Acrylic Painting Tips for Beginners

Four paint colors
Tubes of acrylic paint. Garry Gay / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images

Acrylic paint is a great medium for beginning painters because it is water-soluble, dries quickly, and is versatile and forgiving. If you are not happy with an area you've painted, you can let it dry and paint right over it in a matter of minutes. Because acrylic is a plastic polymer you can paint on any surface as long as it doesn't contain wax or oil. Unlike oils, acrylics can be be used without any toxic solvents and can be cleaned up easily with just soap and water.

Here are some must-know tips to jumpstart your acrylic painting:

Keep the paint moist with a plant mister

Since acrylic dries so quickly it is important to have a plant mister on hand to spray the colors on your palette and keep them from drying out as you work. You can also spray water directly onto your canvas or paper to keep the paint workable and for different painting effects, such as drips and smears.

Work efficiently by painting your largest shapes first

One of the pitfalls for beginning painters can be that while they are working slowly and carefully on their painting, the paint on their palette is drying. When they go to re-load their brush with paint they discover that it has become unworkable, requiring that they mix the color again, which can be challenging. To avoid this frustration, try painting the largest shapes of your composition first and and work quickly with the largest brush you can for as long as it is useful.

Save the details and smaller brushes for the end. Work from the general to the specific. This will also help keep your painting from becoming too tight. 

Use medium or keep paint wet in order to blend

Because acrylic dries fast it can be hard to blend colors and edges, but it can be done. Use a medium such as Liquitex Slo-Dri Blending Medium to extend the drying time, or use your plant mister to keep your paint wet and workable (though not drippy).

Then use a filbert brush to paint the colors onto the canvas or other support. Go over the area you want blended with a clean dry brush to soften the edge even more. 

Use synthetic brushes

Acrylic paint can be hard on brushes, particularly natural fibers; it can dry them out and cause them to degrade and become brittle over time. Synthetic brushes made of nylon or polyester filament are available that mimic the traits of natural fiber brushes and are better suited to acrylic paint. They hold the paint well but also are easy to clean, and they are less expensive then comparable natural fiber brushes.

Have a good medium-sized flat brush

A good medium-sized flat brush can be used for most things. Depending on which edge you paint with, It can give you either a broader stroke or a thinner stroke. It will give you a more distinct brushstroke than a filbert brush, so if you want a more blended edge, use a filbert brush. Hold your brush further from the ferrule and bristles for a more gestural stroke, hold it closer to the bristles for more control when painting detail.

Keep your brush wet while painting

It is important to keep your brush in the water while you're painting so that the paint doesn't dry on the brush.

You might have one container with a shallow layer of water to keep the brushes wet without soaking the handles in water (which will cause the lacquer to peel off) and one container to clean the brushes between colors. When you are done painting make sure to clean the brushes with soap and water, rinse and dry them well, and store them lying down or standing up on end with the bristles in the air.

Acrylic paint generally dries darker than when wet

Particularly with student grade paints, which have a higher ratio of binder to pigment, colors tend to dry darker.  When this occurs, you may find yourself applying several successively lighter layers of paint to achieve the desired lightness. This layering often enhances the painting, adding complexity and richness to the color. As a rule, always double-check to make sure that your lightest lights are as light as you want them.

Acrylic paint is great for painting in layers

Not only does acrylic dry very quickly, it dries into an insoluble, water-resistant flexible paint film. This means that, unlike watercolor paint which is water-soluble even when dry, you can paint layers of paint on top of previous layers of acrylic paint without fear of lifting the color beneath.  This makes acrylic paint perfect for a variety of painting techniques such as glazing, scumbling, and drybrush.

Acrylic can be used like both watercolor paint and oil paint

Acrylic paint is extremely versatile, and there are a variety of mediums available that extend its versatility even more. Acrylic paint can be thinned with water or a glazing medium to be used like watercolor for transparent effects such as washes and glazes, or it can be used thickly, alone or with a gel medium, for impasto effects similar to those of oil paint.

Add white to tint color for increased opacity 

Some pigments are naturally more translucent than others, such as those with Quinacridone, Phthalo, or Hansa in the name. Student grade paints also tend to be more transparent because they have a larger binder to pigment ratio. There are several things you can do to make a color more opaque: add a tiny bit of titanium white to the color, or a tiny bit of white gesso. This will lighten (tint) the color a little bit but will give you the opacity you're after. You can also add a color that is similar but more opaque to one that is more transparent, such cadmium yellow to transparent yellow.

If you are trying to cover an underlying layer completely you can paint over it with gesso or a medium gray before applying the next color. 

Acrylic is perfect for doing studies, or as an underpainting for oil

Because acrylic dries so quickly it is great to use for painting studies of your subject, both inside and outside. The paint dries quickly into a durable insoluble film that is resistant to water so won't be ruined if you happen to be caught in the rain. Because of its drying time and chemical properties, it is also very useful as an underpainting for oil painting. You can work out many of the color and composition issues of your painting using fast-drying acrylics before committing yourself to oils. But remember, you can paint oil over acrylic, but not acrylic over oil.

Use with mixed media and collage

Acrylic is also ideal for mixed media and collage. The paint and the mediums act as adhesives, and many of the acrylic mediums dry clear. It also makes a good surface for drawing on with graphite, oil pastel, oil sticks, and more. 

Continue to experiment with this rewarding and versatile painting medium. The possibilities are endless!

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