2014). If you enjoy it, subscribe for 10 full issues, or purchase the whole April issue for more instruction.


Chris Saper is a member of the Portrait Society of America and Portrait Artists of Arizona. Her many books and videos are available at bookstores, art stores, and at www.northlightshop.com.

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