A Beginner’s Guide On How To Use Acrylic Paint The Right Way
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Any trip to an online retailer or local art store for the very first time can be a fair bit intimidating to say the least.
With aisles overflowing of every medium possible along with so many complimentary artistic tools, it can leave a budding (or seasoned) artist with more questions than answers.
Therefore, we wanted to serve up this guide as more of a primer on how to use acrylic paint.
While we might touch on 15 different points or general tips you will want to apply when using this incredibly popular medium, we promise to do our very best in giving you just the information you need to make the right choices.
So, let’s get started and jump right into the different types of acrylic paints:
Table of Contents
Understanding The Viscosity And Different Types of Acrylic Paints To Choose From
As we touched on briefly in our detailed guide on how to make acrylic paint, this medium uses a water-soluble medium (meaning it can dissolve in water).
This means that when you use acrylic paints, unlike oil paints where you may use an odorless mineral spirit or turpentine as a solvent, with acrylic paints, you can simply just add water or flow improve to the palette in order to thin the paint.
But why should you care?
Well, when you do decide to purchase acrylic paint, they often come in a variety of viscosities.
Some of them can be much thicker (like a soft butter) all the way to being near water-like.
If it’s your first time painting with acrylics, we would strongly suggest going with paints that veer a bit more thicker.
Given the water-soluble nature of acrylics, you can simply always add water to thin the consistency and dial in the exact results you want.
However, with thinner body acrylics, you need to add an additional medium, which not only costs money, but will always be necessary for desired thickness.
While viscosity of the paint is largely a personal preference, it’s always worth noting these nuances when it comes to acrylics.
What Colors Should You Get When Purchasing Acrylics?
At minimum, when purchasing paint, we would recommend going with the three primary colors (red, yellow, blue).
This allows you to get comfortable with experimentation during the mixing process when making the secondary colors (green, purple, and orange).
However, there is a catch to this:
While it’s good practice to get comfortable when mixing your acrylics, some beginner artists (and even those a bit more seasoned), may have a hard time trying to dial in the exact same color repeatedly if they work on a painting for multiple days.
Therefore, if you are doing an evening landscape scene where the sky is made up of bright oranges, reds, and yellows, then you may also want to pick up a cadmium orange paint as well.
While the primary colors are great for beginners, we would also suggest two additional colors:
- Titanium white
- Burnt Umber
Titanium white is perfect for getting the shades of your colors a bit lighter while burnt umber can help to do just the opposite (get your colors a few shades darker).
But secondly, burnt umber is also a staple on nearly every artists’ palette as it’s a great color when sketching your underpainting (more on this in a minute).
If Truly Experimenting And Don’t Want To Always Rely On Mixing A Variety Pack May Be Better For You
Variety packs are both a great and bad thing.
They are great because they can give you all the major colors at an affordable price.
For instance, this 12-color variety pack by Dick Blick costs just $33.
If you were to purchase all of these colors separately, it would likely ring up at around $60!
That’s a 50% savings right off the top!
Now you got to be thinking, surely there is a catch, right?
…and you would be right!
The sizes of all the paints in nearly all variety packs are pretty small. Most will be around the 1oz or 2oz tube size…
…which let’s be honest, this won’t give you a whole lot of paint to work with if you like to layer your paint on thick.
So, if you are just trying out acrylics and aren’t ready to invest in large tubes of paint, or additional supplies, then these small variety packs aren’t only budget friendly, but are a great entry to the acrylic world as a whole.
Go Cheap With Your Brushes At First
So consider this:
For better or worse, acrylic dries at an incredibly fast pace (typically within a half hour).
This is great if you have an efficient painting workflow and don’t want to wait a couple of days between layers like you would with traditional oil paint.
But here’s where it gets a bit trickier:
Given that acrylics dry so fast, it’s incredibly important that you don’t let the paint dry on your brush.
While we recently talked about some great ways to get dried acrylic paint out of brushes, the best way to prevent this all together is to wash them regularly (we’ll elaborate further below).
Here’s where cheaper brushes become important:
If you are just starting to explore with this medium, you likely haven’t’ completely honed in on your techniques (and that’s completely fine).
But where this becomes important is that investing in exquisite sable or hog hair brush may be a bit excessive at this point.
Therefore, we would recommend going with synthetic if you are beginner.
Their naturally cheaper price tags will make it not nearly as painful if you lose a brush to dried acrylic.
Palette Selection For Acrylics
First and foremost, how do you plan on using your palette?
Are you an artist that likes to stand up and paint or one that prefers sitting?
This preference must be considered when selecting a palette, here’s why:
When standing we would recommend a palette that offers plastic cups that you can hold your acrylic paint.
Secondly, if you plan on thinning the paint with a water solution, the shallow cups will make things a bit cleaner so you don’t accidentally mix your colors.
Therefore, a cheap palette like this one should be great for beginners.
Now if you want more of an open surface palette and plan on sitting while you paint, we would suggest glass.
Whether you use a cheap picture frame that was in the clearance section of your local home goods store or have it custom cut from your hardware store, glass is a great surface for acrylics for a couple of reasons:
First, glass can be scraped clean with a razor.
When acrylic paint dries, its hard like a rock.
The smooth glass surface makes it easy for a razor to get under the paint and chip it away. This way you can get a smooth surface every time you load your palette with acrylic.
Secondly, a flat panel glass makes it easy to mix your paints effortlessly. This is key if you plan on going with the 5 colors that we outlined above.
A caveat to the glass panel is that it may be tricky to stand with it if you find yourself thinning your acrylics often. Without individual cups on the surface, the paint can easily run from one mix to the next.
Tip: When using a glass picture frame for a palette we would recommend taping the edges and making an ‘X’ on the underside of the glass. This will ensure you don’t cut yourself while handling the palette.
Palette Knives Are Optional But Highly Recommended
When using acrylics, given their short drying times, we wouldn’t recommend using a brush to mix your colors.
Not only is it not exactly the proper tool for mixing (a palette knife is), but it also opens your brush up to additional opportunities to get damaged should the acrylic get trapped near the base of the bristles (along the ferrule).
You can find a bulk pack of palette knives at fairly affordable price points and are the preferred method of combining colors.
Their metal structure allows them to be easily cleaned off even if the acrylic dries on them.
Secondly, palette knives are a pretty versatile tool for any artist.
Not only are they a creative way to apply paint to the canvas, but they can be used on other mediums as well (namely oil).
Acrylic Is Versatile When It Comes To Surfaces
If you ask any beginner acrylic artist what their surface of choice is, many of them will always say canvas…
…and that’s completely expected!
Canvas by its very nature works great with many different mediums.
After all, there is a reason so many artists have loved this surface for centuries.
But one thing about acrylic that many artists may be unaware is its versatility.
Whether you want to paint on glass, metal, wood, or any other surface, acrylic will usually bind very well.
Just a word of note though when it comes to more obscure surfaces, some may have very high absorption properties. This means it can be a culprit for sucking up all your paint from the brush (which can become very costly).
Furthermore, non-traditional surfaces might also not have a proper tooth or texture to them, which can make even the most expert artists struggle with technique.
However, to counteract the downfalls of these issues, it’s important that you have this staple in your studio…
Get Gesso – It’s The Best Primer You Can Buy
Gesso is a necessity for just about every artist out there.
Whether you plan on painting on a non-traditional surface like wood or metal, or simply plan on making your own stretched canvas, it should always be primed with gesso.
Primers like gesso aren’t only a surface for your acrylic to adhere to, but they also are a cheap way to drastically reduce the absorption properties of some surfaces.
This simple coat of gesso will quickly yield plenty of savings on acrylic paint!
Furthermore, gesso also acts as a great way to add some rigidness to a fabric as well, making it much easier to paint on whether it be in your own studio or plein air.
At an incredibly low price point, it’s worth keeping on hand always.
Other Common Mistakes That First Time Artists Make When Learning How To Use Acrylic Paint
While the above can serve as a guideline when it comes to learning how to use acrylic, we also wanted to add 7 other tips that we find many artists fall victim all too often.
Even Though Acrylic Is Water Soluble – It’s Not A Watercolor
Secondly, many artists getting into acrylic may have a water coloring background, which can lead to bad habits.
Therefore, we just wanted to take a moment to stress than watercolor and acrylic are not the same, nor will they act the same when loaded on to the bristles of your brush.
Unlike watercolors, once the acrylic paint has been layered onto a painting, it’s not going to come off.
The hard drying nature of acrylics don’t allow for additional opportunities to have a piece reworked.
Whereas when you use watercolors, you can simply splash a bit of water on the paper and still alter the pigments that are attached to the surface to some extent.
Secondly, the binding agents within the two differ chemically.
Drying Times Of Acrylic When Compared To Oil
Did you know that oil paint can take up to a week to dry completely?
While this can be great for some artists who like to go at their own pace, it also will often present workflow issues for others.
As we just mentioned previously, and it’s worth stressing several times, acrylics dry quick.
So, for those who have tried their hand at oil, expect the acrylic to demand your attention when laying it onto the canvas (or whatever your surface of choice may be).
Secondly, it’s important that you respect this drying process in all facets of your workflow.
Unlike oil paint where you can load up the palette and have very little concern of it drying out, with acrylics you will want to just load up a little bit at a time.
For the most part, you can expect acrylic to be touch dry within about 30 minutes of application of a thin layer. You can expect longer drying times of thicker layers that may extend all the way up to a couple of hours.
The Double Bath System Is Preferred
Once you are done using a brush with acrylics it’s important that you bathe the bristles in water.
Instead of using one jar that will turn to a muddy color, we would recommend employing the double bath system (i.e. using 2 jars).
This will allow much of the pigment to come off in the first dip, while the secondary jar is more akin to a deeper rinse.
Beyond the regular rinsing of your brushes, you should also get into the habit of washing them with soap and water about once every hour or two.
This washing cycle will not only ensure that your brushes will last for years (especially true of natural fibers), but also that you can take a much-needed break from your work.
Even simply getting up and moving around may spur some creative juices that you can take with you on the next hour of painting.
Keep At It – Practice Makes Perfect
Now many folks who try acrylic for the very first time often come from some other creative backgrounds be it drawing, water coloring, or oil painting.
However, there is also a large percentage of beginners that start from no background in painting whatsoever…
…and that’s ok too!
The most important aspect of painting is what we like to call P&P – patience and persistence.
Regularly painting is the best way to improve your technique.
One great way to learn is to copy the masters. This not only lets you retrace similar steps that some of the greats employed in their works, but also gives you much more appreciation for the medium.
Have Water Always Handy – It’s Your Solvent Of Choice
With the water soluble nature of acrylics, beyond just simply using the double bath system for your brushes, you should always have a small cup of water at your reach for thinning your paint.
Applying razor thin layers to your paintings can provide some additional dimension to your finished piece while also letting you experience the very unique properties of acrylic.
When diluting your acrylic paint, you should never go over a 2:1 ratio (50%) of water to acrylic.
Over dilution may cause unexpected results on the finished piece including chipping or cracking.
If you want thinner results and have the budget, a flow improver that is made from acrylic polymer emulsion (the same binding agent in the acrylic paints themselves) like this one will work wonders.
Adopt The Fat Over Lean Principle
While we talked about it in some other posts on our site and mentioned it briefly in this article, many artists will adopt what’s called the ‘Fat over lean’ principle (also known as thick over thin).
This just simply means that when painting in layers, you should always be placing a thicker layer of paint over a thinner one.
Not only will this expedite drying times of paint (which typically is a non-issue with acrylics), but will also prevent cracking of the paint as well when it dries.
Therefore, you will want to make your paintings are composed in the following order:
- Gloss or varnish
Buy From An Art Supply Store, Not A Hardware Store
Oftentimes beginning artists fall victim to picking up key art supplies from their local hardware store…
…and it makes sense.
If you take a look at odorless mineral spirits for instance. At Home Depot you can get a quart (32oz) of this solvent for just over $7 bucks:
Now, if you head to art retailer like Dick Blick, you will see Gamsol listed at nearly $6:
When you do the math that’s .22/oz vs .99/oz (a 350% increase for the ‘artist’ mineral spirits).
While it might seem like a sham that the art suppliers are taking a commodity-esq product and repackaging and reselling it at a 350% premium, this accusation would be misplaced.
While still relying on the same core ingredient, artist grade odorless mineral spirits have been refined at a much higher level.
Not only will it perform immeasurably better than your hardware store mineral spirits, but it’s also going to be a lot safer for your health.
Therefore, while it may be attractive to save a bundle of money, you should very rarely ever head to the hardware store for fine art supplies (exception being a wide brush for gesso/primer application).
This Is Not The End All Be All On Learning How to Use Acrylic Paints
While some of the experts may employ different techniques than those outlined above, the techniques mentioned in this article will set up a strong foundation for you when learning how to use acrylic paints properly.
Not only will this help you develop some very fine pieces of work, but will ensure that the items in your personal studio will shine to their fullest abilities.
If you feel like we missed anything, shoot us a quick note and we will add it to the article!