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Gels Are Cool

Applications & Techniques:
Gels are Cool with Patti Brady, Director
Working Artists Program

GOLDEN Gels are the undiscovered and under-utilized secret of acrylic materials. No other medium offers artists the incredible array of options in surfaces, viscosities, transparencies, textures, glazes and extending possibilities, while maintaining great flexibility and a relatively quick drying time.

What Are Gels?
Gels are thickened acrylic emulsion (acrylic binder), and the very same "stuff" acrylic paint is made of. Simply stated, gels are acrylic without pigment.

Gels are designed for use with acrylic paint to change the paint’s characteristics. They may also be used alone to provide a transparent layer or to provide texture. There are no limits to gel uses.

Gels come in different surfaces: gloss, semi-gloss and matte (see below). Gloss Gels dry to a clear, almost glass-like luminosity. They have no matting agents added, and do not change the quality or color of paint to which they are added. The Semi-Gloss & Matte Gels have matting agents added, reducing luminosity. The matte version of Gels does not have the luminosity of the gloss or semi-gloss gels. Matte Gels are stiffer and appear a bit "cloudy" or satin-like because of the addition of matting agents. Matte Gels will affect the color of the paint. Other Gels like Fine Pumice Gel have solids in them and dry to an opaque finish, not the clear, glass-like luminosity of Regular Gel (Gloss).

Regular Gel (Gloss)

Regular Gel (Semi-Gloss)

Regular Gel (Matte)

Gels come in a variety of consistencies - Soft, Regular, Heavy, Extra Heavy, High Solid, Pumice and Tar versions. These varieties allow for self-leveling (Self-Leveling Clear Gel) or high peak thickness (Extra Heavy Gel or High Solid Gel) with many options in between.


Soft Gel

High Solid Gel

Extra Heavy Gel

Fine Pumice Gel

The basic gel, often called Regular Gel, is the same consistency as GOLDEN Heavy Body Acrylics. Regular Gels are used for regulating transparency without changing the consistency or viscosity of the paint, and as extenders. (See More Bang for Your Buck)

No Rules
Gels can be applied as thin washes over thick glazes, or as gritty gels over thin washes. Paint directly over gels using them as unique grounds or put gels over color or add them to each other. Get the idea? Almost anything will work!

Three precautions:

  1. Don’t use too much water. Adding water to a thick stiff gel will not make it a soft gel. Purchase the viscosity of gel you require.
  2. If gels with grits are used, make sure there is enough acrylic binder in each application of gel so that each layer allows for strong adhesion.
  3. Do not overwork acrylic gels. When they start to get tacky, stop pushing them around - this may cause crazing.

The examples below are only a few ideas of how gels can dramatically change the appearance of the ubiquitous pear. These funky pears are only "a drop in the bucket" of the hundreds of variations on a gel and pear theme.

Thick "Glazed" Pear
Painters traditionally think of glazes as thin transparent layers used by the old masters. Gels enable a painter to create thick transparent glazes that are luscious with a rich luminosity and depth. If you want to try to duplicate my gorgeous Thick Glazed Pear painting, follow these simple instructions. First paint an underpainting using three colors (Hansa Yellow Opaque, Turquois Phthalo & Quinacridone Crimson). For this image the underpainting of the pear is Hansa Yellow Opaque. Keep the values light, because you are going to glaze over it. Mix your glaze colors using a larger proportion of a thick or heavy gloss gel to pigment. (10 parts gel to 1 part pigment) Go ahead, be extravagant with the gel. Apply this mixture (I used Heavy Gel Gloss mixed with Quinacridone/Nickel Azo Gold) very thickly with a palette knife, covering the pear. For the background I used a glaze of Turquois Phthalo and for the foreground, Quinacridone Crimson. The painting appears very opaque while it is wet. As the gel dries and clears, the entire painting will brighten and the rich glazing quality will become apparent.

Pear in a Wet Ground
This is a simple way to experiment with using gels as grounds. For the Pear in a Wet Ground, I used Soft Gel Gloss that has a creamy, spreadable consistency. Using a palette knife, I applied the soft gel over an underpainting (similar to the first pear). While the gel was still wet I used a soft synthetic watercolor brush loaded with wet color. As I moved the wet paint into and through the wet gel, I created deep juicy brush strokes. I never added enough paint to opacify the gel, so I was left with mostly transparent glazes. It is nearly impossible to work with detail in this way, but it is guaranteed to loosen up your painting style. An added advantage of using gels in this manner is that it will keep your paint wet longer. However, thick applications of acrylic take a longer time to dry.
Highly Textured Pears
For the highly textured paint strokes in the Highly Textured Pears, I added Heavy Gel Matte (a very stiff gel) to all the paint. I used a palette knife to add the mixtures to the painting, then used a stiff bristle brush to create more texture while pushing the paint around. A great advantage to acrylic is the quick drying time. Imagine waiting for this thick painting to dry if it was in oil!

Textured Pear & Land
To the right is another way to use the Heavy Gel Matte. Begin with an underpainting. The paint should not be too dark in value, because you will be glazing over it with another color. When your underpainting is dry, use a palette knife to spread the Heavy Gel Matte over the entire surface. Now, while it is wet, draw or incise the deep texture lines with the point of your palette knife. Let this layer dry. Mix a glaze of 10 percent color and 90 percent Polymer Medium or Acrylic Glazing Liquid. You want this thin glaze to "puddle in the ditches", or settle out in the crevices that you have created with the gel.

Another example of this technique is the landscape pictured to the right. The difference is that we used Soft Gel Matte. The incised lines do not have the hard edges of the Heavy Gel Matte.

More Bang For Your Buck
If these "looks" using acrylic gels are not your cup of tea, saving money may be. Using gels as an extender can save you money.

For the Highly Textured Pears, I mixed about two-thirds of the thick Heavy Gel Matte to one-third pure paint. I still got incredible color strength, vibrancy and opacity, even though I had taken my pigment load down to only one-third.

Compare the price of paint to gels - you will notice Gel is much less expensive than paint! If you want to check this out, and save money, try this:

Use only professional grade acrylic paint. Student grade paint already contains extenders, and generally has fillers to lower the cost. For example, put down a nice thick swatch of full strength paint. Next mix two-thirds Regular Gloss Gel to one-third paint. Lay it down next to the original swatch. When the two swatches dry, they should appear to be very close in color. You have extended your paint and you have not changed the consistency or the gloss. If you used a matte gel, or a thicker, stiffer gel, these characteristics would change.