colorful acrylic paints on palette

How to start painting with acrylics

The first rule of painting is there are no rules. I suppose there is a little chemistry and physics to deal with, but once you have a basic understanding of those, you can start painting with acrylics and exploring your own personal painting style. Painting with acrylics for beginners is a great way to start because they are inexpensive, quick-drying, easy to clean, and ready to use straight from the tube/bottle. I’ve been painting with acrylics for a year and a half now and gathered my best tips for getting started below!

I’ve included my favorite product links from websites I like with high quality and economically priced products – most of the links are affiliate links so I could receive a commission if you purchase anything from these links, but the pricing is the same as what you’ll see in the store or if you go direct to the website. Blick usually has everyday great deals with low free shipping minimums, and Michael’s offers buy-online-pick-up-in-store/curbside, which is convenient, saves on shipping, and a safer option during these pandemic times!

Best acrylic paint for beginners

The obvious first step to start painting with acrylics is to buy some paint! Acrylic paint is widely available at most art supply stores and big box retailers that sell art & craft supplies, but there are a ton of options so choosing can be overwhelming. Fortunately, entry-level acrylic paint for beginners and students is actually pretty good quality. I love Liquitex Basics for their color options and quality, and Michael’s student grade Artist Loft Level 1 acrylic paint has tons of color options and starter sets as well.

Different colors and brands for painting with acrylics

Alternatively, if you really don’t want to invest much, you can grab a few of the small acrylic craft paint bottles at Walmart, Michael’s or Hobby Lobby, that are often less than $1 a piece. They tend to be thin, but there are a TON of colors to choose from and it’s a cheap and easy way to get started. There are a few metallics and iridescent shades I like to keep on hand from the craft department that I use regularly for fun accents!

When painting with acrylics, you can choose what viscosity you want to paint with: high flow, medium, or heavy body. This is very much a personal preference that depends on your style of painting. The above links for beginner acrylic paints are medium body, which is a great place to start. You can just thin acrylic paint with water, or purchase acrylic paint mediums that help extend the paint and let you increase or decrease the texture/viscosity accordingly. More on acrylic mediums below. I use all three types of acrylic, depending on what mood and style I am working in.

While the above linked acrylic paints for beginners are pretty solid and I continue to purchase certain colors from those lines, there is some difference across acrylic paint quality in different brands and price/professional levels. The main difference I’ve noticed is intensity of the pigment – higher quality paints tend to be more opaque, so the color maintains it’s intensity as you mix and layer. The beginner paints are still beautiful, but you may find yourself using more to cover and build, and if mixed with higher quality paints, the more expensive paint typically overpowers the cheaper paint so color mixing is a little trickier. However, I don’t believe the difference between high and low end acrylics is meaningful enough to stress too much about what you are using.

Other beginner painting supplies for acrylics

In addition to the paint itself, you’ll need a few other supplies to start painting with acrylics. As with the paint you choose, there is so much personal preference in what you like use and how you paint, so these are just recommendations for beginner painters to try different paint supplies without investing too much upfront.

Canvas and other painting surfaces

When painting with acrylics, there are lots of options on which to paint! If you just want to experiment informally, save your cardboard boxes and packaging and paint on those. They offer a stiff surface that won’t easily warp with heavy paint. For lots of frequent exploration at small to medium sizes and low cost, consider a mixed media or acrylic paper pad. You can keep all your paintings in the pad or tear them out to discard or frame.

Me holding a giant 48" square heavy duty canvas for painting with acrylics

The standard for painting surfaces tends to be canvas – it holds up to lots of painting and layers without warping, and is ready to hang without framing if preferred. There are tons of low cost pre-stretched canvas options to choose from. For practice, Michael’s always has value packs of canvas in lots of different sizes for $10.99 (number of canvases in pack depends on size). They also run frequent sales of 50-70% off the single canvases, which I always take advantage of to stock up, especially the larger sizes. For everyday low prices on high quality canvas, I order the Blick Premier Cotton Canvas . They have every size imaginable with discounts for 3 or more. I use the 1.5″ depth for commissioned pet portrait paintings – it’s very high quality and heavy duty for a very reasonable price.

Whichever surface you choose to paint on, it may need to be primed so the acrylic paint doesn’t soak in and discolor. The pre-stretched canvas options listed above will come pre-primed with gesso and ready to paint. But if you need to prime your own surface (such as plywood panels which are super fun to paint on), you’ll want to grab some gesso . Some artists like to add additional gesso layers to the pre-primed canvas to achieve a particular texture – I have not experimented much with gesso and find the pre-primed canvas to be sufficient for my needs, but someday when I’m not too impatient to get a painting started, I’m going to add some extra gesso layers to see how it feels.

You may also want to consider what space you’ll be painting in and if you need a tabletop or standing easel, and what size it needs to accommodate. There are lots of inexpensive options to start with, but if you are working with canvas, it’s sturdy enough to work with on the floor or leaned up against a wall, so an easel is not a must have if you are just learning how to start painting with acrylics.

Paintbrushes and tools for painting with acrylics

The first acrylic painting I made in my adulthood I painted with my hands and fingers. I still love using my hands and fingers to paint, especially on abstracts, as it brings me “closer” to the painting and feels more expressive. But, not everyone wants to get messy and it’s difficult to get much precision that way, so we use brushes and other things. I personally am not super picky on brushes – the most important thing to me is a variety of sizes and shapes, and that the brush hairs don’t come off in my painting.

well used assortment of paintbrushes for acrylic painting

I started with an inexpensive paintbrush assortment set that had several different sizes and types, and it happens to have a couple of my favorite angled brushes. I got it at Walmart for about $9, though I can’t find a link to the exact set to share. I’ve bought more expensive versions of brush shapes that I use often, but I haven’t found them to be much better than the cheap versions. In addition to paintbrushes, other tools I use for painting with acrylics include palette knives and sea sponges. I’ve seen people tie together twigs to make a very course “brush” that makes unique marks. Many things can be used to add paint to a surface and provide different movements and textures, so don’t be afraid to experiment with different brushes, tools, and even random objects.

Palette for painting with acrylics

When I started painting with acrylics, I used a paper plate as a palette. I still use a paper plate palette for quick projects or work that I don’t plan to do much custom color mixing. However, unlike oil paints, acrylic paint dries quickly, so paper plate palettes don’t work for storing acrylic paint overnight. It will dry up within an hour or two most likely. You might be able to get a little more time out of it with some plastic wrap if you need to save for later, but I wouldn’t count on it.

wet palette for painting with acrylics

A very inexpensive wet palette option for painting with acrylics is the Stay-Wet Palette, which has a sponge base and special palette paper that soaks up water from the sponge that provides moisture underneath the paint. It comes with a lid that seals, so acrylic paint will maintain it’s moisture for several days, if not a week or more. You can buy refills of the palette paper and a replacement sponge, but I just make my own. A few folded up wet paper towels with wax paper on top work just as well!

Painting with acrylic mediums

I almost didn’t add this section, since mediums aren’t essential to beginner painting with acrylics. However, I think it’s important to touch on the topic so that as you experiment, you know what possibilities there are to expand your technique. Acrylic mediums are substances that you mix with your paint and enable you to modify the flow, texture, and sometimes dry time. If you follow the mixing instructions, which is very important, your paint color won’t be affected but you can achieve the desired result.

acrylic mediums I use in my studio

I haven’t tried all the mediums, but I love abstract paintings with lots of depth and texture, so I frequently use a heavy gloss gel medium, which thickens the paint so it holds the shape I apply it with (rather than flattening out). This helps to show brush strokes and palette knife textures. I have also used acrylic flow medium on my thicker paints when I’m doing portraits. With portraits I prefer smooth strokes, so sometimes a little flow medium “loosens” up the paint so it brushes on and blends more easily than straight out of the tube.

Once you have your starter supplies – again, you don’t need to spend a ton of money for painting with acrylics, you can begin experimenting! Think of a subject that interests you or find some photos to practice painting from. Or, you can try your hand at abstract or intuitive painting. Even though it doesn’t have an exact shape or recognizable form, abstract painting can be harder than you think because it’s ALL YOU and what your soul wants to create! There are also tons of free and inexpensive technique classes on Youtube and tutorials on Pinterest. You can also check out Creative Bug’s free trial with courses like Acrylic Painting for Beginners. I’m even developing some art courses myself this year, so sign up for my newsletter to be the first to know – I’ll be looking for some beta testers!

I hope you enjoy experimenting with acrylic paint – it is so very therapeutic and such a relaxing way to spend time. Let me know in the comments if you have questions – I’m happy to help and would love to hear from you about your art journey!

Michaels Art Supplies

2 Comments

  1. Colleen says:

    Thank you so much for this. For the very first time in my 60 years I wanted to try paint on canvas. I ACTUALLY did and bought a lot of your recommended products when I started and was just so pleased I got the right stuff. Been doubting myself. Right now horrible but enjoyable and if I would leave a finished painting alone instead of trying to make it a little bit better I wouldn’t have to throw them out! Got 6 square 18 in canvases from Walmart for under $10. Learned so many other good ideas from you! Thank you

  2. Hi Colleen – thanks for the note. I’m so glad you’ve found painting as a hobby! Doubting yourself is normal – just keep playing and having fun! I doubt myself regular but have just accepted it as part of the creative process which makes overcoming it even more rewarding. I’m happy some of these tips were reassuring and helpful to you.

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