The 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.
|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.