I have developed a love affair with acrylic paint. It is my go-to medium when it’s time to get creative and have fun. Acrylic paint is one of the most versatile mediums out there as you can use it on practically any surface, from canvas and paper to wood, ceramics, fabric, and glass. Acrylics are great for beginners because they can be used straight from the bottle or tube and they’re easy to clean up. Additionally, they don’t tend to have strong odors or fumes like oil paints do, so they won’t give you (and anyone that lives with you) a headache. They can also be used in combination with many other materials such as pastels or watercolors for more interesting mixed media projects. And finally, you don’t have to break the bank to get into acrylic paints as they have many nice, affordable options. In this tutorial, I’ll share with you some basic acrylic painting techniques and the different effects they produce, so you can get started exploring this fun material!
What Order Do You Paint With Acrylics?
I personally am not one to follow too many rules when painting with acrylics. Perhaps I’ve finally been at it long enough now that many things come naturally. However, depending on your particular painting and the effects you hope to achieve, you may want to consider a few tips and techniques with regard to the order in which you paint.
Priming Canvas With Gesso
If painting with acrylics on canvas, you usually want to be sure the canvas is primed with gesso. Many pre-stretched canvases also come pre-primed, so you can often skip this step and paint directly on the canvas. However, some artists may choose to add additional layers of gesso to improve the texture and “grip” of the surface before painting (this is often referred to as “tooth” but that always sounds weird to me). Additionally, I like to add a bit of acrylic paint color to the gesso mixture to create the underpainting so the surface I’m starting with isn’t stark white.
Painting Layers With Acrylics
Acrylic painting techniques are often characterized by painting in layers. This is mainly because acrylic paints dry relatively fast. Without additives, a moderately thin acrylic paint layer can dry within minutes. So unless you are fast or using mediums to slow the dry time of your paint, it is important to consider how to layer your paints to accomplish the artwork you are planning.
In contrast, the thicker the layer you paint, the longer that layer will take to dry, so thicker acrylic paint layers remain workable and open to color mixing or texturizing for a bit longer. However, we are still only talking about a difference of minutes that thicker paint remains workable; it’s not something you can walk away from and come back to an hour or two later and expect to keep working. At that point, it is what it is and the only way to change it is to add another layer (or sand it down if it dried with too much texture).
Opaque vs Translucent Paints
Another consideration when painting layers with acrylics is how opaque or translucent your paint colors are. Paint colors will be labeled either way, but it’s important to understand if the paint you are using will have some translucency to allow the layer beneath it to show through to a degree, or if it is opaque, thus completely covering the layer beneath it. This quality of your different colors may help you determine if you should paint from dark to light or vice versa. Once you get comfortable with the difference translucency or opacity of your paints, your exploration can really advance your layering skills.
One final note about layering with paint: this might be my favorite thing about painting on canvas. Accepting that you can always start a new layer and paint over something that isn’t working is very liberating. It adds a third dimension to what most think of as painting two-dimensionally. And paintings with multiple layers of paint can have more depth and interesting texture than paintings without. To me, the layers tell a story, even if it’s a story only the artist knows.
Acrylic Paint Color Mixing
Learning to mix paints properly (or in whichever way works best for your style and preferences) is an incredibly important acrylic painting technique. I am not going to get into color theory in this post, however there are still some important tips and techniques to consider when it comes to mixing your colors.
- Use a color wheel as a color mixing guide. If you don’t yet know which colors mix to make other colors, a color wheel is an inexpensive and amazing tool to keep handy. Even better – make your own color wheel using paints you have mixed yourself for great practice. Many artists even keep detailed notes and paint swatches of colors they’ve mixed and want to return to in future paintings.
- If you don’t have a lot of color mixing confidence or experience, mixing your own acrylic paint colors from only primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) can be time-consuming and lead to dispensing more paint than you needed. It can take some trial and error – a little bit of this, a little more of that – to get your desired colors. To save time and paint, you may prefer to use a variety of pre-mixed colors from tubes or bottles. I have found certain colors I just can’t mix right, so I always buy them pre-mixed!
- Alla Prima (wet on wet) is an approach that involves applying large amounts of wet pigment onto the canvas surface quickly before any drying occurs. This process allows you to mix paint and develop colors directly on the canvas. It is a less precise approach than mixing paint colors on a separate palette before painting, but it can be a lot of fun and very expressive!
Acrylic Painting Techniques With a Paintbrush
Using a paintbrush with acrylics is the most traditional method of painting. But within this toolset, there are an almost infinite number of paintbrush techniques you can use in your painting. Paint brushes come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and materials, so the brushes you choose will also impact the results of the painting technique you use. There are big brushes, fine point brushes, soft bristles and firm, stiff bristles, flat and round brushes. Some brushes absorb and hold a lot of paint while some brushes don’t.
For beginners, I recommend purchasing an inexpensive set of paintbrushes with a variety of shapes and sizes so you can experiment with them. Many artists do end up with favorites (I prefer fat, soft, round brushes most of the time), but depending on the type of painting you do, you may find several that you prefer for various techniques.
In addition to choosing your preferred paintbrushes for the job, you can also experiment with different paintbrush techniques.
- Dry brushing – Dry brushing with acrylic paint is a method that involves adding a small amount of paint to the brush, but removing any excess. When you dry brush on canvas, it goes on in thin layers, sometimes transparent, that show the brush strokes. This is a helpful technique to create the appearance of textures like fur, hair, grass, or woodgrain.
- Wet brush on dry canvas – This is probably the most traditional paint brush technique. Wet your brush with water before dipping it in your paint, and use as much paint as you like on the brush. The wet brush helps ensure a smoother, more even application of paint.
- Wet on Wet – As mentioned in the color mixing section, wet on wet or alla prima involves applying a wet brush with paint to wet paint on the canvas. This allows you to blend colors directly on the canvas, and will likely show a lot of your brushstrokes as the two wet paints mix.
- Stippling – Stippling (or pointillism) is a method that uses paint on the very tip of the brush (usually a pointed or round brush) and is lightly dabbed on the canvas in repetition to create a series of dots or circles. How close or how far apart each dot is and to what frequency helps build intensity of the paint color you are using, and can create an impressionistic effect.
This is a method of painting in which you can use a palette knife to apply paint, creating texture and an impression of dimension. With the impasto technique, you apply with thick, concentrated paint in the form of dabs and globs, rather than strokes like you would with a paintbrush. You would most likely use a heavy body paint or mix a heavy gel medium with your paint to thicken it so it maintains the texture you create with the palette knife until it dries. While it is not a very precise way to paint, it is a great way to create unique textures, movement and dimension into your composition.
Glazing is a painting technique used to add subtle, translucent color to a painting. By mixing a small amount of glazing medium with your acrylic paint color, you can increase the transparency of the paint without losing the fluid consistency. While you can thin your acrylic paints a bit with water, water causes the paint particles to separate so it loses the smooth consistency. Water-thinned paint works well for washes of color in which you don’t require a lot of control, but if you want more precise thinning of your paint, use a glazing medium. Once the glaze is mixed, you can begin adding the more translucent color to the areas of your painting that you wish to enhance. It works great for improving shading in an area that the paint is already dry so the paints no longer blend, or adding tone to an area that’s already dry. As with any painting medium, follow the mixing instructions on the label for best results.
This is a great way to create abstract art, especially if you are just getting started and enjoy getting a little messy. You can choose any colors you want, but it’s important that they are all the same type of paint and medium. You will need:
- Acrylic paint – any colors your heart desires
- Pouring medium
- A tray to catch the drippy paint when it runs off the canvas
To begin, mix your acrylic paints and pouring medium (according to the instructions on the pouring medium) in a container. Disposable plastic cups work just fine for this.You can begin pouring and dripping various lines onto the canvas, tilting the canvas gently to allow the paints to flow and cover the surface. You might use other tools to add movement to the swirls of paint, such as a toothpick, or blow dryer. Acrylic pouring creates one of a kind marbled looking abstract paintings that are fun and approachable for painters of all ages and skill levels.
Additional Painting Tools and Mark-Making Techniques
In addition to all the common tools and acrylic painting techniques mentioned above, there are many more ways to move paint around on canvas. This is where you can really start having fun and experimenting to develop your own style.
- Sea sponges are great for spreading paint across large areas – they come in a variety of shapes and textures, so you can easily vary the effects.
- A brayer is a rubber roller used in printmaking and can be used to roll paint across the canvas in large flat strokes.
- Stenciling and stamping can be used for both painting and printing techniques as well as mixed media work, producing instant prints onto your canvas! You can purchase premade stencils and stamps, or make your own using found materials at home.
- A palette knife or other end of a paintbrush can be used to scratch through wet paint before it has dried, creating additional texture while also revealing the underlayers. This is sometimes referred to as the sgraffito technique.
- Paper shop towels are durable and highly absorbent. Not only are they great for cleaning up messes, a damp towel can be used to spread acrylic paint on the canvas in abstract ways. I like to wipe paint off the canvas while the damp paper towel leaves a thin, soft layer of the paint in the area I wiped.
- Drips and splatters using thinned acrylic paints add interest and movement. If painting upright using an easel, allow thinned paint to drip and run while you are working with it. This can add an ethereal and abstract feel even if you are working on something figurative. I also enjoy adding splatters as a background or final touch to a painting by soaking my brush in thinned paint (or even my “dirty” brush water if the color is right) and flicking it across my canvas.
Acrylic Painting Finishing Techniques
Once you’re satisfied with your creation, you’ll need to seal it for safe keeping. Acrylic paints are fairly durable and water-resistant once they are fully cured, but it’s still important to add a varnish to protect it from light and dust. Varnishes typically come in matte, satin, or gloss finishes. There are two main ways to apply varnish to acrylic paintings:
- Using a spray varnish. This is the easiest way to apply varnish because you can simply spray it on evenly over your painting in several passes until you’ve covered all areas. Follow the instructions on the can as there are usually room temperature considerations and a certain amount of time needed between layers to ensure it cures properly.
- Using a brush varnish. If spraying isn’t an option, like if you are working inside or your painting is highly textured, I recommend brushing on varnish instead. It can take a little more time but typically requires fewer coats than spray varnish and you have more control over the coverage.
Ready to Start Painting?
As you can see, acrylic is a great medium to begin painting with! It’s quick-drying, easy to mix, and can be used to create a variety of effects. With these basic acrylic painting techniques I’ve shared, you can start exploring the wonderful world of acrylics and see the exciting results it can bring. From creating texture and depth to layering colors, you’ll soon find that there are so many possibilities when it comes to working with this versatile material. So, don’t be afraid to experiment and have fun! If you’d like to learn more about one of my favorite approaches to painting, checkout my guide to Intuitive Painting.