Anatomy of an Acrylic Painting

ELGIN by Barry Coombs


Many people, including old friends and long-time students, were surprised to see large acrylic paintings on the walls of Earls Court Gallery for #Hamilton2Views, my current exhibition with Aleda O’Connor. There is good reason for their surprise; I’ve never exhibited a series of acrylics on canvas in a commercial gallery.

The ‘look’ of the paintings, however, should not be such a shock to anyone who has followed my work over the years. My interest in Cubism and modernist movements goes back to my teens. It has found it’s way into my watercolours since the late 1980s. More recently, my gouaches have become simpler and are based on flat shapes of colour. LOW TIDE is a watercolour and TRINITY HARBOUR EAST is a gouache.

LOW TIDE Private Collection

Private Collection



My Artist Statement describes many of my influences and can be found on the #Hamilton2Views page in the sidebar of this blog. With this post, let me tell you a little bit about ELGIN, one of seven acrylics on exhibit.

My general process is much the same in any medium. I start with a combination of on-site sketches, photographic reference and compositional studies. ELGIN, shown above, is an acrylic on canvas and is 36 x 48″ in dimension. I first noticed the building while running errands around Hamilton, Ontario and was quite captivated by the visual possibilities.

Photo 1 for ELGIN

Initially, I wanted to paint the building from different points of view. I tried a horizontal composition in my sketchbook as a starting point. This view is the side of the building.

Sketch 1 for ELGIN by Barry Coombs

I wasn’t satisfied with this composition. It didn’t feel focused enough and seemed to dilute the impact of the image. I took another look at my photo reference and considered a vertical format.

Photo 2 for ELGIN

I liked this balance of shapes and colours very much and explored it further in my sketchbook. This sketch got me quite close to the final composition. Simplification and editing are key elements in my work. It’s difficult to explain how I interpret the image in order to give it a Cubist feel. It’s mostly intuitive and I strive for a quality that will communicate my excitement with the planes, angles and colours of the building. With ELGIN, I incorporated a Cubist device and added stenciled letters. In terms of colour, I followed the red/green complementary relationship in my actual subject. Other colours were carefully selected and I did a lot of colour testing on separate sheets of paper.

Sketch 2 for ELGIN by Barry Coombs

Acrylic paint and it’s application aren’t new to me but I had to arrange my tools and studio to accommodate this series. I painted at an easel. It was challenging to get back from the work on a regular basis so, at the end of a painting day, I often took a photo of the work in progress. During the evening, I’d review it and sometimes mark it up with notes and ideas.

On average, I spent about five days on a large canvas. An indispensable tool was the Masterson Sta-Wet Premier Palette. It kept my paint fresh and workable for the duration of the creative process. The sharp geometric treatment demanded careful planning and brush-handling. Several viewers thought that I’d used masking tape to prepare the clean edges of the geometric shapes in the paintings. Not so! Everything was done free-hand.

Early stage of ELGIN by Barry Coombs

Obviously, much more goes into a painting on personal, technical and conceptual levels. I hope I’ve been able to anatomize ELGIN to give some idea of my basic process. #Hamilton2Views continues at Earls Court Gallery in Hamilton, Ontario until November 15.


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8 Responses to “Anatomy of an Acrylic Painting”

  1. lindahalcombfineart Says:

    Thank you Barry! Sharing your process is a generous gift.

  2. grandidea Says:

    One of your best postings to date!

  3. scottcooperstudio Says:

    Great to see you do a step-by-step on your acrylic approach. Terrific show at Earl’s Court, both you and Aleda.

  4. Carol King Says:

    Hi Barry, I loved reading about your process. Thanks.

  5. Lois Says:

    Great lesson, thanks for sharing.
    You do have a Steady Hand!!

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