For me, one of the most exciting aspects of works by Monet or Van Gogh is the texture of their paintings. You can see the brush strokes, the palette knife marks and the velocity of every painterly gesture, etched permanently into the thick, impasto paint. Their paint records their emotions and whims, via their brush strokes, capturing the expressivity of the marks they made, for eternity (or the life of the painting; whichever comes first).
In real life, these canvases catch the light in interesting ways. As the ridges and lines cast small shadows, the complexion of the painting changes as the lighting conditions vary. The art of hanging these works, in a gallery, is the art of lighting them favourably, so that the drama and impact of the texture of the painting is emphasised and highlighted. A “flat earth” photographic reproduction of these paintings freezes these shadows at a moment in time, thereby losing the dynamic interaction of textured paint and light. The viewing angle no longer makes a difference to the shadows cast and seen, by the viewer.
The old masters that used impasto techniques allowed their paint to age and thicken, in the open sunlight, or else they used thickening agents, like stand oil, to make their paint hold the brush strokes and textures, drying before the impressions were levelled and lost. These days, modern oil painters can use special impasto gel products, compatible with their oil paints, to produce a similar effect. On the other hand, modern acrylic painters have, available to them, a much wider range of pastes and gels, which provide different texture effects and allow artists to create with texture, as well as colour and form.
I like to use structure gels and heavy structure gels, because you can work and rework them, with knives and brushes, for perhaps an hour after you first apply them to the canvas, depending on how thickly you slather them on. Sometimes, I paint the canvas with neat gel and paint into it. At other times, I like to mix paint with the gels, on the palette, before transferring the mixture to the canvas. I also like to partially mix several colours with the structure gel and then apply them to the canvas, allowing mixtures and marbling to serendipitously occur on the canvas, during their application.
Another reason to love texture and structure gels is that you can carve back into them, after they have been applied, using palette knives of various kinds, to make marks that dig back to the canvas. Staining and non-staining paints produce different effects, when combined with structure gels and then carved away, with palette knives, revealing the canvas beneath. You can also play with transparent and opaque paints, mixed with gels and then carved back with palette knives, revealing a different play of light and colour on the glossy finish of the acrylic medium. I also like to mix iridescent and pearlescent paint with gels, to give another effect entirely.
The other lovely thing about painting with texture gels is that palette knives loaded with paint catch the stickiness of the gel already applied to the canvas, as it dries, causing the paint to break and to produce lovely broken paint effects on top of the already painted surface. Judging how sticky the gel has become and how lightly to brush or skim a palette knife over the sticky surface is something you have to experiment with, but you can get some dramatic effects, if you get it right.
I think textured paintings look much more interesting than a series of more or less flat smudges of colour, blended into one another, but more exciting still is the possibility to combine highly textured areas of the work with beautifully glazed or blended areas, that look flat. Producing contrasts in texture is an important tool in any painter’s arsenal of techniques. You can also vary the matte or gloss quality of the texture gel, when it dries, by selecting the product you want (they come in matte or gloss varieties). Obviously, matte and gloss gels can be mixed and combined, opening up other semi-gloss textural possibilities.
The other useful feature of painting with gels is that they slow the drying time of acrylic paint (and can actually accelerate the drying time of oil paints, depending on the product and pigment combination chosen). Gels allow you to modify acrylic paint open times. That lets you spend more time adjusting parts of your work.
Paradoxically, because the texture gel holds the marks you make more or less permanently, it encourages you to paint quickly and with obvious flourishes, so that you create more interesting looking brush strokes, while you apply the paint. Gels capture the speed of your stroke, the force you use and the flamboyance of your gestures. This encourages you to incorporate those elements into your painting. As a result, it lends a freshness, vitality and confident authority to your painting. When the painting dries, it also looks more professional and intriguing, as well.
I love painting with texture gels and encourage you to do the same. They’re a lot of fun.