Acrylic Painting Guide

Acrylic painting gives me a chance to relax and clear my head. I love getting lost in the composition and colors, the methodical brushstrokes, and the feeling of accomplishment I get from taking a step back to see the finished painting.

I know painting can be intimidating when you first start out, but I want everyone to find the same joy I created this step-by-step acrylic painting guide. This way whole process will be less intimidating, and you will learn all about tools needed for expressing your hidden love threw painting and art. 

Acrylic painting guide

About Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint is pigment suspended in an acrylic polymer binding material. It also contains water, which makes it an emulsion– this means it is a mixture of two liquids that would normally not mix on their own. 

Its Properties

The water emulsion property is the heart of what makes acrylic paint so convenient and unique. It is water-soluble. When the paint is still wet, it can be thinned out or easily cleaned up with water. 

The water in the paint begins evaporating as soon as it is exposed to air. It is also absorbed into the surface it rests on, and this means acrylic paint dries fast. When dry, the surface is still flexible, and shouldn’t crack when bent or rolled at the right temperatures. 

As the water that is emulsified with the binder evaporates and is absorbed into the surface of the canvas, the paint dries and the pigment and acrylic binder bond tightly with each other to form a surface that is chemically different from wet paint. Because acrylic and water don’t mix naturally, this dried surface is now water-resistant. 

Advantages of Acrylic Paint

The main advantage of acrylic paint is that it is versatile. It can stick to almost any surface, is available in many different textures and consistencies, and can be used for most styles of painting. 

For example, if you want your painting to have the appearance of an oil painting but don’t like the hassle of using oils, you can achieve that with the use of acrylic mediums or gels. Acrylic can also mimic the appearance of watercolor and gouache. 

Acrylic paint is relatively safe to use, especially when compared to oils. It is nearly odorless and gives off no fumes while drying, and most importantly it is non-flammable. 

It is cheaper than oil paint, and comes in just as many colors. When Acrylic paint dries, its permanent and very durable. You can easily store paints and clean up the tools used.

What painting surface is appropriate for acrylics?

Nearly any traditional painting surface can hold acrylic paint. Some of the more common materials include: Canvas, Plastic, Paper, Wood, Fabric, Metal, Glass, Nails, etc…

How to choose acrylic Paint

How to choose acrylic Paint?

The first thing to consider when buying acrylic paint is the quality. Professional or artist quality paints are the most expensive, but also the best quality. These paints will have a higher concentration of pigment, which means the colors will be more vibrant. 

There is a larger selection of colors within the professional quality paints, and the consistency is usually much smoother than lower-quality alternatives.

Student-quality paints are the cheapest and are great for beginners. The reason the quality isn’t as good is that there is usually less pigment, or the paint might contain fillers, resulting in a less vibrant color.

NOTE: Even There are fewer colors to select from in student quality, it isn’t a bad thing for beginners. You should learn the basics with minimal colors instead of becoming overwhelmed with the massive amount of color options and neglecting the basics of color mixing. 

Beginner acrylic paint colors

In my opinion, the below-listed colors are all a beginner needs. Anything else can be mixed.

  • Titanium White
  • Cadmium Yellow
  • Cadmium Red
  • Alizarin Crimson
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Ultramarine Blue

Some optional colors include purple (which can sometimes be difficult to mix with student-quality paints), and cadmium orange (you can easily mix orange with yellow and red).

TIP: Some people also prefer to buy the color black, but I would recommend first trying to mix your own black before buying true black paint. Black is easy to mix on your own- try combining burnt sienna, ultramarine, and alizarin crimson to start. 

Why is lightfastness important when buying paint?

Lightfastness is a measure of how much the color will degrade when exposed to light over time; in other words, how permanent the color is. This can be measured by the ASTM International standard, which is written as ASTM I, II, or III, with ASTM I being the highest quality (the most permanent) and III being the lowest quality or least permanent. 

Manufacturers might denote lightfastness with stars or letters as well; **** or AA means the color is the most durable, *** or A means durable, ** or B means moderately durable, and * or C means the least durable (sometimes called a fugitive color– fugitive colors fade significantly over time). Even beginners will benefit from using colors with a high lightfastness rating- ASTM II and A or better is recommended. 

What Paint viscosity is best for my painting style?

Viscosity is an important aspect to consider when choosing paint. Acrylic paint ranges from high viscosity or thickness, called heavy bodied paint, to low viscosity, or fluid paint, with a range of medium viscosities in between.

 Heavy bodied acrylic will retain brushstrokes, is similar in texture to oil paint, and is good for impasto techniques, as well as blending and mixing colors. Fluid acrylics are best used for fine detail work and dry-brush techniques, even airbrushAcrylic gels and mediums can be added to paint to achieve your desired viscosity.

Paint drying time

Acrylic paint has a fast drying time, but some people prefer slow drying times, similar to how oil paint dries. The drying time can be slowed down by adding a retarding medium to your paint, or else you can buy open acrylics, which is acrylic paint that is made with the retarding agent already added to it. Slower drying times are good for people who prefer to work on the same layer of paint for many hours or even for several days. 

Opacity

Another factor to consider when buying paint is the opacity. Acrylic paint can range from opaque to transparent- transparent paint won’t completely conceal the layer underneath, while opaque paint will.

TIP: Transparent paint is useful for layering paint to increase the vibrancy of the color- it gives the painting depth, while opaque paint provides structure. 

Brushes For Acrylic Painting

There are two types of brushes- synthetic and natural bristles. Read more about the difference between synthetic and natural brushes here.

Shape

  • Round: Best for versatility- can produce a variety of marks.
  • Pointed Round: Good for marks of varying thickness. 
  • Detail round: Best for small details and thin lines.
  • Filbert: Flat brush with round tapered end; useful for blending.
  • Flat: Best for covering a large area with paint; the edge can be used for lines.
  • Angled Flat: Works well for smooth curves and lines. 
  • Fan: Usually used for landscape paintings, specifically to create texture. 

Size

Small brushes are best used for small detail work. Medium brushes are the most versatile and can be used for both broad strokes as well as smaller details. Large brushes are the best when you need to cover a large area with paint. 

TIP: It is best to start out with medium brushes since they can be used for both small and large areas. 

How to use Palette Knives in acrylic painting?

Another useful tool for acrylic painting is a palette knife. This can be used to mix paint on a palette, but it can also be used to apply paint directly onto the canvas. Palette knives are usually made of either plastic or metal.

In my opinion, plastic palette knives aren’t worth buying unless you’re testing a palette knife to determine if you want to spend money on a metal one.

NOTE: A decent metal palette knife will last years- find one that has a flexible blade. It should not be difficult to bend the blade with your fingertip- the flexibility will improve the functionality and versatility of the palette knife. 

While the metal palette knives can be more expensive, they are not something you have to buy very often, and it is a good idea to invest in quality palette knives since they will be around for a while. 

Priming your surface

Priming your surface

In order to prepare your surface for painting, you need to identify what type of surface you are using. Is it too absorbent? Is it too flimsy? For the most part, acrylic paint can be used on most surfaces as long as you prepare it correctly. 

KEEP IN MIND: If you are using a store-bought canvas that is pre-primed (pure white in color), you can skip this step if you choose. However, some people prefer to prime even their pre-primed canvas because it improves the texture of the surface. 

If you have an unprimed canvas, priming will make painting much easier. Without primer on canvas, the paint will be absorbed into the canvas and the color will be drastically altered. It will be difficult to layer enough paint for the image to be visible. 

In general, priming will help the colors sit closer to the surface of the image, and they will appear more vibrant. 

I recommend Acrylic Gesso for priming your surface

The best thing to use for priming a surface for acrylic paint is acrylic gesso. Gesso is a chalky paint that can be applied in one even coat to the surface. The number of coats depends on the surface and your personal preference. More absorbent surfaces might need more coats of gesso, while less absorbent surfaces won’t need as many coats. Make sure each coat dries completely before applying another on top. 

Gesso is usually white in color, but you can find it in other colors too. I would recommend beginners use white because colored gesso tends to take the vibrancy out of some colors.

NOTE: Make sure you don’t use an oil based gesso! Oil-based gesso may feel dry to the touch, but the oil could still be evaporating, so when you put acrylic on top of the oil based material, the paints will dry at different rates and can crack or otherwise alter each other.
How to paint with acrylics?

How to paint with acrylics?

Acrylic paint dries quickly, so the best way to paint with acrylic is to use the drying time to your advantage and paint in layers. This will result in more vibrant colors and interesting textures, especially if you use transparency to your advantage. 

Many people find it useful to first sketch out their idea on the canvas before starting to paint; you can find more detailed information on that here.

First Layer or Underpainting

In traditional styles of painting, the first layer is usually called the underpainting. This is a map of the lights and darks in the painting, loose shapes, shadows, and warm and cool tones. Underpainting can be useful even in more abstract styles of painting, because it can be used to map out the composition of the painting. You should use Transparent or semi-transparent paints in this step.

Burnt sienna and ultramarine are good colors to use in this stage, because burnt sienna is a dark warm tone and ultramarine is a dark cool tone, so you can sketch the warm and cool shadows using these two colors.

KEEP IN MIND: When combined, burnt sienna and ultramarine form an even darker shade, close to black. Don’t worry about making the underpainting look good- it’s the first layer, and its purpose is to help the next layers look better and more vibrant. 

How to Develope your personal style of painting?

Perhaps one of the most difficult but rewarding aspects of painting is developing personal style. But how? It may seem like an impossible task when you’re first starting out, or even if you’ve been painting for a while.

TIP: If you focus on painting the most unique images in styles that no one has ever used, you will get stuck and frustrated. Instead, start with the basics. 
  1. It can be helpful to start with observational painting, like painting still lifes or portraits. The reason for this is because it trains your eye to recognize color relationships, light and shadow, and composition, while also forcing you to become familiar with your materials. You will discover what tools and paints work well for you, and what doesn’t work for you at all. 
  2. Once you have an understanding of how to use your materials, your personal style will begin to develop naturally as you push yourself out of your comfort zone and start to experiment.
  3. When a certain style or method becomes boring, don’t force yourself to master it just because its a skill you think painters should have. There are no rules, and the only way to get better at painting is to paint more.

Don’t get discouraged if your finished paintings don’t look how you wanted them to- reusing canvases or paint over acrylic painting is a very common thing, and simple to do.

Finishing and Storage of your Paintings

When you finally finish your art and you decide to keep it, important thing is to protect the painting so it lasts as long as possible with the least amount of degradation and damage. 

The easiest way to seal your finished painting is with a varnish. A varnish will ensure that dirt and grime will damage the varnish layer instead of the painting itself. 

There are a lot of different types of varnish- some need to be mixed together. Be sure to read the instructions on the package and follow them closely, and mix enough varnish to cover the entire painting at one time. 

NOTE: If you are applying a removable varnish, be sure to apply an isolation coat before the varnish. The type of sealant you should use depends on the material the acrylic paint is on.

Steps when applying varnish

  1. To apply the varnish, make sure the painting is completely dry, and the surface of the painting is clean (you can use a clean dry paintbrush or cloth to brush off any dust or lint).
  2. If you pour the varnish into a cup or jar, make sure there is nothing in the jar that might contaminate the varnish, as well as the brush. 
  3. Lay the painting flat, somewhere it can dry undisturbed. Place it above a protective surface in case varnish drips off the painting.
  4. Apply the varnish in even strokes, all the same direction, with the brush at an angle.
  5. When you have covered the painting in varnish, be sure to check for missed spots (any place the painting is still dry, or not shiny). 
  6. Let the coat of varnish dry for as long as the package specifies.
  7. Once you are sure it is completely dry, you may apply a second coat just as you applied the first. 

Acrylic painting storage

It is best for the acrylic paintings to be stored away from areas with high humidity; too much moisture can cause the painting to grow mold. Here are few painting storage tips to keep in mind:

  • Concrete walls and floors are not good places to store paintings because the paintings might absorb the moisture from the concrete.
  • Don’t stack paintings directly on top of each other.
  • You can wrap a clean cloth around them to further protect them from dust and dirt.
  • Avoid exposure to high heat, as this can cause the paint to soften and crack. 
  • For the best results, store paintings in climate controlled rooms away from sunlight.
  • You can roll up paintings when they are fresh for temporary storage, but it is not a good idea to roll or unroll paintings that are a few years old.
  • It is also not a good idea to store the painting rolled up for a significant length of time, since unrolling may cause the paint to crack. 

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