Paint Consistencies and Application Wedges for Layered Backgrounds

(*Links contained in this post are affiliate links for Amazon and/or Blick Art Materials and I will earn a commission if you make a purchase at no additional cost to you. These commissions help fund more content like this, so thank you!)

I promised I would share all of these details weeks ago–no, months ago actually. Whew, time is flying! Better late than never, I guess.

Alright, so if you watch how I make my acrylic backgrounds on social media and have questions about the paints, mediums, and tools I use then this blog post is for you. As you can see in the video below, I apply layers upon layers of color with a silicone scraper on my canvases to slowly build colorful dimension.

I use two flexible scrapers to apply a variety of paints and mediums to create varying opacities. In this blog post, I will go over the scrapers and all the paint variations I use.

First, The Scrapers

I use two scrapers. The off-white scraper in the photo has been my tried and true scraper for over 3 years now. It is soft silicone with a bit of flexibility and it works great to apply layers of paint. I have added a new scraper in the last couple of months that I found in the kitchen section at Target. (Always be on the lookout for unconventional supplies!)

My Scrapers:

  1. The Princeton Catalyst Wedge W-06 (Amazon or Blick Art Materials)
  2. Kitchenaid Gourmet Bowl Scraper- Aqua Sky (Amazon)

Each scraper feels a little different. I prefer the Kitchenaid scraper on bigger canvases. It doesn’t feel has heavy. You’re going to have to feel it out for yourself though. The Kitchenaid one is cheaper if that changes your decision at all.

Scraper Basics:

-Different pressures will create different effects. Push hard and your layers will be more translucent. Push down lightly and you’ll have more opaque layers. Harder pressure will also bring out the textures of the surface you work on. I like using stretched canvas (Blick Premier Canvas), but you can also use wood panels if you want a smoother application.

-I often mix paints right on the surface of the scraper with a palette knife.

-Clean your scrapers with water and a wash cloth. Paint is pretty easy to remove, but it’s easier to wipe the scraper clean after each use. For hardened paint, I soak in water and then scrape it off with a palette knife.

Paints and Mediums

I have experimented with a lot of paint over the years. Every paint has its pros and cons, but what I have paid most attention to with my style is the opacity. Some paints have higher pigmentation. Some are very thick. Some paints are thinner. Professional level paints will often be highly pigmented with a better range of coloring. Student/studio paints are cheaper, less pigmented, often thinner, and won’t hold as true to their color with time (low lightfastness).

There’s a whole bunch of nuance when it comes to paint, and depending on your intention with art, you might not need to know most of it. I’ll save more details for another post–maybe. Anyway, back to my paints and backgrounds.

Paints I use as pictured above:

  1. Heavy body paint- Thicker consistency with high pigmentation. Liquitex Professionals (Amazon or Blick), Blick Artist Acrylics (Blick).
  2. Student/Studio Acrylics- Thinner consistency with lower pigmentation. Michaels Artist’s Loft, Blick Studio Acrylics (Blick)
  3. Golden Fluids (Amazon or Blick)- Thinner consistency with high pigmentation. I use as is or mix a little medium with it on the scraper. While watching my videos, you may see me put a dab of medium and a dab of paint on the scraper before I mix with a palette knife. I do this when I don’t have the color I want premixed in my small squeeze bottles.
  4. My Recipe- Squeeze bottle filled with 2 parts heavy body acrylic paint, 2 parts acrylic medium (see the mediums I use below), and 1 part water. This mixture is thinner like Golden Fluids, but has lower pigmentation. (This is what you will often see in my social media videos. You can get the squeeze bottles on Amazon.)

Mediums:

Acrylic mediums extend the consistency of your paints without making them too runny. You can add water to your paints to get a higher viscosity, but you run the risk of making the paint less stable. For example: Put a smear of heavy body paint on a table and let it dry. Then mix half heavy body paint and half water and let that dry on your table. The diluted paint will have a drastically different consistency. It’s easier to remove and the pigmentation can look grainy.

Mediums are a clear additive that will extend the body of the paint, and disperse the pigmentation throughout to create more translucent colors without losing integrity of the paint consistency. If you have experimented with fluid pouring, you know the power of mediums over water. I used Floetrol (Amazon) for the longest time as a medium, and I still use it in some of my white fluid mixtures, but I have transitioned to mostly using Liquitex Gloss Medium & Varnish (Rebranded to Liquitex Gloss Medium).

The mediums I use as pictured above:

  1. Liquitex Gloss Medium (Amazon or Blick Art Materials)
  2. Artist’s Loft Gel Medium
  3. Artist’s Loft Pouring Medium
  4. Liquitex Pouring Medium (Amazon or Blick Art Materials)
  5. Squeeze Bottle filled with Liquitex Gloss Medium (You can get the squeeze bottles on Amazon.)

To illustrate how mediums change the paint opacity, see the photo below. First, I applied Michaels Artist’s Loft paint on its own, then mixed it with Gloss Gel Medium, and then Pouring Medium.

A lot of mediums will create a pretty similar shift in opacity. You don’t need to have a crap-ton of mediums. It’s all personal preference. You might like the first one you try.

The Formula for my backgrounds

Alright, now you know the scrapers, the paints, and the mediums I use. What do you do with it now? Every piece I create according to this style has a pretty consistent formula. If you try this, I’m sure you will find your own method for applying color. Do what feels right. But, here is how I do it:

  1. Base layer- I use colored heavy body paints mixed with white to layout my colors. I keep this layer light to midtone. I’m using a brush for this layer. Let dry.
  2. Saturated sections- Now I use heavy body paints alone at the center of the application and then mix with white or my white fluid mixture on the edges to blend with the first layer. This layer is to establish where my darkest colors will be. I’m still using a brush here.
  3. Saturated sections with scraper- Once the base layers dry, I come in with the scraper to apply more heavy body paint to increase saturation and contrast while creating organic movements with the scraper. Golden Fluid Acrylics with light pressure are also great here.
  4. Layers 4-600: From here on, I’m applying thinner, more transparent layers as I go. If I overwork an area with too many translucent layers, I’ll bring in a heavier bodied layer to flatten the dimension. If I need to smooth out a section, I’ll come in with a sort of “white-wash”. Feel it out. Your eye will want something different from mine. This process becomes very intuitive toward the end as you near your definition of completion.

Once I am done with my background, that’s when I will come in with my fineline applicator and start to organize the colorful chaos.

This YouTube video can explain more about my process from start to finish:

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And there you go!

Sorry that it took me so long to get this post put together! Take this style and run with it. Try what I do, and evolve it to make it your own if you’re hoping to sell your work in the future. If you’re a hobby painter, then just have fun with it!

Let me know if you have questions! If you enjoy learning about the supplies I use in the studio and want to know more, let me know through Instagram or Email, or consider becoming a Patron of mine to support more content like this. Now go get messy and share your creation on Instagram using #messyeverafter!

-Kelly

SUPPORT MESSY EVER AFTER ON PATREON:

A lot of artists don’t like to share their secrets, but I’m an open book. If you enjoy the content I create and the advice I give to other creators, please consider becoming Patron of mine on Patreon. Pledging as little as $1 a month supports this content and my career as an artist.

Further Reading:

Most Common Questions About My Art Supplies

(*Links contained in this post are affiliate links for Amazon and/or Dick Blick and I will earn a commission if you make a purchase at no additional cost to you. These commissions help fund more content like this, so thank you!)

I’m going to get straight to the point here. You have questions about my art supplies? I have answers.

“What’s that paint pen you use?”

Fineline Precision Applicators- 1 inch tip, 20 Gauge Blue Cap (Amazon or Blick Art Materials)

“Where can I get shorter pen tips like yours?”

1/2″ Replacement Tips- Luer Lock (Amazon)

Blog posts with more details on the paint I use, replacement tips, and general advice: The Last Paint Marker You’ll Ever Need, Replacement Paint Pen Applicator Tips

“What’s that scraper thingy you use to spread paint?”

Princeton Catalyst W-06 Wedge (Amazon or Blick Art Materials)

“What varnish do you use?”

Liquitex High Gloss Varnish (Amazon or Blick Art Materials)

Blog posts with more details: How I Varnish Acrylic Art

“How do you make your backgrounds?”

I made a tutorial video awhile ago! This should answer most questions you have about this particular style of mine.

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Let me know if you have questions! If you enjoy learning about the supplies I use in the studio and want to know more, let me know through Instagram or Email, or consider becoming a Patron of mine to support more content like this. Now go get messy and share your creation on Instagram using #messyeverafter!

-Kelly

SUPPORT MESSY EVER AFTER ON PATREON:

A lot of artists don’t like to share their secrets, but I’m an open book. If you enjoy the content I create and the advice I give to other creators, please consider becoming Patron of mine on Patreon. Pledging as little as $1 a month supports this content and my career as an artist.

Further Reading:

Don’t Work for the Promise of Exposure

Artists, creatives, and the ever-evolving exposure con.

*big sigh* I’m feeling sassy.

I try to be grateful for every opportunity that comes my way, but some opportunities aren’t actually opportunities at all. Especially when the ‘E’ word is dropped into the conversation.

Exposure. I have a love/hate relationship with this concept.

Artists at every level have been fed an exposure pitch, and many artists (including me, too many times to count) fall for it, because exposure is something artists need to reach their goals as creators. More eyes on your work equals more potential for success, right? Yes, of course–but also no, because it has to be the right kind of exposure. I’ll talk more about this later.

First, what does an exposure pitch look like?

Exposure pitches comes in all shapes and sizes. Basically, someone will ask you, a creative person, to provide a good or a service to them, either for personal or commercial use without any intention of paying you, because your work will be seen by a new audience. Sometimes, these arrangements can be beneficial. Sometimes this is the start of a partnership. A lot of times, it’s just a waste of your time and resources.

Creatives of all kinds hear these opportunities. For example:

Graphic designers might hear, “Will you design my business cards/logo/product packaging/website for free? I’ll give you credit and tell everyone to use you for their graphics.”

Musicians get, “I’m hosting an event and would love to have performers. I can’t pay you, but there should be a good turn out.”

Artists, “I’m opening a new office downtown and there’s a huge wall behind the reception desk. I’d like to display your work. You can put your business cards on the desk for anyone interested. No, I don’t want to buy it.”

This is a very short list of examples. I bet you have your own experience with someone offering you exposure as payment. (Want to leave your stories in the comments below while commenting is open?)

Exposure is not payment. Your skills have value.

Exposure itself isn’t a bad thing. Exposure is great! It is what allows artists to find new customers. I love exposure! What I don’t love is when people/businesses/opportunists think exposure is a replacement for money.

Exposure is not money. Exposure does not guarantee money will find you. Exposure doesn’t pay the bills. Exposure by itself is not a fair trade for your goods and/or services. Sure, sometimes exposure pays off and you get access to the right audience, the right buyer, the right connections that eventually lead to a sale, a commission, a professional relationship, etc., but exposure is not a guarantee for any of these things.

Exposure is a gamble. Maybe you will get something out of it, but most of the time the person offering you the exposure will get the better end of the deal. When an exposure opportunity presents itself, make sure it’s the right kind.

What is the right kind of exposure?

Recently, I had someone pitch that I “donate” one of my pieces to fill the window of an empty storefront inside of a mall until they get a new tenant to rent the space. Had they asked me four years ago, I would have jumped on this free exposure and been excited. My response today was “You can rent a piece from me.”

The store front would have gotten plenty of foot traffic. There would have been a lot of new eyes on my work. My name and social media info would have been displayed. Maybe someone would have wanted to buy that piece. Who knows, I could have missed an opportunity by passing on the offer, but I’m definitely not losing sleep over it for two reasons.

Reason One: They approached me. I would have been providing them a service (filling the window to make it look more attractive). I would have taken the item out of my online store (where it has a higher chance of selling) and driven it to the mall for installation, and I would have received no guaranteed return from my time and efforts.

Artists need to stop thinking everyone is doing them a favor and start asking themselves what service they are providing. Hanging art to make a business look more attractive is not a favor to me. I would be adding value and should be paid, but why would a business go buy art when artists will jump at the opportunity to provide it for free? Artists need to stop agreeing to this.

Reason Two: This was the wrong kind of exposure. It was the wrong setting, the wrong context, and the wrong audience for my work. My art is not a pair of shoes or a candle at a home goods store. It’s not an impulse buy, nor a mass produced consumer item. People are not going to the mall to look at or buy art. Had I agreed to take exposure as payment, I find it unlikely anything would have come of it.

It’s important to know who your audience is, what you are selling, and where it belongs. The right kind of exposure will connect you with an audience that overlaps with your target audience. Hanging your art in a dentist’s office might get eyes on your work–but of all the people going in there, how many people a.) like buying art b.) like your art and c.) are actually thinking about buying art at the same moment they are nervous-sweating about the filling they are about to get?

If you are going to work for free, focus on the right exposure, but even then you should plan on getting no real benefit. Unless a payment is discussed ahead of the work you put in, you need to set expectations low.

Case in point: When I was in California, I was asked to do live-painting at a two day art festival as entertainment. I could display some of my work behind me while I painted, but I couldn’t sell my work since artists who applied to sell at the event were charged a few hundred dollars for a booth. I thought this was fair, and brought a stack of business cards to hand out to anyone who stopped by to watch me paint. I was happy to trade my time in exchange for the exposure, because this was the perfect place to find art buyers. Or so I thought. I thought this audience was my ideal audience. It was a well known fine art event in a Southern California city known for having money. My brain went: “Alicia Keys bought a house here! I’m gonna make so many lucrative connections! Yay, commissions! Sell all the art!”

Spoiler alert, I did not sell all the art, or book any commissions. I passed out some business cards. Gained a few followers on Instagram. Sold one print off my website. Got knocked into while I painted, and I had multiple people let their dogs pee on the little patch of grass a foot from where I sat. I spent 20 hours between two days to make $30ish dollars. Even when exposed to the right audience, things might not go as you hope.

I’m not saying don’t work for exposure, but never work for exposure alone.

Don’t skip on every non-paying gig that presents itself to you. I’m not saying exposure isn’t worth as a whole. I’ve spent a lot of time doing things that didn’t make me money, but I’ve learned a lot about what I should and shouldn’t do in the future to find success as a result. If you have never done what someone is presenting to you, then you don’t know the outcome. In that case, the experience alone might be worth it.

I wouldn’t take back most of the things I’ve done in the pursuit of finding success as an artist, but I can definitely say that I am getting more protective of my time and I’m less willing to work for no guaranteed return.

Not all exposure pitches suck.

When you are just entering the creative world, every experience is valuable. Exposure is necessary for success, and it’s not easy to know what opportunities are worth exploring. When someone approaches me with an exposure pitch, I ask myself a few questions:

What do you have to lose? Time? Money? Evaluate your risks and ask yourself if you are okay getting jack squat in return for the investment you put forward. I set expectations low and spend as little money as I can to prepare.

What do you have to gain? The possibilities are endless, but what’s the probable outcome? Be as objective as you can here, but sometimes you never know until you try.

Who are you working with? Is this a new company? A potential future partnership? Another artist or creative that has just as much or little to give as you do? If you are approached by someone who has little to give, then maybe exposure is a satisfactory payment for you. I’ve asked musician friends to provide content for my videos on IG in the past. I wasn’t exactly rolling in money at the time, and could really only offer my audience as payment, but working with other creative people is a great experience on its own.

Now, If you are approached by a big brand or an established business that can afford to pay you, then think twice about that exposure pitch.

What audience will you reach? Designing a free tattoo for your high school acquaintance won’t generate much exposure for you. Creating art for a celebrity with 1.5 million followers on IG on the other hand is a different story (but they can afford to pay you…). Know your audience.

What can you learn? Will it be fun for you? New experiences are important. Take responsible risks and try new things. Maybe just for the hell of it.

Exposure doesn’t mean squat without a call to action.

If you agreed to work for exposure, once you get an audience’s attention, what are you going to do with it? If you don’t give direction, you are wasting that exposure. If you are displaying at an event, make sure people know they can buy your work. Hanging your art at a business? Make very clear signage, and give directions of how to buy your work. Live painting somewhere? Bring a butt-ton of business cards and tell people how they can support you. When I did this, I should have put a big sign up that said FOLLOW @MESSYEVERAFTER or OPEN FOR COMMISSIONS. If I ever do live painting again, I will do it differently.

Don’t waste your audience’s attention once you’ve got it. Figure out your call to action and maximize the use of the exposure someone has given you.

Maybe you won’t make money. Maybe you’ll learn the hard way as I have so many times that exposure is often a con to get you to provide goods and services for free. In that case, you will still have gained something. Maybe you’ll find yourself writing a blog post about it years later to help other artists. #worthit

Know and declare your worth.

This is something that every artist will come to with time, but artists need to set aside their desperation to be validated as creators and start seeing themselves as businesses and established creators. Opportunities for exposure are great, but don’t work for free when you provide a valuable good or service. Don’t work for free when you can spend your time on paying clients.

If you take anything away from this post, artists and creatives as a whole need to start declaring their work isn’t free. Put a dollar amount on the work you do. Those who respect your work will pay it. Those who don’t aren’t worth your effort. Those who simply can’t afford what you are worth might deserve your generosity if you deem the work is worthy.

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Please leave questions and comments below while commenting is open or reach out to me directly through Instagram or email. I’d love to hear from you! Make sure to sign up for my email list below to never miss a blog post. New posts are published every week (kind of). And if you’d like to see more content like this in the future, consider becoming a Patron of mine! (See details below.)

-Kelly

@messyeverafter

P.S. You probably know by now that I am here to help artist’s with these posts. If you need help with your online branding, Instagram account, or just want a creative accountability coach, then check out my consulting services. You can easily add a session to my online calendar now.

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Further Reading: