What Is Acrylic Paint and How it made

By Mandy Moss

Acrylic paint is one of my favorite mediums as an artist. Acrylic paint is a fast-drying synthetic paint made from colored pigment mixed into an acrylic polymer emulsion.

The acrylic polymer acts like glue to bind the pigment together when the paint dries. Unlike oils or watercolors, acrylics provide a unique combo of flexibility, vivid colors, and quick-drying.

I like how acrylics allow me to work quickly and layer colors without having to wait for each coat to dry. Acrylic paint works on many surfaces – canvas, wood, metal, rock, and more.

That versatility makes acrylics ideal for all kinds of artistic projects from paintings to sculptures to crafty decorations.

I hope this introduction gets you excited to try this fun and creative medium yourself!

Introduction to Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint is a fast-drying synthetic paint made of pigment particles suspended in an acrylic polymer emulsion. The acrylic polymer acts as a binder to hold the pigments in place once the paint has dried.

First commercially produced in the 1950s, acrylics gained popularity for their versatility, durability, flexibility, and water-soluble nature. Key advantages include:

  • Fast drying times
  • Water-resistance when dry
  • Can be used on many surfaces
  • Achieve various textures and techniques
  • Non-toxic and low odor

Acrylics offer a unique combination of the color vibrancy of oil paints with the flexibility of watercolors. Let’s explore in more detail.

Key Properties of Acrylic Paint

The fast-drying quality of acrylics stem from its acrylic polymer binder. As the water in the emulsion evaporates, the polymer particles fuse together forming a stable paint film. This allows acrylics to be multi-purpose:

  • Quick drying – thin layers dry rapidly allowing you to work quickly through layers.
  • Water-resistant – once dry, acrylic paint is permanent and waterproof. You can varnish for added protection.
  • Versatile techniques – acrylics can be blended smoothly when wet or built up in thick impasto layers.
  • Mixable – acrylics can be mixed with mediums or other media like pastels or inks for unique effects.
  • Flexible – the paint film remains flexible over time so it won’t crack as it ages.

The fast drying time can take adjusting to since you need to work swiftly and clean tools promptly. But this property makes acrylics so versatile.

What is Acrylic Paint Made Of ? -Components

Acrylic paint contains:

  • Pigments – color particles of various hues and values often made of organic or inorganic compounds. They give paint its color.
  • Acrylic polymer emulsion – a binder that consists of acrylic polymer suspended in water that forms a flexible paint film as it dries.
  • Additives – chemicals like plasticizers for flexibility, defoamers to reduce bubbles, silicone oils to enhance flow and suspend pigments.
  • Water – used as a vehicle to give the paint fluidity and creates the emulsion. Evaporates as paint dries.

Manufacturers can adjust these components to make specialty acrylics with different drying times, finishes, and viscosities.

What is Acrylic Paint Used For?

Thanks to its flexibility, acrylic paint can be used in many artistic applications:

what is acrylic paint
  • Canvas painting – Excellent for both thick impasto techniques as well as smooth blending. Can mimic oil painting.
  • Mixed media – Acrylics combine beautifully with pastels, charcoal, gels, inks and more. Useful as an adhesive too.
  • Murals – Durable acrylic polymer makes it ideal for large scale indoor and outdoor murals that withstand weathering.
  • Fabric/Crafts – Versatile acrylic craft paints bond well to many surfaces – wood, glass, metal, rock, ceramic, fabric, and more!
  • Miniatures – Thinned acrylics are great for adding color and details to miniatures and models. Dries hard and durable.
  • Airbrushing – Acrylic polymer inks and thinner paints work exceptionally well airbrushed onto any surface and dry rapidly.

Acrylic’s myriad uses make it accessible and essential to artists of every skill level. Now let’s explore the main acrylic paint varieties…

Types of Acrylic Paints

While all acrylics contain the same basic ingredients, they come in different paint formulas:

Heavy Body Acrylics

With a thick, buttery consistency similar to oil paints, heavy body acrylics retain visible brushstrokes and are ideal for impasto techniques. The density gives good cover and blending ability.

Soft Body Acrylics

A creamy yogurt-like consistency allows soft body paints to blend smoothly wet into wet on the canvas. Great for mixing with mediums to adjust properties.

Fluid Acrylics

Thinned to a milk-like liquid, fluid acrylics create smooth applications perfect for watercolor-esque washes, faux finishing, and airbrushing when color requires thinning.

Acrylic Inks

Highly pigmented inks with an ultra-fluid viscosity contain finely ground pigments perfect for illustration, calligraphy, spraying, and printing applications
requiring intense saturated color.

Acrylic Gouache

This opaque version of waterbased acrylic paint resembles the gouache made with gum arabic but with the added durability and flexibility of acrylic. Dries to a velvety matte finish perfect for painting highlights and shadows.

Interactive/Open Acrylics

Proprietary paint formulas that slow the normal quick acrylic drying time to allow more time to blend colors wet-in-wet. Mimics oil paint but with acrylic’s advantages.

Comparing Acrylic Paint Grades

Acrylic paints come in different quality grades. Understanding the distinctions will help guide your choices.

Artist/Professional Grade

Offering the highest quality pigments for lightfastness and using minimal fillers, artist acrylics offer the greatest permanence and color brilliance. They are best for gallery-quality work.

Student Grade

Using less expensive pigments with more fillers, student acrylics have lower lightfastness ratings but offer an affordable way to explore painting with color. Many artists use student paints for studies and underpaintings.

For important works, artist-quality paints are recommended. But both grades can produce beautiful artwork!

Techniques and Best Practices

Mastering acrylic painting takes practice. Here are some key techniques and tips:

  • Wet blend colors on the canvas by overlapping wet strokes. Be gentle, don’t overmix.
  • Use glazing techniques to layer transparent acrylic washes over dried layers. This creates luminous effects.
  • Try impasto methods using thick paint on a stiff brush or painting knife to create textural dimension.
  • Use retarders to slow drying times allowing more time to blend. Keep paints workable longer.
  • Clean brushes thoroughly in water to avoid dried acrylic ruining the bristles. Never let paint dry on tools.
  • Follow canvas preparation steps like proper sizing and priming to prevent paint absorption issues.
  • Avoid overthinning paint with water. Use acrylic mediums instead to maintain paint stability and adhesion.
  • Store acrylics properly in air-tight containers. Pigments can dry out and settling can occur if left open.

With practice, you’ll develop techniques that bring life to your acrylic paintings and best utilize this flexible medium. Never stop experimenting!

Responsible Use of Acrylics

A benefit of acrylics compared to oils is their lower environmental impact. Here are some tips:

  • Allow paint to dry on disposable surfaces before responsible disposal rather than washing down the drain.
  • Avoid contamination by storing acrylics properly. Don’t discard unusable dried paint – dispose responsibly.
  • Reuse and recycle non-porous acrylic palettes instead of throwing away after one use.
  • Use the minimum amount of paint needed to avoid waste.

With forethought, acrylics can be used efficiently. Also practice safety:

  • Ensure proper ventilation when painting. Avoid inhaling fumes.
  • Wear gloves and avoid skin contact to hands or near eyes and mouth.
  • Use specially formulated child-safe acrylics around kids. Supervise properly.
  • Follow all manufacturers’ instructions for safe handling and use.

Acrylics are safer than oils but deserve careful use. Applying these responsible painting practices enhances your enjoyment of this wonderful medium while minimizing any risks!

Acrylic Paint Varieties

While all acrylic paint contains pigment particles suspended in an acrylic polymer emulsion, there are several varieties and formats, including:

Heavy Body Acrylics

The most popular variety, heavy body acrylics have a thick, buttery consistency similar to oil paints. The high viscosity of heavy body acrylics allows the paint to retain visible brushstrokes and knife marks on the canvas. This makes it ideal for impasto techniques. The thickness also prevents colors from flowing and mixing together on the canvas, enabling you to layer colors cleanly.

Soft Body Acrylics

With a consistency akin to yogurt or sour cream, soft body acrylics contain the same pigment concentration as heavy body but have more acrylic medium added to improve flow. The smooth, creamy texture allows soft body paints to blend well on the canvas and easily mix with various mediums to modify properties like flow, texture and drying time.

Fluid Acrylics

As the name suggests, fluid acrylics have a milk-like consistency that is much thinner than heavy body paints. The thin viscosity produces smooth applications ideal for detail work, watercolor-esque washes, glazing techniques, and stain painting. Fluid acrylics are available in jars or bottles designed for dripping and pouring.

Acrylic Ink

Acrylic ink contains finely ground acrylic pigment particles suspended in a solution that mimics the viscosity of water. The inks flow smoothly and offer intense, saturated color perfect for calligraphy, airbrushing, and printmaking techniques. Acrylic inks work well in markers, pens and stationery.

Acrylic Gouache

Gouache is an opaque water-based paint. Acrylic gouache replaces the traditional gum arabic binder with acrylic. Once dry, acrylic gouache exhibits a matte velvety finish. The opaque coverage is ideal for rendering light, shadow and form in graphic or illustrative work.

Open Acrylics

Open acrylics are a relatively new variety that have an extended drying time compared to traditional acrylics, which dry quickly. Open acrylics are formulated with a retarder additive that keeps the paint workable and wet for long periods, making it easier to blend colors and mimic oil painting techniques.

Heavy Body AcrylicsThick, butteryHigh viscosity, retains visible brushstrokes and knife marksImpasto, layering colors cleanly
Soft Body AcrylicsYogurt-likeSmooth, creamy texture, blends well, mixes with mediumsBlending, glazing, stain painting
Fluid AcrylicsMilk-likeThin viscosity, smooth applicationsDetail work, watercolor-esque washes, glazing, stain painting
Acrylic InkWater-likeFlows smoothly, intense, saturated colorCalligraphy, airbrushing, printmaking
Acrylic GouacheOpaqueMatte velvety finish, opaque coverageRendering light, shadow and form in graphic or illustrative work
Open AcrylicsExtended drying timeRetarder additive, workable and wet for long periodsBlending colors, mimicking oil painting techniques

Comparing Acrylic Paint Grades

Acrylic paints come in different quality grades. Understanding the distinctions will help you choose the right paints for your needs and budget.

Artist Quality

Artist or professional grade acrylics offer the highest quality in terms of lightfast pigments and permanent paint films. They contain the maximum amount of pigment and minimum amount of fillers. Artist acrylics have excellent archival ratings, with the paint film remaining stable and flexible for decades. They also have high tinting strength and color permanence.

Student Grade

Student grade acrylics use lower grade pigments, fillers and binders to offer paints at a more affordable price. While student paints are fine for practicing techniques, the colors are not as vibrant, intense or lightfast. Student paints also tend to have lower viscosities. Many artists use student colors for underpainting and blocking in broad areas, reserving the artist colors for final details and color mixing.

While you can certainly create beautiful art with student paint, artist quality acrylics are recommended If you want to sell your work or preserve it for many years. Look for lightfastness ratings of Excellent (ASTM I) or Very Good (ASTM II).

Popular Brands of Acrylic Paint

There is a vast array of acrylic paint brands, each with their own offerings and specialty products. Here are some of the most popular artist-grade acrylic brands:

Liquitex – The first acrylic paint made for artists, Liquitex helped pioneer the medium in the 1950s. Their soft and heavy body professional acrylics are a staple for most artists. Liquitex offers a huge range of paints, mediums and tools.

Golden Artist Colors – Regarded as a leader in acrylic paint technology, Golden offers high-quality professional paints designed for permanence and archival standards. Their products are a good step up from student grades.

Winsor & Newton – A trusted brand, Winsor & Newton’s Artist’s Acrylic line provides a rich spectrum of paints with excellent lightfastness. Many artists swear by their intense cadmium colors.

Amsterdam Acrylics – Focusing strictly on acrylics, Amsterdam is known for providing high quality paint, mediums and tools at an affordable price point compared to other premium brands.

Jo Sonja’s – Produces ready-to-use acrylic colors designed for quick and easy mixing. Their paints, inks and mediums are formulated for decorative and craft painting techniques.

Don’t be afraid to try different brands to find which ones best match your painting style, techniques and budget. Many artists use a mix of brands in their work.

Essential Techniques for Acrylic Painting

Here are some key techniques to help you get the most out of your acrylic paints:

Wet Blending – Blend colors directly on the canvas by overlapping wet paint strokes. Use soft body or fluid acrylics for best results. Don’t overmix as acrylic dries quickly.

Glazing – Allow paint layers to dry fully and apply thin transparent layers (glazes) using fluid acrylics or acrylic inks. This creates luminous effects.

Staining – Apply fluid acrylics diluted with water or medium to allow colors to absorb into and “stain” the painting surface evenly, similar to watercolor techniques.

Impasto – Use thick paint and stiff bristle brushes or a painting knife to build up thick textured layers of paint. The acrylic holds the texture as it dries.

Wet-on-Wet – Keep paint wet and workable for extended periods by mixing acrylic retarder mediums into the paint. This mimics oil painting techniques.

Dry Brushing – Drag a stiff dry brush over textured surfaces to catch the raised areas and create contrasting textures and highlights.

Scumbling – Using a dry brush, lightly scrub semi-opaque colors over existing paint layers to suggest form, blend edges, or create textural effects.

Sgraffito – Scrape into wet paint layers with the end of a brush handle or other tool to reveal colors beneath and create graphic lines and textures.

Palette Knife Painting – Dispense thick acrylic paint onto the canvas and use palette knives to spread colors and create abstract textures.

Pouring – Dilute acrylics with pouring medium and let colors flow, mix and mingle directly on the canvas to create fluid abstract effects.

Tips for Working with Acrylic Paint

Here are some key tips and best practices when working with acrylic paint:

  • Store acrylics in air-tight containers and squeeze all air out of tubes before closing to keep paints fresh and workable.
  • Keep acrylics, brushes, palettes and other tools clean to prevent dried acrylic from ruining them. Use soap and water.
  • Use synthetic bristle brushes which hold up better than natural hair when using acrylics. Properly clean and store brushes after painting.
  • Try hake brushes for blending large areas and stiff bristled brushes for thick impasto paint. Use round brushes for details.
  • Select a hydrophobic palette with deep wells for mixing colors. The paint won’t run off the edges as easily when mixing.
  • Apply acrylic in thin layers and allow to dry fully between layers to prevent cracking. Thick paint dries more slowly.
  • Avoid overthinning acrylic with water which can destabilize the polymer emulsion and compromise the paint film. Use acrylic retarder instead.
  • Wet acrylic palettes and brushes with water while working to prevent paint from drying on them. Don’t let paint contamination occur.
  • Use acrylic mediums to change the consistency and properties of paints. Mediums help create unique techniques and effects.
  • Varnish finished acrylic paintings using an acrylic polymer varnish to protect the surface and enhance colors.

By following fundamental acrylic painting practices and personalizing tips and techniques over time, you will get comfortable working with this versatile medium and take your paintings to the next level. Never stop experimenting!

Environmental Impact & Responsible Use

A benefit of acrylic paint is that it tends to have less of an environmental impact compared to oil paints. Here are some tips for reducing waste and disposal when using acrylics:

  • Allow excess paint to dry on a disposable surface rather than washing down the drain which introduces polymer particles into waterways.
  • Try to avoid contamination of paints which forces disposal. Store tubes and jars properly with tight seals.
  • Reuse and recycle non-porous acrylic palettes. Do not discard them after one use.
  • Rinse brushes used for acrylic painting and reuse the cleaning water for initial oil brush cleaning.
  • Use the minimum amount of paint needed for techniques and avoid excess waste.
  • Dispose of completely dried acrylic paint in regular waste rather than the hazardous waste stream.
  • Donate unused paints to schools, community centers, thrift stores and shelters rather than throwing them away.

Every artist should be mindful of their impact. With some forethought, acrylic paint can be used responsibly.

Health and Safety Considerations

Acrylic paints are generally considered non-toxic. However, take precautions to use them safely:

  • Use acrylics in well ventilated indoor and outdoor spaces to minimize exposure to fumes.
  • Avoid contact with eyes and skin. Wash hands properly after use and don’t apply near eyes or mouth.
  • Wear gloves to minimize skin contact. Nitrile gloves work better than latex.
  • Use products labeled child-safe and AP certified non-toxic when painting with children. Supervise properly.
  • Follow manufacturers safety instructions and heed all warnings displayed on product labels.
  • Store acrylic paint properly in cool, dry locations in air-tight containers out of direct sunlight.

While acrylics are safer than oil paints, wise precautions will protect your health and that of those around you. Children should use kid-friendly acrylics.


I hope this comprehensive guide has provided you with a deep understanding of the world of acrylic paint – one that inspires you to grab some paint and start experimenting!

Acrylics offer immense flexibility. You can use them to create delicate watercolor effects or rich, thick impasto textures and everything in between. They work for any subject matter and style.

Find the brands and formulas that fit your needs. Learn essential techniques but also break rules and develop your own creative methods. Be curious and play. Painting with acrylics should be fun and gratifying.

Most importantly, don’t be intimidated by the vast array of products and information. Art begins by putting paint to surface. Start creating today! Let your special artistic voice shine through. I wish you the absolute best on your acrylic painting journey!


What acrylic paint is used for?

Acrylic paint can be used for all kinds of art projects – from canvas paintings to outdoor murals to fabric crafts. I love the versatility of acrylics. The quick-drying paint allows me to layer colors easily without waiting for previous coats to dry. Acrylics also stick to many surfaces like wood, metal, rock, plastic, and more, unlike oils or watercolors

What is the difference between latex and acrylic paint

The main difference is the binder. Acrylic paint uses an acrylic polymer emulsion as the binder while other paints use ingredients like oils or latex. The acrylic binder is what gives acrylic paint its unique properties like flexibility, durability, and fast drying time.

Is acrylic paint oil or water-based?

Acrylic paint is water-based rather than oil-based. That means acrylic paint uses water as the vehicle to carry the acrylic polymer and pigment

Is acrylic paint latex or oil?

Acrylic paint is not the same as latex paint. Acrylic paint has an acrylic polymer emulsion binder. Latex paint uses a latex polymer binder (synthetic rubber). While both are water-based, acrylic and latex paint have different properties and uses. Acrylic paint is suitable for artistic painting techniques while latex paint is used more for house painting.

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