Fun With Acrylics: Messy Painting Exercise

Why do I call this the messy painting exercise? Forget your nails (or wear surgical gloves) and definitely wear old clothes. In this exercise, you’ll explore and play with all your materials, so there’s no right or wrong way to proceed. You won’t try to make anything specific, and that takes the pressure off. If a subject evolves, that’s great. Go with it.

Get ready. Line up items that you will need including collage elements. Make sure you have a supply of liquid gesso. Have a spray bottle loaded with rubbing alcohol handy. Newspapers, pieces of cut matboard and corrugated cardboard will make provocative textures. Carve a linoleum stamp or have a store-bought one ready. Paper towels, tissue and old towels are essential for wiping out. Have a brayer handy as well.

Here’s one way to start. Pour or squirt fluid acrylics into a little matte medium you’ve applied at random to the paper. After squirting, take a big brush and mix all the paint and the matte medium together. Immediately manipulate the paint by lifting off with a tissue, drawing into the paint with your brush handle end, and stamping into the messy mixture. Keep the paint moving by wetting your brush and bringing some of the mixture down the paper.

With a brayer, roll through the initial mixture, and then quickly roll the brayer over a section of the paper that hasn’t been painted. Cover the rest of the paper with brushstrokes of various sizes, using all the original paints you squirted. Let the painting dry completely after you’ve covered the paper.

When you return to the painting, stamp, draw and paint opaque passages, and then stop to assess. If you have a good abstract painting, stop! If not, let the painting dry and then apply a veil of white gesso (liquid gesso thinned with water) over the surface. Let it dry again. You now have a surface that you can do another painting on, perhaps a realistic still life. The forms from the underpainting will give your painting an intriguing, tactile surface.

Here’s another way to proceed: Borrow a composition. To make it easier on yourself, especially if you have a problem with composition and design, pick a favorite painting from an old master and look at its spatial divisions. Draw those shapes onto your paper.
What next? Pick an area and, with your varied assortment of brushes, make some marks. When you really think about it, painting is all about making your own marks. Let each and every section dry before you go to the next.

Try glazing. Next you can select an area that you wish to glaze. Before you glaze, mask off parts of that area with frisket or tape. Apply a transparent glaze of one color over the area. Drop in other colors while the area is wet, if you wish. Let everything dry, move the tape, and then repeat the process as many times as you wish. You’ll be amazed at the variety of interesting looks and textures you can create!

Doing a messy painting is a dynamite exercise to teach you how acrylic works. If wonderful images emerge using this process, great! If not, you’ve got an interesting new surface to paint on.


“You can read a million books, but practice and play will make you a fearless painter, if you embrace the journey,” says Betsy Dillard Stroud from her studio in Scottsdale, Arizona. A professional artist, writer and instructor who teaches workshops nationwide and abroad, she is the author of The Artist’s Muse: Unlock the Door to Your Creativity and Painting from the Inside Out (both from North Light Books, www.fwbookstore.com). A Dolphin Fellow of the American Watercolor Society, she is a signature member of the National Watercolor Society and a frequent juror for exhibitions of works in watermedia.

Stroud’s “Messy Painting Exercise” is from her article Get a Jump-Start in Acrylics, which appeared in the May 2008 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.


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