Like Painting for the first time

 

Glass and ceramic microspheres transform acrylic paint; the result has transformed me as an artist. Instead of taking days to build up thin transparent layers, I work alla prima (wet-in-wet) with thick, opaque color and finish paintings in hours. Instead of minimizing texture, I place it at center stage.

 

Microspheres have catalyzed a profound change in my artistic development; for me, there is now so much more life and interest in the medium itself that I’ve turned decisively toward a non-representational art in which “the subject of painting is painting.” The experience has been like using an entirely new medium; to me, it’s like painting for the first time. 

 

Here is an image gallery of close-up photos of microsphere texture. Keep scrolling below to learn how microspheres work!

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Close up of Gel 320 in strong light to show dried texture.

When added to acrylic artist colors and media, microspheres can increase volume and viscosity, enhance color blending, extend drying time, and create a variety of textured surfaces. I use several kinds of microspheres. 3M™ Glass Bubbles™ are tiny hollow spheres with thin walls made of borosilicate glass. They are available in several sizes ranging from about 10 to 150 microns (millionths of a meter) in diameter, appearing in the form of a fine white dust. These are lightweight and translucent. 

There is also Poraver™ expanded glass, made from recycled bottles and available in sizes from about 60 microns to over a millimeter. These are heavier than the hollow spheres, but also much more opaque and available in a wider range of sizes. 

Regardless of material and size, I generally mix one part (by volume) dry spheres to one part acrylic binder to create a microsphere gel, which I then combine with color before applying.

But how do they actually work? Glass microspheres are non-absorbent and thus increase the overall volume of paint by displacement. The microspheres become coated with pigments, which then intermingle as different colored spheres make contact and roll past one another like millions of tiny lubricated ball bearings. Being distributed across the spheres’ surfaces, the pigment now occupies a larger visible area, thus extending color and reducing cost. The acrylic binder likewise expands when microspheres are added, enabling less of it to be used. 

The key here is that microspheres (when purchased in bulk) cost much less per unit of volume than the pigment and binder they displace. My supplies of pigment and acrylic binder actually last longer, despite the increased thickness of application. 

Microspheres also increase drying time because the capillaries through which water must escape become longer and more convoluted in order to route around the impermeable spheres. As a result, I can work for several hours in alla prima technique without worrying about the quick drying time of unmodified acrylics. Since the resulting dried surface is rough and granular at the microscopic level, it has a matte finish that eliminates glare for easier photography and scanning. The more opaque microspheres such as Poraver™ reduce the wet-to-dry color shift typical of acrylics by reducing the clarification of the acrylic binder as it dries. By eliminating these various worries I have been able to feel a new kind of artistic freedom and confidence.

Microsphere techniques even changed my relationship to other aggregates such as pumice. The lightest microspheres (such as hollow 3M™ Glass Bubbles™) can be combined with pumice to reduce the overall weight-to-volume ratio of the mixture, allowing thicker applications. Microspheres fill in the gaps between the more coarse, irregular stone particles to reduce pitting and create a blend of characteristics, improving the workability and integrity of pumice gel without sacrificing the desired natural texture.

There you have it! Glass microspheres have completely changed the game. I paint more, worry less, and take more pride in the results. I feel like an entirely new artist.

Please visit http://davidotooleart.com to see a gallery of my microsphere paintings, and let me know if you want to learn more. Stay tuned for more stories :)

--David

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