Proponents of painting with acrylics would say the medium offers advantages that distinguish it from both oil and watercolor. On one hand, acrylics are permanent and do not yellow with age as do oil. But, being water-soluble, they are fast-drying like watercolors and require no harsh solvents for dilution or cleaning.
But the versatility of painting with acrylics is what keeps people coming back. It can be used opaquely or diluted with water or medium for more transparency. It can be used as a traditional painting media, and it also works well with other materials, making it ideal to pair with mixed media, collage and even airbrushing.
Tips to Level Up Your Acrylic Painting Skills
- Painting acrylics are pigments in a polymer emulsion thinned and liquefied by the addition of water. Superior types of acrylics dry to form a layer of colored plastic with near permanence. Because they are water-soluble, no harmful solvents are necessary in the painting process or when cleaning up. Some acrylics have a small amount of formaldehyde or other substances to retard the growth of mold in them. Be aware that these may cause allergic reactions.
- When you are painting with acrylics, you’ll notice they dry very quickly, a trait that can trouble artists who are painting outdoors in a dry climate. But this characteristic can be used to your advantage. Painting in layers goes much more quickly than if you were using oils. Finished acrylic paintings are easier to transport and travel with because they dry quicker and are less brittle than oils.
- Acrylic paint is always more affordable than using oils because the pigments are more cheaply priced.
- Many mediums are usable when acrylic painting, allowing for a variety of textures and surfaces. Some are gloss medium, pumice stone gel, matte acrylic painting gel, crackle paste, retarder, varnish and glazing liquid.
- The first acrylic painting tutorial you receive will probably show you how you can treat them as if they were watercolors, thinning them with water or a medium. Some watercolor effects, such as granulation, can’t be replicated with acrylics; lifting previous layers of paint is not possible.
- Acrylic techniques are akin to many of oil painting processes, though painting with acrylics alla prima for more than 20 minutes is a challenge. However, wetting the palette and using retarders helps.
- Acrylics work on many painting surfaces that don’t need to be prepped with gesso. If the surface has even just a small amount of tooth, the paint will adhere without threat of peeling. Acrylic paint is very resilient, but it can shatter in very cold temperatures.
- When painting in thin, transparent and watercolor-like washes, you can often create soft edges without blending. But here’s one of many crucial acrylic painting lessons: Once the paint dries you cannot soften the edge, which is quite different in comparison to watercolor’s flexibility.
- You’ll notice acrylic pigments dry darker than they look when freshly applied. This is because of the polymer in the paints, which is opaque and white when wet, but dries clear.
- Acrylic paint can be extruded straight from the paint tube for solid, intense color. But they can also be bought as a thin fluid for spatters, dripping and airbrushing.
Techniques That Maximize the Medium’s Versatility
For the last several years, Shawn Gould has focused on learning how to paint with acrylics and is most interested in how to capitalize on its versatility. “I love acrylic painting,” the artist says. “It just makes sense.”
Gould points out that, with acrylic painting, he can paint wet-in-wet or in drybrush from opaque paint to thin, transparent glazes. Gould also appreciates the quick drying time he encounters because it demands he revisit areas that need attention or additional changes sooner rather than later.
He believes that artists often find it can be difficult to achieve the richness of oil paints with acrylics, but his workaround is painting in layers.
Gould paints from three to 10 layers, back and forth with opaque and transparent acrylic colors. Usually he starts with a mid-value color and works outward, not always getting darker or lighter but painting back and forth in value. For instance, he may go one step lighter than the mid-value, then apply a darker glaze, which gives the color “a nice punch.” As the artist points out: With acrylics, painting light over dark can make a color murky. He saves lightest lights and darkest darks for the last layer.
In addition to working in layers, the artist believes a strong under-painting is essential to execute a successful acrylic painting. Gould sketches in graphite, blocking in big shapes and main values. Then, he glazes the board to seal the surface and give it an overall tone, usually using a muted earth color.
The under-painting unifies the acrylic and keeps it fresh looking. In the painting Water Lilies, Gould started with a warm sap/olive green under-painting, adding subsequent glazing layers done in local colors, with the lily pads painting in mid-tones.
Gould will use gel medium when he is painting with acrylics in order to slow the drying of his paints, but most of the time he uses water. To keep the paint damp longer on the palette, Gould keeps a spray bottle of water at hand and mists the paints often.
When he’s done painting, Gould will mist the pigments one last time and then cover his palette in plastic wrap. “The paints stay usable during the entire course of a painting,” he attests. The artist also fights off the fast-drying time of his acrylics by mixing more paint than he will use so he can rapidly paint wet-in-wet and blend colors.
Experimenting with Acrylic Painting
Acrylic artist and watercolorist, Barbara Edwards, paints both realistically and abstractly. When painting with acrylics, the artist usually works in a nonobjective style. People could tease that this duality is a sign of the artist’s split artistic personality. But Edwards attests she worked this way for more than 30 years.
For her, this liberal mindset and sense of embracing the unknown not only keeps her focused, but it also allows her to find subject matter from both inner and worldly sources. When starting an acrylic painting, Edwards intends to be primarily abstract. She refers to reference studies and photographic images to begin building a concept in her mind.
Edwards’ art can sometimes combine representational and abstract elements, such as in Mountain Pasture. This painting emerged from the artist’s thought that cows, ever-present near her rural home, have a calming effect. And, any figurative element within an abstract piece lends a significant emotional presence.