How to Paint With Acrylics: A Beginners Guide
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Acrylic paint is renown for its quick drying time and its flexible nature. It’s a great alternative to other slow-drying paints such as oil, and a highly versatile one to experiment with textures and effects.
Artists who choose it as their medium can enjoy its flexibility by not having to follow the usual rules.
One can, in fact, apply the paint straight to the canvas and subsequently paint layer over layer without needing to wait for long.
In this article, we’ll explore the basic supplies required for acrylic painting, how to get started in this fun medium and examine the differences between acrylics and other paints such as oil and watercolors.
Table of Contents
Basic Acrylic Painting Supplies You Should Have on Hand:
Acrylic paint comes in two grades: professional and student.
The first has the highest pigment concentration and purity making it easy to resist any chemical reactions coming from water, oxygen and light.
While the second has a lower pigment concentration, with cheaper formulas and a more limited color choice to the professional one, but with the same characteristics.
Whichever grade you decide to opt for, there are other factors you need to consider when you are looking to get the best paint for your projects. You always need to check the lightfastness, permanence, vibrancy, consistency, the color selection and how the paint would perform before you buy it.
Beginners can safely rely on acrylic sets by brands such as Liquitex Basics, Golden Fluid, Winsor & Newton, Grumbacher and Castle Art to get started.
All of them offer quality paint sets with a wide color selection, nearly as vibrant as the professional ones.
Paint brushes are essential tools to get started, choosing the right ones is just as important as finding good quality acrylic paint.
You can find brushes in all sizes and styles, what would work best for you comes down to the effect you aim to obtain with your brushwork.
To begin with, bristles such as hog hair and synthetic do well with acrylic.
The fibers made from natural animal hair tend to be stiff brushes while the synthetic brushes are soft and firm.
If you’re looking for a brush that leaves visible marks and offers more texture, then a stiff one might be best for you. Softer brushes, instead, will give smoother strokes and work well with blending.
Some of the best types of brushes for acrylic paint are:
● Round brush, to do some retouching and painting small details;
● Flat brush, to fill in small spaces;
● Bright brush, for quick strokes;
● Filbert brush, to blend colors;
● Fan brush, to create additional textures and effects;
To create further effects such as water and plant stems, artists can also enjoy experimenting with more unique designs such as the Dagger Striper brush.
Surface to Paint On
The biggest advantage that comes with acrylic paint is the ability to choose among countless surfaces to paint over. The most popular options are the following:
- Canvas. It’s the most popular surface to paint on and it’s available in many different sizes and varieties. Easy to transport and to paint on large scale.
- Wood. Hardwood, MDF and Masonite are only a few of the types of wood one can choose to paint on with acrylics. Just make sure to sand and prime (with acrylic gesso) the material before painting, since wood is water absorbent.
- Paper. Any type of paper such as watercolor, papier-mâché, thick card paper, etc. can work well. You can even find types of paper made specifically for acrylic but any would do, with or without acrylic gesso.
- Metal. While it’s true that acrylic paint doesn’t really adhere to smooth surfaces, metal still remains an option. To use this material for painting, start by roughing up the surface with sandpaper and priming it with a primer made for metal.
Container of Water
Having a container full of water by your side is very important to rinse brushes clean.
Taking good care of your tools will ensure that they remain in good conditions for longer.
Plus, cleaning your brushes will prevent the splaying of the fibers and getting gunked in the ferrule.
Make sure to never wear any of your favorite clothes when you start painting. Any stains made with acrylic will be hard to remove since the paint dries fast.
When you are painting, wear an apron or old clothes you don’t mind getting dirty, to just ease this worry off your mind.
To simplify your creative process, prepare beforehand a palette of the colors you plan to use in your artwork.
Whether you have a limited palette of colors or one that covers everything under the rainbow, a proper palette is key.
This will help you stay organized and also allow you to mix colors easily while you paint.
Given that acrylic paint does dry rapidly, for those looking to store their paint for several days (and to save a fair bit of money), some art supply companies do make airtight containers that are designed for acrylic paint preservation.
Whether its for laying down paint on the surface for thick applications or simply mixing the medium on your palette, a quality palette knife is an indispensable tool for artists of all skill levels.
So make sure you don’t skip on getting yourself a palette knife when getting set up!
A good quality easel is the perfect tool to paint with comfort and ease, especially for long periods of time.
When you’re buying one, make sure to pick an easel made to withstand time, that can accommodate different surface sizes and that can be adjusted without problems.
You have many options to choose from, the table top ones work well for small scale paintings while the standard floor easels are better for bigger surfaces.
Subject to Paint
Last but not least, you need an idea for a subject to paint. Inspiration can strike from anywhere, you could be walking down the street and suddenly see some flowers you wish to paint.
Or a photography website could have the most beautiful landscape picture you feel the need to try and recreate.
Look out for inspiration, the world is full of subjects you might enjoy painting.
Getting Started With Acrylics
Find the best lighting
Before you even begin painting, it’s important that you find the perfect spot to get creative. Try to locate a space with windows, so that you can get the most out of natural light during the day.
If you’re painting when it’s dark outside, then equip your studio with lighting that provides you a neutral light scope.
Once you have found the place with the best lighting for your painting, arrange its position to the canvas. The light should stay higher than your painting surface and not come from right behind you, so to avoid getting disturbed by reflections and your shadow.
Decide the focus of your painting
Start by planning the composition of your painting and decide what you plan to represent.
Even if you only want to replicate a photo, you can still plan some alterations. Work out what you can edit beforehand so that you can get started with a better idea of what you are going to do.
Plan the layout
Now that you have a clear idea of what you want to paint, sketch it.
Follow the rule of the thirds and figure out where you will place the focal point. Creating these sketches will help you avoid any future imprecisions within your painting.
Tint the canvas
A tinted background complements your composition, offering better tonal accuracy while painting.
Always make sure to tint the canvas before drawing the layout, so that the paint won’t make it harder for you to see the sketches.
Make the outline
Once your canvas has been tinted with your color of choice, you can proceed with sketching the outline.
This drawing will be essential to help you avoid making mistakes once you get started with the brushwork.
9 Tips to Remember When Painting:
- Since this type of paint is water-based, you don’t need a chemical thinner such as a mineral spirit. Simply use water.
- Remember that the paint will dry quickly and become water resistant after drying – painting in thin layers is key here.
- Oil and water don’t mix so avoid trying to use both acrylic and oil paint.
- Since the paint dries so quickly, it can’t be reactivated. Keep that in mind when you’re using the same techniques you use with watercolor.
- After completing your initial composition, focus on painting the middle values first.
- Then, work on the details. Move your attention to the smaller shapes and different values.
- Once you are finished, it’s time for you to add the highlights. Use lighter versions of your main colors to create these additional details.
- As you paint, remind yourself what was your initial goal. Don’t lose track of the story you are trying to tell and the feelings you plan to convey with this painting.
- Don’t get discouraged if the final artwork doesn’t turn out exactly as you imagined it. Painting is all about having fun and enjoying the creative process, not about achieving perfection.
Extra Supplies To Consider Once Comfortable With Acrylics
A great way to make acrylic paint more versatile is by using acrylic mediums. Find the one best suited to your painting, choosing from many different types capable of creating a variety of effects.
Here’s a brief overview on the popular mediums that acrylic artists like to use in their work:
- Gloss Medium – Perfect to enhance natural sheen and luminosity. A gloss medium also helps thin the paint and makes it more transparent (key if you want to paint in thin layers). Perfect for when you want to paint glazes that are both thin and brilliant.
- Matte Medium – If you’re looking to turn that natural gloss of acrylic into a more subtle finish, then the matte medium is for you. It will reduce that natural sheen and can be mixed with the gloss medium to obtain a semi-gloss.
- Glazing Medium – This medium works wonders to increase transparency. It facilitates glazing techniques and is usually available in either gloss or satin sheens.
- Gel Medium – A great thickener to retain brush strokes, also good to enhance adhesion for certain artworks such as collages. These gels are available in both gloss and matte.
Similar in their function to the mediums, additives are only different in what they contain. They lack acrylic binders, so while the mediums have no limit in usage, additives risk weakening the adhesion of paint and the brightness of colors if overused. Always follow the label to use them in the right proportions.
- Modeling Paste – Similar to the gel medium, only harder and thicker. It’s the perfect addition to build-up layers and make the painting three-dimensional. Once the relief dries, it can be sanded, carved or sculpted. Modeling paste is the perfect addition to very fluid acrylics that need a bit more body.
- Texture Gels – Perfect to enhance the artwork by imitating textures such as sand, ceramic surface, stucco and glass beads.
- Retarding Medium – When you wish to slow down the drying time of acrylic paint, this product is essential to have on hand. It’s perfect for mixing and blending colors, but be careful if it’s an additive and not a medium. Follow the instructions and avoid using too much if that’s the case.
- Flow Improver – A thinner for acrylic paint, meant to be used with wash techniques and when covering large areas. Compared to using water only to thin, the flow improver breaks the surface tension of the water in the paint, and provides more fluid acrylics that create amazing results while also saving you money in the long term.
Tips When Using Acrylic Mediums & Additives:
1. Make sure to mix them in only after you have mixed the colors.
2. Oil mediums are not compatible with acrylic so avoid using them.
3. To provide a final top coat it’s better to use a removable varnish, instead of a medium.
4. While brands matter when it comes to paint, mediums are all made with the same formula. Choosing one brand over the other won’t make a difference.
Acrylic Brush Techniques
Every painting starts with a mental image of your subject. To turn that image into a real picture, you not only need the right tools, you also need to know how to use them.
Paint can be applied in many different ways, knowing one brushstroke from the other can help you achieve the painting effect you have in your vision.
The goal with this technique is to cross one brushstroke over the other, to ultimately create a whole web of color.
You can choose how close or distant they can be from the previous, deciding to then mix colors or to create a build up of light and shade.
You can also try to make multiple X patterns with the same color, without washing the brush, to subsequently blend them together.
Known as a traditional method often used for drawing, this technique can be perfect to blend colors when painting.
The way you do it is by building up tone and texture with multiple horizontal lines. From a distance, they will look like an incredible mix of colors, while up close one can clearly see each one of the different lines that have been painted.
As part of this technique, small amounts of thick paint are loaded on the brush and dragged lightly over a dry painting surface.
It’s perfect to add details and texture to the artwork, producing rough and lively stages of tone and color.
This other method is best to produce smooth and even layers of colors, perfectly covering the surface.
Diluting the paint with either water or a matte medium will help make it flow even smoother. To create a wash like this, use a brush with a soft bristle and focus on going in one direction. If you aim for the coat to be more even, then instead use a wide and flat brush and make strokes that overlap.
Creating a straight line when using a brush is not impossible.
Get a triangle ruler (a.k.a. set square) to help you guide your hand in a straight line, holding it at a 45-degree angle.
You could also paint the ruler itself and use it to produce the line by pressing it on the canvas.
Alternatively, apply masking tape and remove it once you paint the line.
To create a line that, instead, looks organic and thin, the liner brush is the best solution.
Get fluid paint and hold the brush near the end of the handle. Then create the lines with a fluid movement, watching as the line gets thinner as you keep dragging the brush.
This technique is perfect to draw flower stems or branches of trees.
This one is all about applying layers of paint over other layers in a rough and uneven way.
Each color being used is different from the previous one, ultimately creating a lively mix of colors and textures.
These scumbles are usually painted with circular motions but any other movements still count.
A technique that focuses on using multiple small dots, scattered all over the surface.
You can either apply every dot with precision by using a small brush or let the bristles of a bigger brush do the work for you. It’s up to you to decide if the colors you use will gradually go from one to the other or if it will be a random mix of colors.
Stippling can also be done with sponges, bubble wrap and any other creative objects you can think of.
Coming From Another Medium? Here’s How Acrylics Differ From Oils & Watercolors
The way these paints are made fluid differs from one to the other.
Both watercolor and acrylic are made fluid with water, while oil paint uses linseed oil or any other similar drying oil. The latter consists of pigments that are suspended in that oil, while acrylic has a lower pigment load suspended in acrylic polymer emulsion.
Instead, watercolor is made of a mix of gum arabic.
What sets them part most than anything else is the drying time.
Oil takes the longest out of the three (oftentimes days), which allows for more time to be spent blending and adding glazes. While acrylic, similar to watercolor, dries fast and normally doesn’t take longer than an hour or so (unless a retarder has been applied to slow down the time).
After each layer is applied on a surface, oil paint requires a medium to be applied in between to avoid cracking.
While the elasticity of acrylic paint already prevents it from cracking and doesn’t require the same procedure, similarly to watercolor.
Thinning acrylic and watercolor can be easily done with just water, instead if you wish to thin or clean up oil paint then you need a specific solvent. Since the first two are both water-soluble, they can even be dissolved with water.
What sets them apart is that once dry, the washes with acrylic can’t rehydrate unlike watercolors.
Ultimately, acrylics make a flexible alternative to other types of paint.
They aren’t limited to only traditional painting and also work great with mixed media and collage. Additionally, they can be enhanced with a variety of mediums and additives that can be easily applied as required.
10 Places to Look For For Inspiration When Painting with Acrylics
To start painting you need an idea, a vision of what you want to create as your artwork. If you’re stuck and can’t think of anything, there are a few exercises you can try to get inspired.
- Make a list. Write down the subjects and styles you like and want to try, and a few you wouldn’t consider. Narrow that list down to only one or two options and get started on the one you prefer.
- Use a sketchbook. They are made to come up with ideas and keep track of them. Use it to record thoughts that you get during the day, one of them might inspire your next painting.
- Look around yourself. You don’t need to travel far to find the subject of your art. Your bowl of fruit would work well for still life, while the park nearby could be perfect for a landscape painting. You can take photos of the places that most inspire you to build a backlog of painting references.
- Revisit old ideas. Something you created before could be a great subject for your new painting. Think of all the different angles you could experiment with when working on a new version of your past work. The possibilities are infinite.
- Ask someone else. There is no shame in getting ideas from others. Have a look at the work of other painters and think of how you could interpret it in your own way. Push that idea further and create something unique.
- Learn by painting history. Expand your knowledge of art history, you might get inspired by paintings from old centuries.
- Try something new. Maybe your creative block isn’t due to the idea but to the medium. Experiment with watercolor, try out pastels and so on.
- Do it daily. Give yourself the challenge of creating one painting every day. It will help you exercise coming up with ideas and practice painting.
- Do it monthly. Have a look at the work other painters have done as part of monthly challenges and get inspired for your next project.
- Paint from photos. Whether it’s photos you took or ones you found online, this medium offers plenty of inspiration and ideas for painting.
Overall, acrylic paint works as a great alternative to other popular paints such as oil and watercolor.
If you are looking to work with a medium that is highly flexible, dries quickly and that only requires water to thin, then it’s the best option for you.
You can explore many different ways to bring your artistic vision to life, and enjoy alternating between brushes to better capture any image. The possible styles, textures and effects one can obtain with acrylics are many.
Once you have your ideas and the right tools, you’ll have plenty of choice on how to convey feelings and depict subjects.