Tim Gagnon first started painting with acrylics while in college, as he studied fine art, and today he’s a professional artist with an impressive track record. Not only has he sold over 1,000 paintings to more than 30 countries, but he also sells licensed prints of his work all over the world while teaching online art courses from his own website.
Alyice: For those who may not know how acrylics differ from oil paints, can you explain what acrylic paints are and how they work?
Tim: Acrylic paints are water-based, where as oil paints are oil based.
The drying time is very different between the two paints. Acrylic paints dry within a matter of minutes allowing you to layer quickly and complete complex paintings in a shorter amount of time. However, there are a variety of mediums you can use with acrylic paints that extend the drying time to make them more like oils.
Oil paints dry at a much slower pace (unless you use drying mediums) and give you more time to blend.
Even though I love the process of creating art, I don’t like to wait days and days to finish something. I like to work for long sessions and try to complete as much of the painting in a couple sittings as I can. Because acrylic paints dry at a faster pace, I can layer the paint and create depth and dimension in the painting in a matter of hours.
There are some acrylic paints that are engineered to dry slowly without mediums as well. This means if you have used oils all your life and want to try acrylics, the transition wouldn’t be as difficult as it may have been years ago. So with some practice you can make an acrylic painting look and finish like an oil painting.
Another benefit to acrylic paints is they won’t yellow over time like oil paints do. Also, some people are allergic to oil paints, and/or the fumes bother them. Acrylics don’t have the fumes and allergens that oils do, which make them great for people who might have some sensitivities to oil painting.
I also find that the clean up with acrylics is much easier and less time consuming than oils. With acrylics you can just clean everything up with water, no solvents are needed.
Alyice: What do you wish you knew about acrylics before you got started?
Tim: I wish I had known more about all the mediums you can use with them. The mediums that allow you to thin the paint for transparent layers, or to thicken the paint for texture can be great tools. Also, like I mentioned before, there are ways to extend the drying time with mediums that are very helpful as well.
Alyice: What is your creative process like?
Tim: It all depends on what I am painting for subject matter.
If I’m doing a portrait or something with figures (animal or human) I always sketch out my ideas first before I paint them.
If I’m doing a painting that tells a story, I try and sketch out my composition first on the canvas to make sure it works and that the story is readable. I usually end up painting layers over my initial sketch and then sketching again in certain areas where needed.
When I paint landscape paintings I usually have an initial idea and just start painting. I don’t really worry about sketching anything and just “paint as I go.”
I mostly paint from my imagination. I rarely use photos when it comes to landscapes. I try to take in as much information about the landscape as I can when I’m just walking the dogs, or going for a ride. I’m always studying clouds and trees and how they work together. I like to use my imagination because it gives me the flexibility to create landscapes how I see them. I feel like a photo constrains my process a little bit and takes out some of my creative energy.
For practice I like to use limited palettes. For example, if I’m using a new color, I try and use it as the main color and only add one or two additional colors to complete the painting. This allows me to practice with the light and dark shades of the color and I can understand how it works.
If you use a ton of other colors with a new color, it is hard to understand how that color works in the painting and where you can use it again.
When I finish a painting I seal it with a spray varnish (Kamaar Varnish). It is a somewhat glossy finish that makes the paint look “fresh from the palette.” It helps give that “oil painting” look and it protects the painting from fading, dust, and sunlight.
Alyice: How has your style changed over the years?
Tim: When I was younger I really wanted to be a cartoonist. I love story telling so I started out doing cartoons when I was in high school.
I started painting in college, and really enjoyed the medium. I had a professor who helped me understand how you can tell stories with your paintings.
I started out painting things that were more aggressive and harsh. I think we all go through that stage where we paint things that are a little dark. I quickly grew out of that stage and started painting figures and landscapes. I liked how painting a landscape can send subtle messages, or create emotions.
When I first started painting landscapes I painted with a more impressionist style. I liked large, obvious brush strokes because I could get my emotions across easier. As I grew as an artist I began developing my own style. I really liked painting that had space and balance.
I now paint paintings that are semi-realistic and really colorful. I feel like I can create emotions with certain colors, and with how I compose the painting.
When I first started out I just painted the landscape how I saw it. Now I compose the painting how I feel it will be most effective, not worrying about if it is completely accurate to an everyday landscape.
My art has changed a lot over the years, but I am now getting back to the point where I want to discuss serious things in my paintings. I still focus on landscapes, but I try and do a painting each month that deals with certain social situations, or political problems. I feel it helps me deal with things that bother me, and a lot of other people.
Art is a great communication tool, and I think I have grown as an artist, because I understand how to communicate my message without being in your face.
Alyice: What do you believe is a key element in creating a good composition?
Tim: I guess it all depends on what you’re painting. I deal mostly with landscapes, but I think in all paintings the most important element to your composition is space.
The negative space, or the space that surrounds your subject matter, is very important. It creates shapes that we see subconsciously. For example if you painted a tree in your painting that approaches the top of the canvas, and also goes off the side of the canvas you can create an interesting shape in the negative space of the painting.
It’s also important how you set up the relationship of your objects. If you fill up the entire canvas with things that attract attention from the viewer you may end up with something that is too intense or “scattered.” It is hard to read the painting when there is too much going on, and there isn’t enough negative space to allow the viewer to read over the painting smoothly. This doesn’t mean that negative space has to be “empty” it just has to be deemphasized either by color or detail.
Everyone has their own style, so how they deal with the content in the negative space will differ.
Another thing that is important in composition is how you balance the objects. If you get to much symmetry, or if you have too many things “centered” in a painting it will be boring.
You want to have your objects off center, going off the canvas or playing with the edges of the canvas. This lets the viewer to use their imagination and to read over the painting fluidly. If everything is contained and symmetrical the viewer doesn’t have to use their imagination because you’ve already given them
Alyice: How do you come up with a profitable pricing structure for your acrylic pieces?
Tim: This is the most difficult question for every artist. You can attach value to a lot of different things: time, supplies, size, meaning, sentimental value, etc.
I like to base it on importance and time.
If something doesn’t take me that long to paint, then I don’t charge as much (as long as it’s not too big). If something has significant meaning, I usually spend more time on it and that increases the price.
Artists are often afraid they are pricing their paintings too low. My thoughts are, if it didn’t take you that long to paint then why not offer it at a price that every day people can afford so more people can enjoy your work. If you spend lots of time on something then it is okay to price it higher.
If you price all your work really high and you’re not selling anything then you’re not going to make a living as an artist. You have to have a balance of affordable pieces and pieces that have higher prices due to time and subject matter.
If you just want to be in galleries and sell your work at high prices, I think your focus should be sending out as many resumes as you can to galleries to try to get picked up by as many galleries as possible.
I would rather sell my work directly. I have had quite a few galleries want to sell my work, and I have done it, but I prefer to sell my work directly and have the interaction with the buyer. This also allows you to have lower prices because there aren’t as many people to pay. In a gallery they have to pay for marketing, the people who work at the gallery, make a profit and pay you. That’s why the prices are much higher in a gallery than they are direct from the artist.
Alyice: Aside from selling original pieces of art, you also provide painting lessons via online video and DVDs. How did this part of your business come about?
Tim: When the recession came to town, I had to supplement selling originals. I had been making YouTube videos for awhile, and would get emails asking me how I did certain things. I figured I’d make some lessons on DVD and see if people liked them. It ended up working out really well, and now I offer lessons online and on DVD. People can download them and watch them as many times as they’d like. It’s fun watching people grow as artists, and I get to interact with people all over the world.
Alyice: Did you have to learn any special programs for putting your videos together?
Tim: It has been quite the process creating these lessons. I started out with just a small handycam and movie maker on a PC. I eventually purchased a high definition video camera and professional editing software (Final Cut Pro on the Mac).
There is a steep learning curve with all of these things. Learning how to compress video, edit it together smoothly and upload huge files is pretty difficult and hard to explain. I did a lot of reading to understand all of my equipment and software.
Lighting is also something that is hard to understand. I am now at the point where I can create a video in a couple days (although it takes a few additional days to upload). The hardest part is painting a painting from start to finish in 2 hours or less. There are time constraints because the larger the video is, the more you have to compress it, which means loss of quality. Also there are limits on how big files can be to upload to my server. So it is important to do the lesson in 2 hours or less to get the most effective quality video.
Alyice: In your opinion, what do you feel makes a good educational video?
Tim: The most important thing that I have learned about making an effective lesson is the way you explain things.
A lot of people send me emails saying they like how I explain things in “normal language.” If you use a lot of art terms that people haven’t heard of before they are going to get frustrated because they don’t know what you mean, and they’ll have to resort to looking up the word making the process chaotic.
I try to explain things in very simple terms.
For example, if I’m scrubbing my brush across the canvas I say “scrub your brush across the canvas.” I try not to go into too much color theory. I could go on and on about complimentary colors or secondary colors. . . etc. But I’ve found that people just want to know what you are doing and how you are doing it, so I’m very straight forward.
People can learn the relationship of colors as they go. I think it’s easier to learn those things by reading about them. I show the application and I tell you what colors to use. I don’t want you to guess too much because learning how to paint can be frustrating if it’s not coming out the way you want it to. And I want people to have success, so I try to make it so they will.
Once my students gain the confidence in painting, they will start to expand their techniques naturally. So my basic goal in these lessons is to give my students all the information needed to create a painting from start to finish, without confusing them.
Alyice: What’s been the most difficult aspect of teaching someone to paint this way?
Tim: I think video lessons are possibly more effective than in person lessons because it allows people to rewind and watch something over and over, and they can work at their own pace.
The interaction with the artist is probably the hardest part because it isn’t instant.
The most difficult thing with these lessons are the critiques. The hardest part about critiquing a painting, especially through email, is how you affect someone’s feelings.
There are always things you can critique in a painting. Even professional artists have flaws or things that could have been done differently, so when you critique a painting you want to point out the most important thing that people can improve on, but you have to focus on the things they are doing well, too.
You never know how sensitive a person is, especially if you’ve never met them before.
Finding the balance of constructive criticism and praise is a difficult thing to learn. You can’t focus on all the things they can improve on because that affects their creative energy. You want to be very honest in giving opinions though, otherwise you can’t help your students grow as artists.
(You can also watch one of Tim’s videos for free by clicking here and typing in “free” as the password.)