An Interview With Abstract Acrylic Painter, Sarah Ettinger

By Alyice Edrich in Misc > Artist Interviews

SarahEttingerSarah Ettinger’s father was a commercial artist who nurtured her interest in art by taking her to the Art Institute of Chicago, and by supplying her with professional grade art supplies.

As a young adult, she took the advice of her father and studied in a more financially stable field, but her love of art was never far behind. Over the years, she took several art classes and workshops with nationally recognized artist.

When she retired, she started painting more, and soon after she began showing her work in galleries and juried shows.

Alyice: How does creating art make you feel?

Sarah Ettinger: When I get engrossed in making a painting, I am entirely focused on it. Time flies and all other thoughts leave my head. I don’t think of anything else except what I’m doing. . . and I’m very excited if everything goes well.

As a former art teacher of mine said, “Making art is the only way to run away without leaving home.” That about sums it up for me.


Alyice: Why did you choose acrylic as your medium?

Sarah Ettinger: Unlike the watercolors which I used to use, acrylics give me freedom to scratch out or cover over passages that are clearly wrong. It also dries quickly and that appeals to my style of painting—which is to work all over the canvas surface at once. I then set the painting down and dry it with a hair dryer and start painting again.

Alyice: What is the most challenging part about working with acrylics, and can you explain some of your process in creating the paintings below?

Sarah Ettinger: The only thing about acrylics that I find challenging is the inability to get the paint to blend on the canvas because it is drying too quickly. I know that I can add mediums to the paint to extend the drying time but I haven’t tried that yet because the ability to dry fast is what like about acrylic paints. It is also what I dislike about acrylic paint. It’s a challenge!


This painting is part of my Parched Earth Series (Parched Earth #7). I used crackle gel to develop the look of parched earth. When the base gel dried, each painting was colored with fluid acrylics mixed with water and gloss medium. To develop the dark drops coming down from the top of the painting, I used sand mixed with gloss gel. When the sand mixture dried, it clung to the canvas easily.

Alyice: What is the best part about working with acrylics?

Sarah Ettinger: The best part about working with acrylic paint are the number of gels, mediums, grounds, glazes, pastes, and skins that can be used with acrylic paint to make each painting experience different from another. Acrylic paint can even be used to simulate the look of encaustics.

Each acrylic artist has their own stable of these items which they use to make their paintings completely different from another artist. They are fun to experiment with and each artist hopes that they can come up with a new exciting technique using their own variety of these mediums.

Alyice: Do you do anything in particular to seal your art?

Sarah Ettinger: I use a Golden product to seal my art. It is a polymer varnish with UVLS to protect against ultraviolet light and leaves a flexible surface that is dust resistant. I mix together the gloss and the satin finish to get the exact amount of gloss that I want.

I like this particular product because it is water based so it has no fumes and the brush can be cleaned with soap and water. And once this varnish is applied and has dried no special care is required by buyers of my artwork.


The canvas treatment for Cool Jazz, seen above, began by drawing into wet, heavy gesso with implements to create a heavily textured piece. Layers of different colors or paint were then added; it touched lightly along the surface of the texture leaving the underneath layers visible.

Alyice: How do you come up with ideas/techniques for new paintings?

Sarah Ettinger: I never do small studies nor do I take the time to practice a technique every day. However, I spend a lot of downtime thinking about what I want to create next.

Whether this happens during a sleepless night or during a slow period during the day, it has to happen before I can start painting. Once I have a plan developed (color and design) I may or may not make a sketch. Making a sketch may clarify my thinking, but more often it just gives me a start which seems to be completely disbanded as the paint is applied to the canvas and I follow the paint’s direction.

I paint fairly intuitively and I just let it come out while I am working. When done working I put the painting down and look at it for up to a week until it speaks to me about what should be done next. Some paintings remain mute forever.


This painting (Urban Decay) is a good example of a painting method that I use quite often. Multiple layers of paint were applied to the painting surface—one at a time. As each layer dried, I scraped away some of the paint using a palette knife, sandpaper, or alcohol. I also used stencils and added bits of collage elements to each layer. As layer after layer was built, I attempted to unify the layers into a good design. In the final layer I added more color to unify and finalize the design.

Alyice: How has your style changed over the years?

Sarah Ettinger: My style and choice of medium has changed a great deal over the years as I like to grow as an artist. Once I reach what I feel are the limits of a style and medium I move on to something else.

I once used watercolor on watercolor paper almost exclusively and I painted in a realistic style. For several years I created a very popular—and well sold—series of abstract landscape from watercolor paintings using collaged elements of torn, painted watercolor paper.

To begin, I would wet the paper then apply harmonious colors with a saturated brush. By holding the paper from the edge the color would drip down and form very exciting translucent passages. I would then dry these papers and glue them to other papers to form the horizon line of a landscape. Next, I would add more small, torn colored paper to complete the painting.

These collage type paintings led me to experiment with making collage papers and creating paintings by gluing the hand tinted and decorated papers to heavy paper board. I enjoyed this for quite a while and then I had to move on to find something more exciting.

I found that if I used transparent Golden Fluid Acrylic paint on paper, I could use some of my former knowledge; but adding to it with fine glazes was not possible with watercolor. I was hooked on acrylics from that time on.

With acrylic paints, I could paint over passages using thin glazes to enhance and enrich them or I could use thicker paint to change them. I could also add texture, create markings, or scrub paint off using alcohol. These paintings had a great deal of depth to them, and they were a lot fun to work on.

Working on paper, however, means that the painting has to be matted and framed under glass to be sold. The final product is very heavy, so it became necessary to change from paper to working with gallery wrapped canvases.

This was a big change because it is very different working on canvas as opposed to paper. Most of my techniques had to change dramatically —even though I was still able to utilize some of them.

Typically, I start a painting on canvas by coating the canvas with molding paste in a random pattern. Once it dries, I coat the molding paste with gesso and let it dry before I begin painting. Depending on the effect desired, I’ll use acrylic tube paints or fluid acrylics.


Route 34 started with a need to create the feeling of looking at buildings or traveling on a road in the city. I applied glass bead gel to the canvas to develop the texture, then added the background color. I used a cream color because I didn’t want the painting to be too dark. Geometric shapes were then added with a palette knife. For these, I used red and black to contrast against the cream and to make the painting dramatic.

Alyice: What do you believe is a key element in creating a good composition?

Sarah Ettinger: I believe that all of the elements of a good composition should be in place before the painting is complete or it will never be considered “good”. No matter how much color, line, or decoration is present, it will never disguise the fact that the painting just does not come together. That said, I like a lot of contrast in a painting. But even then, if the composition is not good it will not work. Composition is most important.

Alyice: How do you come up with a profitable pricing structure for your acrylic pieces?

Sarah Ettinger: This is always the $64,000 question. How can you price your art to sell and still make money on your artwork? Most artists start by selling on the low side (i.e. taking less profit) and then increasing the price if the paintings begin to sell more rapidly.

For me. . . I am always exactly aware of the total cost of my expenses—whether they are the obvious ones like cost of the canvas, paints, and brushes, or the fixed expenses such as the cost of advertising, cost of transportation or shipping, capitol expenses, or rent due on a studio. All of these items, must be allocated to the price of every painting that you sell.

Once all the costs have been allocated to each painting the artist must decide how much extra he needs for his profit. This profit must also be added to the expenses to come up with a sale price. If this is done and the painting sells, the artist will recover all that he or she needs.

Another thing to keep in mind is that even if a painting is put “on sale” the price must never go below the cost of all expenses incurred by producing that painting.

You can learn more about Sarah and her art at her Etsy shop.


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