Advantages of the Alkyd Medium

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As any oil painter will tell you, no medium is as rich and versatile as oil. But what makes oils so desirable also makes them challenging to work with. Because it takes so long to dry, one must work wet-into-wet. For the beginner or novice, this can present a considerable technical challenge. Acrylics are the obvious alternative, but they have drawbacks, as well: they have a plastic-like feel that many artists do not like; they dry too fast (nearly instantly if you’re painting outdoors) and worst of all, they dry as much as 15 percent darker!

Fortunately there is an alternative which few artists have tried. Imagine a medium that offered all the advantages of oil — versatility and buttery feel — but in a quick drying form, and with none of the disadvantages of acrylics.

Alkyds dry much faster than oils, but slower than acrylics. The paint remains workable (wet) for many hours, depending on how thickly it is applied, the temperature of the environment, and whether or not any additional alkyd-based painting medium is added as you work. In my experience, alkyds begin to dry (get tacky) within an hour, making them ideal for plein air painting. You can blend wet-into-wet or, later in the session, rework areas (wet over semi-dry). Both impasto and glazing can be achieved in considerably less time than oils.

On a scale of 1 to 10 — where 1 is pure plastic and 10 is oil paint — I would say that acrylics are about a 3 and alkyds are an 8. Some painters describe some of the alkyd colors as sticky.

Fully compatible with oils. Alkyds should not be confused with water-based oils. Alkyds can be mixed with regular oils and are reduced with the same solvents. TIP: In order to speed up the drying time of regular oils, I often substitute a few of my most frequently used oil colors for alkyd colors, such as white and ultramarine blue. Because these colors are used in so many mixtures, it speeds up the overall drying time of all my colors.

Regular oil paint can be layered over alkyds, but it is not recommended that alkyds be layered over oil, as the less flexible alkyd film may crack. Chemically, alkyds are made from pigment and oil-modified alkyd resin, which acts as a binder and causes the paint to dry more rapidly.

Several manufacturers offer a line of alkyd colors, including by FastMatte by Gamblin Artist’s Colors and Griffin Alkyd Colors by Winsor & Newton.

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About Author

Mitchell Albala is the author of Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice (Watson-Guptill, 2009). A best-seller with 37,000 copies in print, it has been called the "new classic of landscape." A respected teaching artist for more than 25 years, Mitchell currently teaches at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, and Winslow Art Center. He has also lectured at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines.

5 Comments

  1. I switched to water based oils from alkyds to avoid needing any solvent in the studio even though solvent technology has improved. I paint in a smaller room so felt the need for this. That said, the quick drying properties are superb for both types of paint [water-based or alkyds] as compared to regular oils. I can paint on consecutive days, whereas before I had to wait several days for a painting to get tacky enough to do what I wanted to do next. With oils you usually need to have several works going at a time to best use your time. Also, there are new gel mediums that also speed up drying time and add nice texture to your brushstrokes. You can paint faster and do wet in wet or slow down and let the work get tacky in sections as you work on another section.

  2. Pingback: Limited Palettes Part 1: The Expanded Primaries

  3. Manuel Petavrakis on

    Hello Mitchell,
    Reading your article about the use of Alkyd paints, and your experiences with acrylics and traditional oils, I can’t help thinking the ideal paint for you would be Chroma’s Archival oil paints and mediums. They’re alkyd oils with a patented formulation guaranteeing they result in the most flexible oil paint when dry. You might like to give them a go some time. I doubt you’d be disappointed.
    Cheers.
    Manny

  4. I just got your book in the mail. It’s fantastic. Best art book I’ve ever read on landscape painting. Thanks for all the wonderful tips and great information. I’m tempted to move from Sweden to Seattle just to take your class. If you ever offer an internet course please let me know!