Painting with Acrylics for Beginners: All About Acrylic Painting

The Power of Harmony by Rency Punnoose, acrylic painting, 16 x 20
The Power of Harmony by Rency Punnoose, acrylic painting, 16 x 20

Proponents of painting with acrylics would say that the medium offers advantages that distinguish it from both oil and watercolor. On one hand, acrylics are permanent and do not yellow with age as do oils but, being water-soluble, they are fast drying like watercolors and require no harsh solvents for dilution or cleaning.

Acrylic paints also dry insoluble and remain flexible when they dry, as opposed to oils, which have a much more brittle surface. Disadvantages when learning how to paint acrylic works involve the fact that acrylics do dry quickly, reducing the amount of time one can mix and manipulate the wet paint.

But the versatility of painting with acrylics is what keeps people coming back. It can be used opaquely or diluted with water or medium for more transparency. It can be used as a traditional painting media, and it also works very well with other materials making it ideal to pair with mixed media, collage, and even airbrushing.

In terms of the reception of acrylics in the fine art world painting scene, acrylic painting is the newcomer by far having been around just since the 1940s. Before that artists painted with oils and watercolors in much the same way their predecessors have been for centuries. Because of its newness, acrylic painting is often thought of as an occupation for students and beginners. But with its inherent flexibility and increasing quality, painting with acrylics is becoming standard for all levels of painters.


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How to Paint with Acrylics: 10 Acrylic Painting Tips

Green Glow II by Jason Sacran, acrylic on linen, 18 x 24.
Green Glow II by Jason Sacran, acrylic on linen, 18 x 24.

1) Painting acrylics are pigments in a polymer emulsion thinned and liquefied by the addition of water. Superior types 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 acrylic painting process or when cleaning up after painting with acrylics. Some acrylics have a small amount of formaldehyde or other substances to retard the growth of mold in them. Be aware that these may cause allergic reactions.

2) When you are painting with acrylics, you’ll notice that they dry very quickly, a trait that can trouble artists who are painting outdoors in a dry climate, but this characteristic of acrylic painting can be used to your advantage. Painting in layers goes much more quickly than if you were using oils. Finished acrylic paintings are easier to transport and travel with because they dry quicker and are less brittle than oils.

3) Painting with acrylic paint is always going to be more affordable than using oils because the pigments are more cheaply priced.

4) Many mediums are usable when acrylic painting, allowing for a variety of textures and surfaces. Some are gloss medium, pumice stone gel, matte acrylic painting gel, crackle paste, retarder, varnish, and glazing liquid.

5) The first acrylic painting tutorial you receive will probably show you how you can paint with acrylics as if they were watercolors, thinning them with water or a medium. Some watercolor effects, such as granulation, can’t be replicated with acrylics, lifting previous layers of paint is not possible.

6) Acrylic painting techniques are akin to many of oil painting processes, though painting with acrylics alla prima for more than 20 minutes is a challenge, but wetting the palette and using retarders helps.


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7) Acrylic paints work on many painting surfaces that don’t need to be prepped with gesso. If the surface has even just a small amount of tooth, the paint will adhere without threat of peeling. Acrylic paint is very resilient but it can shatter in very cold temperatures.

8) When acrylic painting in thin, transparent, watercolorlike washes, you can often create soft edges without blending. But here’s one of many crucial acrylic painting lessons: once the paint dries, you cannot soften the edge, which is quite different in comparison to watercolor’s flexibility.

9) Painting with acrylic paint, you’ll notice the pigments dry darker than they look when freshly applied. This is because of the polymer in the paints, which is opaque and white when wet, but dries clear.

10) Acrylic paint can be extruded straight from the paint tube for solid intense color or painting acrylics can be bought as a thin fluid for spatters, dripping, and airbrushing.

Source: Adapted from an article by Bob Bahr.


Acrylic Painting Techniques That Maximize the Medium’s Versatility

Water Lilies by Shawn Gould, 2004,  acrylic painting, 42 x 32.
Water Lilies by Shawn Gould, 2004,
acrylic painting, 42 x 32.

For the last five years, Shawn Gould has focused on learning how to paint with acrylics and is most interested in how to capitalize on its versatility. “I love acrylic painting,” the artist says. “It just makes sense.” Gould points out that with acrylic painting he can paint wet-in-wet or in drybrush, from opaque paint to thin, transparent glazes. Gould appreciates the quick drying time he encounters when painting with acrylic paint because it demands he revisit areas that need attention or additional changes sooner rather than later. The artist believes that artists often find it can be difficult to achieve the richness of oil paints with acrylics, but his workaround is painting in layers.

Gould paints from three to 10 layers, back and forth with opaque and transparent acrylic painting colors. Usually he starts with a midvalue color and works outward, not always getting darker or lighter but painting back and forth in value. For instance, he may go one step lighter than the midvalue, then apply a darker glaze, which gives the color “a nice punch.” As the artist points out, with acrylics, painting light over dark can make a color murky, so he saves lightest lights and darkest darks for the last layer.

In addition to working in layers, the artist believes a strong underpainting is essential to execute successful acrylic painting works. Gould sketches in graphite, blocking in big shapes and main values. Then he glazes the board to seal the surface and give it an overall tone, usually using a muted earth color. The underpainting unifies the acrylic painting and keeps it fresh looking. In the acrylic painting Water Lilies, Gould started with a warm sap/olive green underpainting, adding subsequent glazing layers done in local colors, with the lily pads painting in midtones.

Gould will use gel medium when he is painting with acrylics in order to slow the drying of his acrylics, but most of the time he uses water. To keep the paint damp longer on the palette, Gould keeps a spray bottle of water at hand and mists the paints often. When he’s done painting, Gould will mist the pigments one last time and then cover his palette in plastic wrap. “The paints stay usable during the entire course of a painting,” he attests. The artist also fights off the fast-drying time of his acrylics by mixing more paint than he will use so he can rapidly paint wet-in-wet and blend colors.

Source: Adapted from an article by Linda Price.

Experimenting with Acrylic Painting

Mountain Pasture by Barbara Edwards,  2007, acrylic painting, 27 x 22
Mountain Pasture by Barbara Edwards,
2007, acrylic painting, 27 x 22

Acrylic painting and watercolorist Barbara Edwards paints realistically and abstractly. When painting with acrylics, the artist usually works in a nonobjective style. People could tease that this duality is a sign of the artist’s split artistic personality, but Edwards attests that she worked this way for more than 30 years. For her, this liberal mindset and sense of embracing the unknown not only keeps her focused but it also allows her to find subject matter from both inner and worldly sources. When starting an acrylic painting the artist intends to be primarily abstract, she refers to reference studies and photographic images to begin building a concept in her mind. Edwards’ acrylic painting work can sometimes combine representational and abstract elements, such as in Mountain Pasture. This painting emerged from the artist’s thought that cows, ever-present near her rural home, have a calming effect, and any figurative element within an abstract piece lends a significant emotional presence.

In terms of Edwards’ acrylic painting techniques, the artist does not stretch her paper. She prefers Saunders Waterford 200-lb paper when painting with acrylics. She first coats the paper with gesso or a texture medium. She then drags a clay modeling tool through the medium to create ridges all over the surface that will allow the paint to pool in unforeseen ways. She also uses kitchen spatulas and other tools to create various textures.

Next, the artist chooses two or three colors that go together in her mind’s eye and pours Golden fluid acrylics into small dishes that she then uses to pour the paint, which she thins with water, onto the treated paper. After this, the artist employs house-painting and kitchen tools to move the paint around, adding and altering her acrylic painting colors to create unusual patters and color relationships.

Throughout the beginning stages of a painting, Edwards strives to allow the acrylic painting to evolve on its own terms. “I never know what to expect when I am painting with acrylics,” she says. “Sometimes the painting looks like I think it will, and other times I just have to follow what it wants to do.”

Source: Adapted from an article by Lynne Perricelli.  



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