If you have always wanted to learn how to paint with acrylics, then this introduction is for you. First, let’s discuss the differences between oil paints and acrylic paints. Both paint mediums are similar but there are important differences that will affect how you paint and how your final project turns out.
The Basics of How to Paint With Acrylics
Oil vs. Acrylic Paints
Oil paints are, of course oil based, whereas acrylics are water based. As you begin learning how to oil paint, you will quickly discover that when diluting oil paints, you would use a linseed oil or turpentine. But, when diluting acrylic paints, you can simply add a bit of water to thin the paint according to your painting needs.
The biggest distinction that you’ll notice as you gain experience as an artist is that the drying time of oil based paints are much greater than acrylic paints.
If the ambient temperature of your painting area is very warm and dry, you may quickly notice that the acrylic paints on your palette will start to become tacky and somewhat dried out in minutes whereas oils paints will retain their usability for much longer periods.
You may also notice that when painting in the wintertime you will easily have more than an hour or two before your acrylic paints begin to set up and you won’t have to paint as quickly as you need to in the hot summer months.
What Gear Do I Need To Paint in Acrylics?
As you discover how to paint with acrylics, let’s take a moment and go over the tools and other gear that you’ll need to be properly prepared to create your first painting in acrylic.
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To start, there are many different brands of acrylic paints. However, there are two specific brands that come highly recommended because of their quality and versatility.
Grumbacher Acrylic Paints
The first recommended brand of paint is Grumbacher. As I’m sure you know, there are a great many brands of acrylic paints but Grumbacher is one of the most respected and best-known among artists. Their acrylic water based paints last long on the canvas and hold their colors well. It is trusted all over the world.
If you’re worried about the cost of quality paints, you can always buy student grade paints while you learn how to paint using acrylics and as you practice various painting techniques.
However, if you want your final art pieces to last 50 – 100 years or more, you’ll need to use high quality paints like Grumbacher. This is especially true if you want to sell your paintings. The last thing you want is for your clients to complain that the colors of the painting you sold are becoming dark or faded.
Student quality paints have less pigment suspended in the base. The pigment is the expensive part of the paint and to cut costs, cheaper brands reduce the amount of pigment they suspended in their acrylic paint base solutions.
It should be a simple matter of reading the label before you buy any paint. Student quality paints are always marked as such and professional quality paints are also usually marked appropriately on the label. Look before you buy.
You won’t find professional quality paints at the dollar store. You may have to pay a bit more for quality paints but, in the long run, it will be well worth it.
Atelier Interactive Acrylic Paints
The main reason for recommending the Atelier interactive is that this paint brand gives you high quality acrylic paints that have been specially formulated with a much longer drying time. This allows you to work longer with your paints before they begin to become dry or tacky.
These paints also allow you to lightly mist your painted canvas with water to keep your paint workable during the first few hours. And, if it’s been several days since you last painted on your canvas, Atelier Interactive has even come up with an ingenious paint reactivation agent, called and “Unlocking Formula”.
In this way, Atelier Interactive gives you the best of both worlds between oils and acrylics. Your painting dries quicker than oils because you’re using acrylics but, if you need a little bit more time and want your paint to remain workable several days later, simply use the Atelier Unlocking Formula which will allow your Atelier Interactive acrylic paints to act more like an oil-based paint by becoming workable days later.
I wouldn’t recommend using the unlocking formula on another brand of acrylic paint. Stick with the Atelier interactive acrylic paints if you’re going to use the unlocking formula.
For more Atelier Interactive products click here.
Paintbrushes To Use With Acrylics
As you learn how to paint with acrylics, let’s take a moment and look at brushes. Just as you’ll find many brands of acrylic paints, you’ll also find many brands, types and styles of paintbrushes.
Let’s start with the basic brushes that you will need as a beginning acrylic artist.
For most of your artwork, you will be using brushes of various types and sizes. These should not be very expensive and to begin with and you should not worry about the exotic types of brush hairs that can become quite expensive to buy.
There are very inexpensive artist packs or sets of brushes or you can buy your brushes individually. The main point here is to make sure that the quality of the brush is sufficient that the hairs or bristles of the brush don’t fall out why you’re painting. Look for a set or pack of brushes that offer various shapes and sizes. Try to find packs of brushes that contain some if not most of these basic brushes.
The round brush has a round profile and is soft to the touch and comes to a fine or pointed tip. Use this brush for your finer detailed work. The pointed round tip can be used for finer detail. A pointed round with very short hair is a detailer.
Bright brushes are constructed of flat, short-length bristles or hairs and generally have a long narrow handle. The brush head width and length are proportionately equal. A bright bush is used for short, controlled brushstrokes that apply a thick or heavy paint color.
Unlike most other brushes, the fan brush hairs are set flat on the sides but are spread wide in a fan shape. As most brushes, they come in either a natural hair that is more suited to soft blending or a synthetic hair that is better suited for texturing.
Most of your other brushes should represent a nice variety. For example a small thin brush can be use for fine detail while a fine brush with lengthier bristles can be used to paint longer lines like horizons, tree branches or building edges.
An angular brush has flat sides with short-length hairs at one end of the brush that gradually get longer and longer bristles creating an angled edge effect. This bush is useful for precise strokes, lines and curves, when painting thick or heavy color strokes.
A filbert brush tends to have a thick, flat shape and an oval-shaped brush edge with medium to long hairs and usually sports a long handle. The filbert brush is so useful because it’s like having several brushes in one. Because it’s a soft brush, you can do beautiful smooth blending. You can also use the side of the brush for nice flat shadings and even use the tips for reasonably thin lines
You may want to buy several of these brushes in different sizes. You may need to buy them separately rather than in a artist pack of brushes. A filbert brush will usually be one of your everyday go-to brushes.
Mottler brushes are larger, flat shaped brushes. They may have short, medium or long bristles and their handles may also be short or long depending on the fancy of the artist. Mottler brushes are used for a variety of finishing techniques, including faux, murals, priming, washing, fills and varnishing.
These flat brushes will hold a large quantity of oil or acrylic paint and make it quick and easy to cover large portions of your canvas with large amounts of color. They are used with bold sweeping strokes and for heavy filling. They derive their name from the ability of the brush to achieve various mottled effects such as splotching or marbling.
How you paint with acrylics will differ each time and a good variety of quality paintbrushes will allow you the versatility you need in a wide variety of painting styles and techniques.
How to Paint with Acrylics Using a Spray Bottle
A spray bottle is not necessary when painting in oils. However a misting bottle or atomizer becomes quite handy when using acrylic paints due to their tendency to dry quickly. Make sure the atomizer you choose gives you a very fine mist of water. You really don’t want the water you spray to run down the surface of your painting.
You can use an old hairspray bottle that sprays an extremely fine mist. The finer the mist, the better. You really don’t want actual droplets of water to form on your painting. By lightly wetting your canvas in this way you will slow the drying time of your acrylic paints and this allows you to enjoy longer paint sessions.
You don’t need to use any special type of water. Water from your kitchen faucet will work just fine. Don’t feel like you have to use the atomizer on your canvas all the time. It’s just handy sometimes when your acrylic paints start to dry quicker than you’d like. (Do not try this with oil paints.)
How To Paint in Acrylics Using Palette Knifes
As you choose your style or method of how to paint with acrylics, don’t overlook painting with a palette knife.
When selecting your palette knife, choose one with a blade that has the general shape of a brick layer’s trowel (narrower at the tip and fatter near the shank).
It should be thin and somewhat flexible to give you movement, bounce and flow whether you’re mixing paints on your palette or applying paints to your canvas.
There are quite a few painting techniques that can be used with a palette knife. We won’t go into any of them now but you may want 2 or 3 different sizes of palette knives to allow you some versatility in knife painting techniques.
Acrylic Paint Palettes
Paint palettes offer you several choices depending on your style and taste.
~Traditional Palette: In a traditional classic palette, the edges are smoothly finished allowing for a comfortable grip. It generally comes with a smooth-as-glass surface for mixing oils, or acrylics. You can even make your own palette but avoid palettes constructed of absorbent materials like wood in order to reduce the amount of moisture absorbed from your acrylic paints as this will dry them out more quickly.
~Covered Palette: A covered palette works very well for watercolors but, a covered palette can also be helpful with acrylics when you take a lunch break and don’t want your acrylic paints to dry out. Simply place a light mist of water over the acrylics on your palate and snap the palette lid into place while you take lunch or visit on the phone.
~Oval Dimpled Plastic Palette – Dimpled palettes give you the best of both worlds by providing you a classically shaped palette while allowing you to keep your colors separated in the several dimples around the edges of the palette.
~Disposable Palette Sheets: Disposable palette sheets can be made from various materials but the surfaces are treated in a way that is suitable for either oil or acrylic paints.
Once removed from the paint tube, oil paints can generally be saved over multiple days if proper precautions are taken. However, as you experience how to paint in acrylics, you will quickly find that acrylic paints usually dry so quickly that saving the paints for another day is not generally possible.
Disposable palette sheets generally come with 40, 60 or even 100 sheets per pad. The rigid backing of the pad gives you the stiff feel of a standard palette yet, when you’re done painting for the day you simply tear off the top sheet of the pad and throw it away – used acrylics paints and all.
Problem: Using Graphite or Charcoal Pencils to Sketch
When painting with acrylics, don’t sketch out your subject or scene onto the canvas with a graphite or charcoal pencil. Graphites and charcoals tend to lift off the canvas and bleed up into your paints. You can cover a penciled sketch with acrylic paint, but when you do, you risk having your original grid or sketch lines lifting up and becoming visible on the surface of your finished painting.
Solution: Watercolor Pencils
Since watercolor pencils (not colored pencils) use pigment instead of charcoal or graphite, gridlines or scene sketches drawn using watercolor pencils will remain on the canvas, well below your applied acrylic paints. Using watercolor pencils to sketch out your painting beforehand is what professional artists do to avoid the migration of sketch lines to the surface of your acrylic painting.
How to Paint with an Acrylic Suitable Canvas
Selecting a quality canvas is a very important part of knowing how to paint with acrylics. This is the foundation or base upon which you will place your artwork and that base needs to be dependable, stable and last for a long time. There are generally two types canvases available. Make sure you choose a high quality canvas.
Board canvas or canvas panels are simply thin sheets of cardboard glued and pressed together to create a stiff backing. This is the stiff backing to which your painting canvas is glued. If the board canvas is made correctly there will be no problems.
However, if moisture starts to get into the pressed cardboard area of the board canvas, it can cause the canvas to warp and ruin the finished artwork. Make sure your board canvas is of a high quality and made correctly.
~Box Canvas (stretched canvas)
When choosing a box canvas, look for a wooden frame that is well-made and sturdy – especially as it relates to corners. The canvas is usually wrapped across the wooden frame and around the sided to the back where the canvas is secured with staples or sometimes glue.
The reason you want to make sure all four corner joints of the canvas frame are sturdy is so your stretched canvas doesn’t start to sag or loose its tautness. If the frame begins to loosen, your painting surface may begin to sag or go slack. This can happen while you’re painting or even later after your painting is finished. There are fairly simple methods to adjust the corners of a canvas frame to reestablish a better stretch of the canvas.
For your canvas material, you can select either a linen or cotton canvas. Linen will be more expensive because of it is a higher quality material. A cotton canvas will be much more cost-effective, yet it is used by professionals and is perfectly acceptable for almost any painting.
How you paint with acrylics may simply depend on your choice of easel. Probably the most useful easel for artists around the world is the simple tabletop easel. Most artists love the convenience of sitting down at a table in their own home and painting in a place that is comfortable and familiar to them. Most people don’t want to stand for long periods of time and sitting while you paint works for most artists.
Tabletop easels are also great for an artist’s mobility and going back and forth between home and art lessons. They are small enough to carry with you or stow easily in almost any mode of transportation.
French Easels, also known as ‘plein air’ easels. They are typically larger than other easels and allow you to stand while you paint. They come in many varieties but unless you really spend a large amount of your time painting outdoors, they may not be the first easel you buy as a beginner.
Sketch Box Easels
Sketch box easels can also make wonderful out-of-doors easels due to their compact size and perfect storage areas for packing your paint essentials for any out-of-studio painting excursion.
Studio easels have also found their place in the artist’s world due to their versatility. They come in large or small sizes to suit the artist’s personal situation. In the studio, they can, not only stand to simply display your latest project, but they can also be adjusted for a variety of painting postures.
Some varieties are promoted as a ‘Convertible Studio Easel’ that does it all. Not only can it be configured in different heights and positions, but it can also be tilted forward or backwards at various angles to accommodate your painting style, the paint medium you’re using. For instance, a convertible easel can be configured in a flat or horizontal position for watercolor painting. For quick and easy adjustments look for a convertible studio easel that uses quick release hinges for easy adjustments.
Display easels are for just that – displaying art! They are not designed with the stability needed during active painting sessions. Display easels are very lightweight, and therefore not of sufficient stability for paintwork. They are designed for easy storage and portability. They are not built to hold heavier art nor to withstand the pressures and movements inherent during the normal painting process such as drawing, masking, washing and blending.
Basic Acrylic Paint Color List
- Titanium White (large tube)
- Ivory Black
- Alizarin Crimson
- Cadmium Red Light
- Burnt Umber
- Yellow Ochre
- Cadmium Yellow
- Ultramarine Blue
- Phthalo Blue (Green Shade)
- Burnt Sienna
These 10 basic colors should cover most of your color requirements when learning how to paint with acrylics.
Cleaning Acrylic Paints
Use A Cleaning Jar
Any common wide mouth bottle or jar will work just fine to hold your water to clean acrylic paints from your brush. Simple fill the jar with sufficient tap water to cover well above the brush tips. After cleaning the brushes thoroughly, you will need dry each brush separately using a clean cloth or rag. Dispose of the soiled cleaning water. Please remember not to let your brushes remain for a long extended periods of time in the cleaning water.
Acrylic Paint Drying Times
A major reason artist paint in acrylics is due to their short drying time. However, drying times will vary by brand and type of acrylic paint. Some brands offer retardants that the artist can add to a paint to lengthen-out the drying time. Thin films of paint color will dry sooner than thicker coats.
Check out the drying times of the different paint brands to see which one best suits your anticipated use. I would suggest selecting paint colors largely from the same brand or manufacturer to ensure consistency across all your colors especially when mixing or blending.
That concludes this basic tutorial on how to paint with acrylics that we specifically designed for beginners. You’re all set now to begin experiencing the wonders of painting with acrylic paints and the journey of exploring the artist within you. Later, when you want to sell your art you may be interested in how we can help you do that.
Basic List of Acrylic Painting Supplies:
- Watercolor Pencils
- Acrylic Paints
- Brush Cleaning Bin/Jar
- Drop Cloth
- Painting Clothes
As you learn how to paint with acrylics you’ll find you own style and techniques but this should give you a good head start toward enjoying the art of painting in acrylics.