Layering and underpainting are two of California artist Shawn Gould’s secrets to getting the most out of acrylic.
by Linda S. Price
Five years ago Shawn Gould decided he needed time away from working in illustration to concentrate on seeing and painting the things that inspired him instead of finishing someone else’s ideas, as he explains it. “To truly understand a subject, I have to experience it directly,” the artist reveals. “I like going out in the world and seeing rather than just looking, really observing those things that catch my eye. I’m interested in painting subjects that make me take notice because I want people to take a break from their busy, ordinary lives and take notice too.”
Gould has been devoting himself to this task for the last five years, focusing on acrylic and how to maximize its versatility. “I love acrylic,” the artist says with enthusiasm. “It just clicks with me, makes sense.” The artist points out that with acrylic he can work wet-in-wet or in drybrush, going from opaque paint to thin, transparent glazes. Although some artists struggle with acrylic’s fast drying time, Gould appreciates this characteristic because it forces him to go back into an area immediately to make any needed additions or changes. The artist does admit that with acrylic it can be difficult to achieve the richness afforded by oil, but he has found a way to work around that drawback by layering.
Gould paints in anywhere from three to 10 layers, alternating between opaque and transparent colors. Generally he starts with a midvalue color and works outward, not necessarily getting darker or lighter but working back and forth in value. For instance, he may go one step lighter than the midvalue, then apply a darker glaze, which gives the color “a nice punch.” As the artist points out, with acrylic, painting light over dark can flatten and muddy a color, so he saves the lightest lights and darkest darks for the last layer.
In addition to layering, the artist relies on a strong underpainting to execute successful acrylic works. Typically he first sketches his subject in graphite on Masonite, blocking in shapes and values. Next he glazes over the board to seal the surface and provide an overall tone, usually using a muted, midvalue earth color that will end up peeking through the layers of the final painting. This underpainting not only unifies the work but, according to the artist, also gives it sparkle and keeps it looking fresh. In Ajar, for instance, Gould used white, opaque paint only in the highlights; much of what looks like white clapboard is actually gesso toned with a light ochre. In the loosely-painted Cotton Top, he relied on the underpainting showing through to create the impression of foreground vegetation and lend some color to the hills. The warm underpainting in a Big Sur, Dawn contrasts nicely with the cool colors, and in Water Lilies Gould used a warm sap/olive green underpainting, over which he glazed in local colors, blocking in the lily pads in midtones.
2004, acrylic, 42 x 32.
Courtesy Legends Fine Art Gallery,
Great Bend, Kansas.
The artist was seeking a
Gould loves color and uses a broad range of Liquitex and Golden paints but admits that he seldom uses intense colors, such as the cadmiums. Sometimes he applies color straight from the tube, allowing the layers to blend into a new hue, but more often he premixes colors on his palette. Although the bell in What Silence! may appear gray, it’s actually created from many colors—-yellows, turquoises, violets, and grays—-glazed and drybrushed. For glazing small areas the artist simply uses water, but for larger sections he adds Liquitex Gloss medium—-thinned with water to the consistency of cream—-to his paint. Final details are added with thicker, more opaque paint.
The artist’s palette changes with each painting because he likes the variety and challenge of using different colors. However, he limits his palette to six to 12 colors at a time, explaining that he doesn’t want “to use the whole rainbow on each piece.” Earth tones are particularly important to him because he does many nature scenes. The color he can’t live without, he says, is yellow oxide. “It’s a common color in my subjects, and it mixes well,” he explains. “It works better than straight white to lighten other colors.” Generally, Gould mixes his own greens, adding gray, an oxide, or raw sienna to a tube green such as Hooker’s green, olive green, or cobalt turquoise to tone it down and make it appear more natural. When the artist needs a dark, he combines burnt umber with ultramarine blue, phthalocyanine blue, or Payne’s gray. For a deep, rich black the mixture may include violet or purple.
Occasionally Gould uses gel medium to slow down the drying time of his acrylics, but usually he relies on water. To keep the paint wet longer on the palette, he keeps a spray bottle of water close by and mists the colors frequently. When he’s finished painting for the day, Gould mists them again and covers the palette with plastic wrap. “This way, the paints will stay workable throughout the course of a painting,” he says. The artist also combats acrylic’s fast-drying time by mixing more than he expects to use—especially for painting large areas, such as skies—so he can quickly paint wet-in-wet and blend colors.
Because Gould likes to paint on a rigid surface, he prefers Masonite and usually applies three or four coats of gesso, doing minimal sanding to preserve some texture. For the final varnish the artist uses a mixture of 1/2 gloss and 1/2 matte medium thinned with water. Not only does the varnish protect the painting but it also gives the work a consistent finish and increases the richness and contrast. Using more gloss medium in the mixture will push the contrast even further, according to the artist.
2006, acrylic, 8 x 10.
Olive green and Hooker’s green,
When it comes to choosing a subject for his acrylic works, Gould often relies on on-site photographs, explaining that it is usually an interesting light effect or color that sparks an idea. In the field he takes photos to work from in the studio—sometimes taking as many as five rolls—and also makes on-site studies and color sketches. The artist generally relies on anywhere from three to 12 photos when putting a painting together.
Next to subject matter, Gould considers composition the most important element in his paintings. As a general rule, he places a subject off-center to give a painting more energy. In Ravens Among Pumpkins, for example, the artist’s aim was “to create a composition with nice diagonals and a good flow throughout the piece.” He exaggerated the depth by pushing the scale of the pumpkins, making them larger in the foreground and smaller in the background, and eliminating details on the elements that were farther away. Another example is The Edge, in which the artist purposely pushed the composition by establishing the immediate foreground on one edge. The angle of the rock, the plants in the upper-left corner, and the small, protruding branches all force the viewer’s eye out into the emptiness. Then, finding nothing to focus on, it circles back to the foreground.
About the Artist
Shawn Gould, a native of Iowa now residing in Northern California, studied biological illustration at Iowa State University, in Ames, and at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “It was a compromise,” he explains. “I felt I had to come out of school able to make a living, and this was the closest I felt I could get to becoming a fine artist.” During his illustration career he did biological and natural-history illustrations for the National Geographic Society and the National Audubon Society, among other organizations. Gould is a member of The Society of Animal Artists and is represented by Legends Fine Art Gallery, in Great Bend, Kansas, and Humboldt Artworks, in Arcata, California.
Linda S. Price is an artist, writer, and editor living on Long Island, New York.
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