Friday, November 12, 2010

Acrylic Painting Basics

Acrylic Painting...

By :-) Stephanie Pui-Mun Law
  • Introduction. What are acrylics?

    • Introduction To cover all the techniques available to an acrylic painter in a short article would be next to impossible, but I can cover how to get yourself started, what tools you need, and talk a bit about various methods, styles, and techniques. Of course, the best teacher for any kind of art and any medium of art is practice. Only by actually working with a medium will you learn the little quirks of that medium, and learn to use those quirks as part of your art. That is what makes any medium special, and why an artist would choose pastels over colored pencils for one piece, and acrylics over oils in some other.
      The methods I will outline are not the only ways to utilize acrylic paints. My own style is rather controlled, and so I am slightly biased towards the more traditional techniques. I will try to cover as much as I can. Although for basic drawing skills you will have to look to the sketching section of FARP. This is about acrylics and the techniques specific to that medium.

    • What are acrylics? Acrylics are similar to oil paints in many ways, and in others, the farthest thing from oils that you can get. As a fellow Elfwood artist once said, 'The major advantage of acrylics is that they dry really fast. The major disadvantage of acrylics is that they dry really fast!' Acrylic paints are water based, and though they may not smell as much as oil paints and there are no messy solvents, note that acrylics still are slightly toxic. So just don’t do anything stupid like eating your paints and lick your brushes (Really, I knew idiots who would do this). Having a ventilated workspace is always advisable.

  • Tools of the Trade

    • The Paints!

      What you have to keep in mind when selecting your colors, is to not become overwhelmed too many colors. If you have worked with color or paint before, you know this. If this is your first foray out from the world of black and white, don’t fret. Usually paints are ~$4 (US) per tube. Don’t panic if your wallet is rather thin. You only need a few colors, and by mixing colors, you can create any hue you want.
      Recommended colors would be: Burnt Umber, Ultramarine Blue, Titanium White, Alizirean Crimson or Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow (or some approximate color…Cadmium pigments are expensive but very beautiful and toxic as well), and Lamp Black.
      And if you want additional colors, here are a few more pigments that I have found to be extremely useful, and very good for mixing: Naples Yellow, Payne’s Gray, Burnt Sienna, Pthalo Blue, some kind of Green (Just to round out your palatte) and anything else that catches your fancy.

    • Brushes ‘n Stuff

        The essentials:
      • A large (2' or more) brush should be somewhere in your box of painting tools if you intend to paint on canvas. This is the gessoing brush, that you would use to just slap on your gesso to prepare the canvas (See below about gesso, and in Section 3 on Preparation). It can be of Cheap to Mid quality, since this brush is used only for preparation. Keep in mind however, that if you buy a brush that is too cheap, they tend to shed quite a bit. This leaves lots of little bristles trailing along in your painting and that is not a good thing. So if you go for a cheaper brush, be prepared to sit around and pull out the shed bristles from your wet painting, or else you'll have rather hairy pictures (I happen to do this quite a bit).
      • The rest of your brush selection is up to your own preference. If you do a lot of detail work, investing in a couple of fine round brushes would be recommended. You should get at least one flat square brush about ½ to 1 inch wide. This makes life much easier for laying in large areas of color.
      • Brushes tend to be expensive, but just remember that the investment is usually very much worth it. You’ll notice the difference if you buy cheap brushes. First, they don’t lay the paint in very smoothly. You don’t have as much control because the bristles sometimes splay apart instead of sticking together to a point or a sharp edge. And they shed. Shedding brushes are bad, as I said before, and for the actual paint (instead of just gesso) this becomes much more significant. You don’t want to have to ruin a fabulous smooth gradation by leaving fingerprints from picking out brush hairs.

        Extra toys:
      • Palatte knives.

        These are not a necessary addition to your tools, but can be very useful. They can be used to mix large quantities of color, or for actually painting with. It is a much rougher way of painting, and if you’re more concerned with fine lines and photorealisim, you will not get that with palette knives. They are a more expressionistic way of painting, and can add some nice texturing to your piece.
        Texturing TIP 1: If you are really into having textures in your acrylic painting, I would suggest that you go to your local art store and enquire about texturing mediums. These are various types of goo that you can mix into your paints. Instead of thinning the paints, these mediums will thicken it, and allow the paint to dry in certain ways, like crinkly surfaces, rough sandy edges, stiff peaks....

        Texturing TIP 2: Another way of using textures is to paint the whole canvas with a single base coat of some neutral color mixed with the texturing medium. Play with the texture, modeling it randomly, or to your needs. Make visible strokes with your brush or palatte knife into the paint. When it dries, you can paint on top of that textured surface, using the movement of your visible strokes to enhance the painting.

      • Fan brushes.

        (flat brushes shaped exactly as they are named, like fans) These are useful for many random things. Fur, hair, grass, foliage, lace....
        Fan brush TIP: One way of doing foliage with a fan brush is like this. Use a little bit of paint on the end and gently tap the canvas to create leaves, using lighter colors (with a fairly thick consistency) for highlighting.

      • Toothbrushes. Yes, toothbrushes can be used for painting as well. I keep an old brush in my box of paints and use it to kind of spray paint onto my canvases. This effect can be used for stars in the sky, for texturing stone, background, abstract splatterings, or any number of other uses you can think of. To do this, begin by diluting your paint so that it is slightly runny. You’ll have to experiment with this a bit to find the right consistency. Holding the handle of the brush with one hand (your left hand if you’re right handed), bring the bristles up close to the painting (the closer to the painting, the more concentrated the spots of paint will be), gently pull the bristles back with the thumb or forefinger of your other hand and then let the bristles kind of flick/roll off the finger by rotating the brush a little. This sprays the diluted paint off the bristles.
      WARNING: Always keep your brushes wet during your painting session if you have used it!!!!! Acrylics dry relatively fast, and if you leave a brush out that has been painted with, you will have a hard, useless glob of gunk on your beautiful brush and that brush will essentially be useless and you’ll have to throw it out. So treat your brushes nicely. And be sure to clean them throughly with soap and water when you’re done with your painting session.

    • Painting Surface

      What you paint on is as important as what you paint with. That being said, what can you paint acrylics on? Basically anything you want. Although more sturdy surfaces are preferred over lightweight papers. If you do use paper, choose a heavier weight paper, so that it doesn’t buckle and warp from the liquid (unless that is the desired effect, in which case, by all means go ahead!) Traditionally, paintings are done on wood, masonite, or canvas. Illustration board is also a very good alternative.
      Wood has a nice grain texture that can add a something to your paintings. It is also one of the traditional surfaces for oil paintings. It can create a rather nice finished piece. At any rate, if you intend to paint on wood, seal it first with either acrylic medium or gesso (See below 'What Else?' for more on acrylic medium and gesso). This just makes life easier for you, because if you do not seal it, the wood simply soaks up liquid and your efforts to paint will be rather frustrating.
      The advantage of masonite is that it provides a very nice and smooth surface for you to paint on. This is great for illustration and fine work and saves you much of the headache of trying to get a canvas to a similar smooth state. If you buy plain masonite straight from a hardware store however, make sure that you prime the surface with gesso! Masonite contains tannins that eventually, over time will eat away at your painting if you don’t prepare it. If you buy it from an art store, they usually have a white layer painted over the surface already and you don’t have to worry about priming. Also, handle finished paintings done on masonite with care, as the paint can be scratched easily. Be warned as well that large pieces of masonite (over 3 feet) warp and bend with time. To prevent this, you will need to mount it onto heavy wooden crossbars or something similar.

      TIP: Another advantage of using wood or masonite is that you can cut the boards to whatever shapes you desire, a rather difficult feat with a cloth canvas. Tired of rectangle and squares? Grab a saw!

      By far the most traditional surface to paint acrylics on. I won’t go into the details of how to construct your own canvas from scratch as that is learned best from physical demonstration, however you can buy canvases at art stores for fairly decent prices. These also come pre-gessoed in most cases, and saves you some trouble, although anal person that I am, I prefer to gesso several extra layers onto my store-bought canvases as well just to get an extra-smooth surface.
      Of course, don't feel limited to these above listed surfaces. Experiment and try painting on different surfaces so you can see for yourself the effects and various results you can get.

    • What Else?

      So what else do you need or might find useful to do acrylic painting? Gesso. Gesso is extremely important if you are painting in oils so that the canvas does not rot away from being soaked in oil paints. It’s not as essential in acrylic painting, but it still can be very useful. It prepares a canvas’s surface to take the paint more readily instead of having the paint just soak into the fabric, and if you’re patient with layers and sanding, you can get a very nice and smooth working surface (See Section 3, Preparation for the details of readying a canvas) that works amazingly well for glazing (See Section 4, Techniques).
      Medium. Oils you dilute with linseed oil, Watercolors you dilute with water, and Acrylics are diluted using water and Acrylic Medium. There are both practical reasons for buying medium, and technical tricks that require medium (I’ll go into detail about the second in Section 4, Techniques) to work. The practical reason is that although water works rather well to dilute acrylic, for archival purposes (if you’re intent on keeping your paintings around for posterity) it’s not so great, as it occasionally causes cracking of the paints. The solution? Use medium as well as water to dilute.
      A Jar of Water. Any old jar or cup will do for this. This will be for washing your brushes and for diluting paint.
      Palette. I have just a big plastic palette that has served me faithfully for 8 years now. It’s colorful enough by now to be a painting in its own right! Anyway, you don’t need anything fancy for a palette. I used to use sheets from old magazines taped to a piece of cardboard! You just need something that is waterproof and sturdy enough to hold up under your paints. This will be where you do all your mixing of colors.

  • Preparation

    • The Canvas If you’re using masonite, wood, illustration board, paper, or store bought canvases you can skip this part. Although as I mentioned earlier, you can still prepare the canvas even if it is a store bought one. This step just creates a very smooth surface for you to paint on, which I prefer over the texture of a canvas. Some people like the unexpected effects that can result from a rough surface, in which case, you can also skip this section. The process I’m going to outline is simply the traditional method and is a bit lengthy. If you want you can do entirely without this canvas preparation.

        Be prepared for a mess!
      • Begin by painting a layer of gesso onto the entlie canvas, painting all you strokes vertically.
      • Wait for this to dry, about 30 minutes.
      • Take some coarse sandpaper and sand the surface a little.
      • Paint a second layer, going horizontally this time. Wait for it to dry, then sand.
      • Paint and sand the 3rd (diagonally to the right) and 4th (diagonally to the left) layers in this fashion
      • If you want you can continue to layer and sand until you have a really smooth surface. Or, if you’re lazy, you could stop after the first layer. This entire process is very much your own preference, and how smooth you want your canvas to be. Smooth canvases are easier to paint on, because the paint doesn’t get caught and pool into the little crevices of the canvas cloth’s weave.
    • Initial Sketch
      So now you have a nice canvas (I will use the word 'canvas' from now on to refer to whatever painting surface you are using) to work on, your paints and brushes are all at your side and set to go. What now? If you’re up for freehand painting, expressionistic, abstract, whip out those brushes and get at it. If you’re going for illustrational, realistic, or representational though, I suggest you pull out your trusty pencil instead and begin sketching first.
      Canvases are very hard to erase on, so it is usually a good idea to make your sketch on a piece of paper and then transfer it onto the canvas after. This can be done by transfer paper (similar to carbon paper, sold as an artist’s tool), opaque projector (hard to get ahold of, but makes life very easy for transferring small sketches to a large canvas), by gridding your sketch and gridding the canvas and transferring by hand that way, or by freehand sketching onto the canvas.
      Once you have your image sketched on the canvas, I’ve found that spraying the whole canvas with some kind of fixative (hairspray works well enough) keeps the pencil from smearing. It also keeps the graphite from mixing with your paints when you start laying the paint on, which would give you muddy colors.

    • Techniques

    Everything’s all set now. You have your tools, you have your primed canvas with the pencil sketch on it. You have paints out and a jar of water at your side. So now we get to actually…*gasp*…painting!

    First-time painter's TIP: If you have never painted with acrylics before, one suggestion I would have for you is to get out some paper, or board, or cheap canvas, and just try painting freehand for a bit. Forget the pencils and sketches and 'staying in the lines'. Glop paint on, squish it around with a palatte knife, swirl colors.... Get a feel for how the paint moves. See what happens if you make it really thick and let it dry like that. Or what happens if you water it down a great deal. Let it drip like crazy and then squint at those drips to see if you can see an image in there somewhere. A lot of people get frustrated by acrylics because they don't know what to expect from the paints, and when unexpected things happen, or an image does not meet their expectations, they become very disappointed. So take the time to play around with the paints without the distraction of following a sketch, or preconceptions. Who knows, maybe you'll end up liking to paint in this unplanned way. It's great stress relief if nothing else.

    • Laying in the Paint

      Plain, Flat, Straight-from-the-Tube Paints!
      The most straightforward method is to take the paint right out of the tube and using that (and mixed colors) just paint without diluting. This gives paintings a very solid feel, and is completely opaque. It is entirely possible to do a complete painting in this fashion.
      If you intend to blend color or do subtle shadings like this however, you'll either have to a) pick another method or b) take up oils instead. Because acrylics dry so fast, it is very difficult to get smooth blending for any mid to large sized area if you're going to use undiluted paint. I've managed to figure out ways to blend large areas mostly by working very quickly, using big, good brushes, and a bit of medium. This is not something which can really be explained, but that you much learn to do by working with acrylics and getting a feel for how wet the paint is and how much time you have to blend. I have found that for large areas, what helps a little is to mix up quite a bit of paint before I begin. Have the color you are blending from, and the color you are blending to, and then mix up 2 or 3 shades in between. Then for the actual painting, there are two options here: You can start with the darker color, in which case you might have problems with the lighter color being a bit muddy. Or you can start with the lighter color and work towards the dark side, but this sometimes takes away some of the darker color's vibrance.
      If this all sounds difficult, don't get frustrated! Once you learn the little quirks of acrylics, they become a wonderful tool.

      If you are into having a really textured surface, you can paint the acrylics on so that it is very thick, or even use a palette knife and paint with the flat of the knife by spreading paint onto the canvas like butter. There are also other mediums you may buy at art stores that you can mix into the paint and allow for an even chunkier consistancy. Some of these medium give you other options and variety as well -- chunky, sandy, smooth lumps, etc.... All of these give the paint more body and make it dry in specific ways. These chunky ways of laying on the paint are called impasto. For you illustrational types, don't just laugh this off as 'modern art' type of painting. You can convey wonderful motion and emotion through texture.

      Then there is the opposite of impasto: glazes. Glazes are done by diluting the paint with water or acrylic medium, or both. Instead of the harsh, hard edges that you get from impasto or from raw paint, glazes lend a softness and a delicacy of subtle shadings caused by overlapping colors to your pictures. Mixing with water will make the paint much thinner. Thinness allows the paint to flow more. Depending on your intentions, this could be good or bad. If you like looseness and unexpected effects ('happy surprises' as one of my professors used to call them) to enhance your painting, water is a good choice at times. It has a cloudier look, and you will not get a smooth layer of color all the time if you use water. It flows on your painting.
      If you want more control and more smoothness to your glazes, try medium. This is what the pigments in your tubes are already mixed with, and so what it does is just spread the pigment out more. The pigment in the paint will not unexpectedly pool and flow on your canvas as it might with water.
      And then there is always a middle ground of using a bit of water and medium to thin your colors.

      TIP: 'How can I paint fine details? The paint is so thick and chunky that even with a small brush I can't do any thin lines!' Thinning the paint is also useful if you want to work with fine brushes. Undiluted paint is a little hard to manipulate with a small brush at times, so thinned paint is easier to do details with.
      How to create glazes:
      Mix the paint with the medium on your palette. When it is fairly thin and translucent, take this diluted paint and brush it onto your canvas. Glazes are a bit watercolor-ish in that they are thin and translucent. But one of the benefits of acrylics is that you can always use thick opaque paint over your glazes as well, and thus build up many layers and lots of subtle colors. Glazing is a method used by oil painters too, especially by the old masters. This is my favorite method of painting, because when you layer a lot of glazes, you can get a real richness of color that can’t be achieved by straight flat and undiluted paint. There is literally a kind of depth in the colors when you use glazes.

      Scumble is closely related to glazes. In fact, the only difference is in the application of the glaze. Using thinned paint on top of a lighter color is called a glaze. Using thinned paint on top of a darker color (like white glaze on top of blue water) is called scumble. Scumble tend to make the image look a bit less 3D, because the light color washes out the depth that glazes usually lend. Scumble has uses though. Sometimes you might want that flattened look. Or, as I mentioned, try it on the surface of water, as wavetops. Paint the water first, blending blues and greens and browns for the ocean depths and color reflections. The surface of water is flat, but there is depth below that reflective surface. Scumble is ideal for painting this. Take a smaller brush after the base layer has dried, and with a little bit of ultramarine blue mixed with white and some medium or water, paint in some highlights and light-reflection from the surface of the water. Or to depict light rays, paint the image without the light, then go in afterwards with a layer of scumble and glaze the light (like in the picture to the left. That was made up of many MANY layers of glazes). Or glass, or.... Well, you try and find your own uses for it.

    • Color!

      I'm not going to go into color theory in here. See the 'Color' section of FARP for details on color theory. Which is not to say that those are not important or relevant. They are, very much so, as is any other knowledge about sketching and drawing and seeing. I will discuss aspects of color as they relate to acrylics physically though.
      'Too much color is less color'         (?!?!?)
      If you have worked with color before, you should not be daunted when faced by the array of pigments available. Even so, it is not necessary to go on a color shopping spree in order to paint good pictures. In fact, with all the various hues and ready-mixed colors on the store shelves, it sometimes can take away from the quality of your painting to use only colors that you can find in tubes and not bother with mixing them. You may end up limiting the depth possible to achieve in your painting by using too many store-bought colors, ignoring all the dozens of shades and tints of purple that you can get simply by mixing red and blue instead of using a straight-from-the tube lavender.

      For example, take a look at the painting to the right. How many different colors and tints can you count in there? There are two tube colors in that painting: ultramarine blue and cadmium orange (Oh, alright, 4 colors, if you wish to count lamp black and titanium white as colors too). Anything else is a mixture of blue, orange, black, and white -- all those various shades of blue and orange, purples, flesh tones, browns, lavenders.... Limited tubes of colors does not mean limited color palatte!

      Acrylic painting, copy of a detail of Michelangelo's

      Color TIP: As an interesting excercise, try something like that example above. Pick a painting to copy, pick two complimentary colors (Complimentary colors are opposite colors: red/green, blue/orange, yellow/purple), and limit yourself to use only those two colors and some black and white. Then try to copy the painting or picture that you have chosen, reproducing the colors as accurately as you can with your limited colors. Don't be afraid to mix like crazy!
      Underpaintings, Glazes, and Scumbles
      What do glazes and scumbles have to do with color? Quite a bit, in fact.

      Have you ever tried to copy a painting (especially old master painters) and found that when you tried reproducing the image's colors, even though your paints were mixed perfectly and looked exactly the same as the original's when you looked at it on your just doesn't look the same?? (Ignoring painting skill levels for the moment). Does yours look flatter, less vibrant for some reason? Less depth to the color? Or perhaps you never noticed any difference at all.
      Take a look at these two swatches on either side.
      The left circle is just a wheel with several colors on it.
      The right circle is that same wheel, using the original layer of paint as an undercoat or underlayer to a layer of solid red paint. Notice how the red looks very different (even in a bad scan) when painted over each of the colors. Some of the underlayer shows through, affecting the vibrance of the red. Light bounces off of layered paint in ways that a scan can not begin to show you, but the result is that you end up with very differnt, deeper colors.
      Now think in more subtle terms. Imagine layering color on color over a whole painting, and what the overall effect would be -- many different hues and subtle shades that are each affected by what colors went below. A flesh colored cheek could have an underpainting of soft rose and dark browns to give it a warm and soft blush, while an ice queen could have an underpainting of blues and greens with white glazes on top.

      The skin tone in the portrait on the right was done by making a light undercoat of Lots of naples yellow, a touch of Cadmium Red, Titanium White, and Burnt Umber. I then added highlights with white, thinning it slightly to let it blend into the more fleshy tones of the undercoat, and made light glazes of red, browns and yellows to create the shading acros the face and to model the contours of the features. The background was a pale green undercoat with many glazes on top. In general, an underpainting lays in very roughly the color values and tints that you want your overall painting to have. An underpainting can set the mood of an entire painting in a very subtle way, because it affects the tones of the colors put on top. Combining glazes on top of an underpainting can give you some very powerful effects, and give life to your picture.

      Color TIP: Tube Black vs. Mixed 'Black'
      Black is such a...neutral color. It expresses nothing but, well, blackness. It does not convey any emotion, but simply flattens a picture. Shadows are never pure black. Shadows are full of various shades and subtle hues.
      So what can you do if you don't want to use black? An alternative is to mix some Burnt Umber with Ultramarine Blue. If you use more blue, your 'black' will be a colder black. If you use more burnt umber, it will look warmer. It still has the darkness of black (see the example image below) but it leaves the viewer with an impression rather than emptiness.
      ('Warm' colors are red, orange, yellow, and 'cool' colors are green blue, and purple. In general. This is a very good scheme to follow to create the type of mood you want).
      The 'black and white' painting below was done using no tube black at all.

So there you have it, a taste of the tools and techniques for painting with acrylics, as well as some tips for tricks that I have learned over the years from experience and from teachers. I haven't told you how you should or what you should paint...only the tools to let you come to your own stylistic decisions. If you are new to acrylics, I hope I haven't scared you away, and that this advice proves helpful. If you are an oldtime acrylic painter here to pick my brain of any useful tidbits, I hope you found some, and if you have any advice of your own to give to me, it's always welcome.

Original tutorial at


  1. I like Acrylic Painting. Thanks for sharing your knowledge on the subject, it's really helfpul

  2. Wow! that's alot of info

    call me crazy but i think oil is easier to work with than acrylics >_>

  3. Thanks for the acrylic tips, but I can't see any of the sample pics!

  4. I prefer oils to acrylic, but acrylic is fun too.

  5. couple pics didnt load but seems like I could do this. Thanks