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Like any craft, learning how to paint with acrylics takes a little time to get the hang of and involves plenty of trial and error as you set on your way. With guidance and advice from painters who’ve been working with acrylic paints for many years, we’ve put together a comprehensive 101 on the topic.
From a brief explainer on what acrylic paints are and how they differ from other paints to a full step-by-step guide that’ll walk you through the process from beginning to end, stick with us and your next painting waits at the end of this article
Before we dive into how to paint with acrylics, it’s important to first discuss what acrylic paint is and how it differs from other media.
“Acrylic paints are basically pigments suspended in a water-soluble acrylic polymer media that becomes water-resistant when dry,” says Gary Griffin, an artist based in Houston, Texas. “The advantages of working with acrylics versus other media types is that they are fast-drying, easy to clean up, have low odor, and are heavily pigmented, meaning the colors can be very bold and vibrant.”
Compared to oil paints, which can take a full day or longer to completely dry, acrylic paints dry within minutes. “Unlike oils, you can continue to paint over the dried areas and not see any mistakes, hence it’s a very appealing medium for beginners,” notes Camilla Webster, a painter whose work is featured in museums and exhibits across the world.
Some other important factors to know about acrylic paints: they typically dry a darker hue than the pigment they exhibit when wet, they do not spread (like watercolors or gouache), they dry very quickly (which has its perks but can make blending tricky), they’re water-soluble when wet, and they are water-resistant when dry which means that once dry, they cannot be altered.
The bare-bones essentials for acrylic painting include a palette, a palette knife for blending, brushes that are marked as approved for acrylic paint, a canvas (Griffin says that a gesso-primed canvas or wood panel is best), a rag or paper towels, and then soap and water for cleanup. An easel will also come in handy.
Like anything, you’ll find there are variations in the quality of materials available to you. As a beginner, Webster recommends sticking with lower-cost or “student grade” materials versus “professional grade,” noting that you can even ask for an art store clerk to point you in the right direction.
“Both grades are good,” she says, “but student grade will be less expensive and great for practicing or exploring new subjects and colors as a beginner.” As you begin to feel more confident in your acrylic painting skill set, you can upgrade to higher quality products.
As for the best acrylic paint brands, Webster recommends both Golden and Liquitex. Winsor Newton is another widely recognized, stocked, reliable brand. You’ll probably do best buying a 24 or 36-piece set of paints, which you can easily find online or in art stores. It’s also a good idea to purchase a couple of larger tubes of paints you really like or think you’ll use often, as well as, a large tube of black and a large tube of white paint which you will inevitably use a lot for blending and base work.
Acrylic Paint Brushes
For brushes, Webster says to not overwhelm yourself. “Many art students and artists focus too much on a large selection of brushes. Buy a couple of good brushes and you will enjoy the experience far more than a gigantic overwhelming set or an inexpensive set you will see in the plastic bags at Michaels or the art store,” she notes. Two reputable brush brands include Winsor Newton and Grumbacher.
She recommends picking up the following:
- acrylic paint flat brush
- acrylic paint round brush
- acrylic paint wash brush
- acrylic paint angled brush
- acrylic paint liner brush
- acrylic paint fan brush
“Find a good local art store and head to the brush aisle and look for the acrylic brushes sign,” says Webster. “Take them up and out of their case and run your fingers through them. This is your magic wand. Feel it and hold it and gently feel the bristles with your fingers. Brush it across your free hand. This is your brush, and you will do great things with it.”
You’ll also need a product that keeps your brushes in good condition. We recommend The Masters Paint Brush Cleaner and Preserver.
Canvas & Easel
At the beginning of your acrylic paint journey, it’s best to buy a pack of acrylic-approved canvas boards. Either prime them yourself or make sure they’re primed for you. Primed canvas boards are white and will have labels like “triple primed gesso.” Webster says, “Buying a cheaper set like this will allow you to experiment with ideas and concepts without worrying you are working on a $50 canvas.”
Though an easel isn’t absolutely necessary, you may find that it makes your painting experience more pleasurable. An H-frame tabletop easel will run you about $20 to $40 and can be kept at home without taking up a ton of space notes Webster. If you want to upgrade to something more robust, she recommends exploring gently used easels on Facebook Marketplace, eBay, or CraigsList, or you can even inquire about them at your local art store. High quality, large standing easels easily venture into several hundred dollars, so pace yourself and explore your options.
Though there’s some room for adaption in the below step-by-step guide, acrylic painting should generally follow the same format. This is because, as mentioned above, acrylic paints aren’t as flexible and fixable as watercolors or oil paints.
Step One: Set Up Your Painting Station
Find a tranquil space in your home or even outdoors, then set up your easel and supplies. “Place your canvas on the easel, place a rag or paper towel near the palette, and put your brushes in a sturdy cup near the palette. All of these should be placed in orientation to whether you are left-handed or right-handed,” says Webster. If inside, you’ll want to cover the floor below you with a tarp, an old rug, or garbage bags.
Step Two: Practice and Experiment with Your Materials
The first step in mastering an art form is to become familiar with your media. For acrylic painting specifically, that means getting a feel for how the paint applies, how quickly it dries, how it sets on your canvas of choice, and how it blends with other colors. You can even experiment with other products that affect all the above.
“[For instance], there are many products available to ‘extend’ the paint or to modify the consistency and sheen, making the paint thicker for a more dimensional effect, and also changing from a matte finish to glossy,” notes Griffin. He adds, “Most acrylic paints can also be diluted to varying degrees with water or can be used as-is straight from the tube.”
We do have a few actionable ideas for ways to practice and experiment with acrylic paints. Each assignment is relatively short and will bolster your confidence and abilities as you move forward:
- Exercise #1: Swatch all your acrylic paint colors on a canvas to get a feel for how quickly they dry, their opacity levels, and how they apply to your canvas.
- Exercise #2: While you do this, feel free to incorporate some of the modifying products Griffin mentioned above to see how it impacts each swatch. You can also experiment with how water affects the consistency and opacity of the paints. If this step overwhelms you, reserve modification products for later.
- Exercise #3: Create a linear gradient from black to white, and another with two corresponding colors — such as red to blue, or yellow to green. This will really help you get a feel for how the paints blend with each other.
Step Three: Conceptualize Your Painting and/or Create a Rough Sketch
Before putting brush to paper, you’ll also want to conceptualize your painting. This can be as simple as thinking about what you want to create and having a vision in your head, or it may involve taking the time to sketch out your painting with a light pencil or charcoal.
“If you’re a ‘representational’ artist — e.g. a flower must look like a flower — then you would do a sketch or an under-drawing to aid in the composition of the painting,” says Adam Schrimmer, owner and lead artist at Blank Canvas Mural Company based in Greenville, South Carolina. “Alternatively, ‘plein air’ painting is painting just as you see it, done freehand and is achieved directly from observation.”
If you prefer sketching beforehand, Griffin notes that many artists do this digitally as a way to mockup their ideas and to play with various colors before actually starting the painting process. It’s not a process that works for everyone, but if you think it’ll help, go for it.
Step Four: Start Painting
The only thing you have left to do is to actually begin crafting your first acrylic painting. If you’re still feeling hesitant about diving in then we recommend sticking to just a couple of colors, or if you’re feeling confident then the world is your colorful oyster.
Some general rules to keep in mind when painting with acrylics:
- Progress from mid/light tones to darker colors. “Apply the larger mid-tone first, then add darker tones for depth and put highlights at the end,” says Webster. “The mid-tone allows you to address shape and form and the darker tones add richness and the lighter colors will demonstrate where the light falls. It’s a balancing act as you move through the work.”
- Begin creating large shapes then move to small details. It’s much easier to go back over your larger shapes to create finer details instead of taking the opposite approach. You really want to think about the painting “coming into focus” as you work.
- Remember that acrylics dry really quickly. This means most blending should be done on your palette before it hits the canvas. You can use a spray bottle to spritz your paints to keep them moist as you go, which will give you a little more time. The exercises in step one will help you get a feel for how acrylics apply and dry.
“A true painter captures the essence of a thing whether they are working in the abstract or painting a portrait. When you are painting, try to get out of the mechanics of the application and reach deeper into the feeling and experience,” says Webster. “This will give your work your own unique signature and allow you to explore the use of paints more freely and creatively.”
Step Five: Preserve & Move Forward
As mentioned, acrylic paints are water-resistant and dry quickly, which means that they preserve pretty well on their own. However, if you’re especially proud of a painting and want to ensure it lasts, or if you want to add another dimension, we recommend applying an acrylic-approved varnish on top. This will add a shiny and glassy feel to your painting and protect it from scratches and paint-flaking.
If you weren’t super impressed with your first painting, no sweat. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a beginner that creates a masterpiece right out of the gate. This is only the beginning of your acrylic journey and there’s so much more fun in store. “I’m a fan of ‘go big or go home,’” says Schrimmer. “If you have the desire to paint — large or small, inside or outdoors, for pleasure or for money — please follow your heart.”
Classes we recommend to help you get started with acrylic painting:
- Modern Acrylic Painting: Explore Techniques to Create On-Trend Art with Cat Coquillette
- Acrylic Painting: Learn the Basics For Beginners with LaurieAnne Gonzalez
Additional image credit:
Gallery above, materials and finished acrylic orange painting from Skillshare student Tanya S. for Acrylic Painting: Learn the Basics for Beginners.