Acrylic: 10 Things You Should Know About Acrylic Paint

0703begacrylic1_230x160_1The novice's guide to acrylic paint.

by Bob Bahr

1) Acrylic paints are pigments suspended in a polymer emulsion thinned and liquefied by the addition of water. The better brands of acrylics dry to form a layer of colored plastic with near permanence. Because they are water-soluble, no harmful solvents are necessary in the painting process or when cleaning up. Some acrylics do contain a small amount of  formaldehyde or other substances to retard the growth of mold, however. These can cause allergic reactions in some people.

2) Acrylics dry very quickly, a trait that can vex an artist trying to paint outdoors in an arid climate but can be used to an advantage. Painting in layers is much faster, for example. Finished paintings can also be more easily transported shortly after a painting session.

3) Acrylics are cheaper than oil paints, in almost all cases.

4) Art-materials manufacturers have made many mediums that are compatible with acrylic paints, allowing various textures and surfaces. A few are gloss medium, pumice stone gel, matte gel, crackle paste, retarder, varnish, and glazing liquid.

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Acrylic paints are a good alternative to oil paints because they tend to cost less and can be used like watercolors—by diluting the paint with a medium, or can be used like oils—by adding medium. All images courtesy Cheap Joes Art Stuff.

5) One can use acrylics like watercolors by diluting the paint with water or, better yet, a medium. Certain watercolor effects, such as granulation, can’t be achieved, and previous layers of acrylic paint cannot be lifted up (or disturbed, depending on how one looks at it) by subsequent layers or brushwork.

6) One can use acrylics like oils by adding gloss medium, although achieving a true jewellike appearance and depth on par with that of oil paints is difficult. It is also very difficult to work alla prima in acrylic for more than 20 minutes, although wetting the palette and liberally using retarders can help.

7) Acrylic paints work on a wide variety of painting surfaces, which don’t need to be sized with gesso. As long as the surface has a small amount of tooth, the paint will adhere to it without danger of peeling. Acrylic paint is very durable; it can, however, shatter in freezing temperatures.

8) When painting in thin, transparent, watercolorlike washes, acrylic paint can produce soft edges without blending. But once the paint dries, an edge cannot be softened with scrubbing, in contrast to watercolor’s flexibility.

9) Acrylics dry darker than they appear during painting because of the nature of the polymer vehicle, which is slightly opaque and white when wet, but dries clear.

10) Acrylic paint can be extruded straight from the tube for solid cylinders of intense color or purchased as thin fluid in nozzled containers for dripping, spattering, and for use in an airbrush.

Bob Bahr is the managing editor of American Artist.

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6 thoughts on “Acrylic: 10 Things You Should Know About Acrylic Paint

  1. If you want to paint directly on wood, does sanding it give it enough tooth? I painted on wood and first put down a clear gloss medium. It seemed to work fine.

  2. Dried acrylic paint can be difficult to remove from clothing and upholstery fabrics. Before trying this, ensure that the fabric is completely dry.

    For synthetic fabrics, try a suede brush (wood handle/thin wire bristles)in short, light strokes in the direction of the fabric weave and back. do the same across the area. Be gentle until you can see how much pressure the fabric will take.

    If you catch it when it is still wet, use detergent and water with a stiff brush(keep an old ‘hard’ toothbrush around).

    After blotting off paint with wet cloth, work from the outside in with toothbrush and detergent. Rinse thoroughly.

    If you notice bits you haven’t removed while working in the wet stage, let them dry completely, then try brushing the loosened bits off with a dry toothbrush, suede brush or your fingernails.

    If retarders have been used in the acrylic paint, certain staining pigments may permanently bond with the fabric fibres.
    Glazed pottery can be painted directly with acrylic paints without a sanding if you aren’t sure you want it to be permanent.

    The acrylic paint can be removed by soaking the item in hot water and detergent for several hours. Pieces of paint will loosen and can be peeled or brushed off (as above).

  3. A brief, informative article, this is just the kind of information I was interested in.

    It is gratifying to see that the opinion I had of acrylics is similar to those in your article.

    Acrylics can be extremely handy at times and it truly is all about the style you want to get and the easiest way to get there, for instance; the sculpted or textured look in a paintind seems easier to deal with in acrylics, cheaper, too.


  4. I’m interested in doing some paintings on wood to be hung outdoors in a patio area on a large exterior wall. It will get sun, and will be rained on over time. I realize this will impact the life of the piece (and it’s OK, I don’t care, I just want some art around the backyard entertaining area). Has anyone done this before? Did you learn anything I should know about? THanks!

  5. I applied Gesso on a flat wooden surface that was a 12 m.m. ply. But the surface was smooth. Then I painted it with acrylic paint. The edges were by mistake left rough. When after drying I tried to sand them, the paint started peeling off and finally came off like a sheet of fabric, alongwith the Gesso primer. What did I do wrong?

  6. I made 2 paintings in acrylics on canvas and after drying kept together face to face. After some days when I wanted to see them, they were stuck together when tried harder to separate them they were damaged in some places, the color was removed from there. I wonder why it is so. I applied the color with water only and nothing else. Will anyone advice me how to solve this problem. Please email me. Thanks. mk baig