Oil paints had a corner on the art materials market for hundreds of years, but in the mid-20th century, a formidable opponent arrived on the scene. Acrylic paints have since joined oil and watercolor as one of the most popular painting media in the world. If you love to paint, then you’ll love learning how to paint with acrylics.
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Acrylics are water-based, quick-drying, not reliant on any toxic solvents and can be applied to a wide range of surfaces. When dry, acrylics are lightfast and permanent, and the surface becomes strong and flexible. Acrylics clean up with simple soap and water.
In addition to painting with acrylics, you can use these versatile paints for craft projects made of wood, on canvas, on leather and many other surfaces. Acrylics can be applied with brushes, rollers and painting knives; sprayed with an airbrush; poured, spattered or dribbled. You can modify the consistency of acrylic paint with a bewildering variety of gels, pastes and mediums.
Because of the properties of its polymer base, acrylic paint can be used in thick applications similar to oils; the paints can also be thinned with water or medium and used in a manner comparable to watercolors. When used with gels, pastes and mediums, acrylics can create effects unattainable with oils or watercolors. In fact, acrylics lend themselves to so many different acrylic painting techniques, the possibilities are practically endless.
FAQs: How to Paint with Acrylics
Whether you’re new to acrylics or advanced in this medium, knowing how acrylics mix and mingle with other art materials and mediums is critical for painting success.
Can you intermix oils and water-based acrylics?
No—they’re chemically incompatible.
Can you paint oils over acrylics?
Yes, but the painting’s layers may become unstable because the oils may not adhere adequately to the acrylic beneath. Also, the oils and acrylics will respond differently to environmental conditions such as humidity and temperature, which could cause the layers to separate.
Can you use traditional oil-painting techniques with acrylics?
The quick drying time of acrylics will require you to modify your oil painting techniques somewhat. Wet-into-wet techniques (wet paint applied to or blended with wet paint) are more difficult with acrylics, but scumbling and drybrush techniques are easier.
Can you use traditional watercolor techniques with acrylics?
Most traditional watercolor techniques can be used with acrylics since both media are relatively quick-drying. Just as watercolors of the same name by different manufacturers produce different staining or granulating effects, acrylic colors will differ from traditional watercolors. Also, unlike watercolors, acrylics can’t be rehydrated once dry.
Are acrylics less permanent than oils?
Although research on acrylics is less abundant, the medium seems to be as permanent as oils. Acrylics are chemically stable when cured, but, as with all paint media, they’re only as permanent as the surface they’re painted on.
Acrylic Mediums, Pastels, Gels and Additives
When learning how to paint with acrylics, keep in mind that most brands of acrylics come in a range of viscosities or “bodies.” Soft or medium body is fluid, creamy and smooth; heavy body is thicker, buttery and retains brushstrokes; extra or super heavy body is very thick and ideal for impasto applications. The following products can be used with acrylics of any viscosity to create an almost limitless variety of effects.
Mediums are mixed with paint for thinning and glazing, and can be used as an adhesive for collage and mixed media work.
- Matte medium—dries flat without a glossy shine
- Gloss medium—dries with a glossy shine
- Blending medium—thins the paint while increasing open time (the time the paint is wet) to aid blending
- Flow improver—makes the paint flow evenly and quickly
Pastes and gels are mixed with paint to add texture or to increase or retain thickness of the paint while adding transparency and lengthening drying time.
- Gel medium—thickens and adds transparency
- Heavy gel—adds texture, allowing the paint to hold its peaks
- Modeling paste—a very thick additive that allows the artist to create highly textured effects that dry to a flexible film
Retardant is mixed with acrylics to slow the drying time and is useful for wet-into-wet techniques; too much may result in a film that never dries properly.
Varnishes are applied to finished acrylic work to provide a protective, dust-resistant film; some reduce damage from ultraviolet light. Varnishing with a nonacrylic material, such as mineral spirit acrylic varnish, allows you to remove the layer later, if needed.
Many other additives are available, offering the artist a lifetime of experimentation and discovery.
- Iridescent colors
- Metallic colors
- Interference colors
- Glass bead gel
- Pumice gel
- String gel
- Natural sand
- Pouring medium
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Useful Acrylic Tools and Supplies
Brushes: Synthetic materials such as nylon are the best choice for acrylic paintbrushes. Stiff brushes are good for applications of thick paint; soft and supple ones are good for applications of thinned paint. Acrylics are harder on brushes made of animal hair, which can swell and lose its spring when soaked in water.
Palette: The acrylic painter needs a palette that’s flat and impervious to water. Plastic palettes designed for acrylics are available; some have lids or sealable compartments to prevent drying. Enameled butcher trays, thick glass, and plastic cutting boards also work well. Aluminum pans from frozen pies and melamine plates can work in a pinch. Avoid wooden palettes, which absorb water.
Surfaces: One of the advantages to working with acrylics is that you can apply them to almost any stable, nongreasy surface. Water-absorbent surfaces, such as wood, need to be sealed beforehand. Preferred painting surfaces include artist’s canvas, hardboard, fiberboard and heavy (400-lb) watercolor paper that has been prepared with a good quality acrylic dispersion primer. Using prestretched “gessoed” canvases saves time, but they’re often not of archival quality.
Water container: A large, unbreakable water container is a must. Change the water frequently so you don’t contaminate the colors on your palette.
All paint is made of pigments, a binder and usually some other additives. The binder is what locks the pigments in place when the paint is dry. In the case of acrylics, the pigments are suspended in a synthetic binder that forms a film when the water evaporates. (Oils use organic binders such as linseed oil; watercolors use gum arabic, another plant product.)
It’s the properties of the binder that make acrylic paints so different from other media. The acrylic binder is quick-drying, making acrylic paint ideal for layering, applying thick impastos, glazing and scumbling. Because the acrylic dries quickly through evaporation of the water, a film will form within a matter of minutes, though a thick layer of paint may take months to dry completely. Once the drying process is complete, the paint is chemically stable.
The acrylic base is a milky, translucent liquid when wet, which can make acrylic paint appear a bit lighter wet than when dry (see images below). Some critics say acrylics lack the brilliance and purity of oils because of the murky polymer emulsion.
Most pigments used for acrylics are the same or similar to those used in traditional oils or watercolors, except for a few that are incompatible with the polymer emulsion binder. Acrylics are completely intermixable and compatible within a manufacturer’s product line; most brands can be intermixed, but their properties, such as gloss finishes, may be altered.
Acrylic paint becomes porous when dry, so a final application of varnish is recommended after the painting has dried for several months. A mineral spirit acrylic varnish is a good choice, as it can be removed later if needed. Storage of paintings in cold temperatures is not recommended; the paint will become fragile.
Safety and Clean Up
Acrylics are very safe to use, but certain pigments used in artists’ paints are toxic regardless of medium, so basic precautions should be taken:
- Keep the paint out of your eyes, mouth and lungs. Not eating, drinking or smoking while painting will help you avoid accidental ingestion.
- Wash hands thoroughly after use.
- Use eye protection if there is a risk of splashing.
- As with all art materials, acrylics should be kept away from small children, and young students should be properly supervised. Check for the AP (approved product) seal on paints for children.
When painting with acrylic paint, rinse brushes in water while using them and clean them with soap and water at the end of a painting session. Don’t allow acrylic paint to dry on your brushes; the dried paint can be removed with solvents, but it’s a chore worth avoiding. Remove dried paint from a palette by scraping or peeling it off or by letting the palette soak in water.
Acrylic Painting Tips and Techniques
Don’t over-thin acrylics with water. Over-thinning results in a deposit of pigment without enough acrylic binder to create a stable paint film. Acrylics shouldn’t be thinned with more than about 30 percent water.
Use professional-grade supplies. Less expensive grades of acrylics by major manufacturers are good choices when first trying acrylics, but as your skill improves, move on to professional-quality paints. Don’t put high-quality paint on poor-quality surfaces.
Start out with just one manufacturer. Get to know one manufacturer’s line of acrylic paints and related products well so you know how they work together; then experiment with other brands.
This Mediapedia article, by Greg Albert, first appeared in a past issue of The Artist’s Magazine.
Want to learn more? Expand your acrylic painting knowledge with these great acrylic painting books & videos:
- Abstract Art Explorations: 17 Acrylic Painting Techniques with Chris Cozen
- Lee Hammond’s Big Book of Acrylic Painting
- First Steps: Painting Acrylics by Vicki Lord
- And learn more about how to use acrylic paint here!