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What is acrylic paint and how to use it: beginner’s guide

What is acrylic paint and how should you use it? Here’s everything you need to know about getting started with this undersung medium

Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint is hugely versatile, easy to work with and the perfect introduction for anyone who is new to painting. Having been developed in the early twentieth century, it’s in some ways the baby (historically speaking) of the art world. And like all new kids on the block, it’s had a bit of a rough welcome. Many professionals and amateurs overlook it in favour of centuries-old oil paint. Which is a shame, as it’s relatively inexpensive and can be done easily – albeit with care – at home. It’s also a great choice for older children who want to switch from poster paints to something a little more serious.

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In this guide, we’ll talk you through what to expect if you’re using acrylic paint for the firsts time – the pros and cons to consider and what you need to get started. Read on to learn how to use acrylic paint with our complete guide to acrylic painting for beginners.

If you’re paint-curious but not quite sure whether to commit yet, why not try the latest trend for paint by numbers? We’ve rounded up our favourite paint by numbers kits for adults to take for a little test drive.

Take a look at our watercolour painting for beginners guide, oil painting for beginners guide or our beginner’s guide to gouache.

What is acrylic paint?

Acrylic paint is like every other paint: pigment mixed into a binder. With oil paint, those molecules of pigment are suspended in oil-based solution; with acrylics, they’re suspended in an acrylic polymer. That’s as scientific as we’ll get: the important difference is that acrylic paints can be mixed with water, versus the turpentine and other oil-based liquids that oil paints require. Just as crucial is acrylic’s drying time. Where a layer of oil paint might take anywhere between several hours and several months to dry, acrylic paint, depending on the thickness, will dry in 5 to 20 minutes.

How to use acrylic paint

Acrylic paint is a remarkably versatile medium, and can be applied with any degree of thickness: you can dilute it to a wash with water, or use it straight out of the tube. (Like oils, acrylic works best ‘fat-over-lean’, which means each succeeding layer you apply should get thicker.) As well as with brushes, you can applied it in fun, satisfying thick dollops with a palette knife.

Indeed, if you want to work in thick, textured layers, acrylic is a particularly good choice, since that speedy drying time lets you build layer upon layer quickly. But if you want to paint images with smooth gradients of colours – a sunset, for example – you might find the fast-drying properties of acrylic prevent you from achieving the flawless transitions that you’re after.

With acrylics, you can bypass one of the problems that oil painters run into, which is overworking a surface covered in still-wet paint, until the colours become churned and muddy. Acrylic tends to shine when it’s applied in discrete, broken strokes of colour (which is why we’d happily bet that the impressionists would have used acrylics, had they been available back in the nineteenth century).

Acrylic pouring is proving an increasingly popular home activity – and one that’s great to do with kids. This is where highly viscous acrylics are poured over a surface and left to dry in sumptuous, marbled patterns. This is great fun, and you can get eye-catching results fast – but you’ll need to invest in some pouring medium in order to make the paint behave the right way.

What are the advantages of acrylic paint?

Acrylic’s greatest strength is its rapid drying time, which means that acrylic painting is perfect for beginners. Also, the fact it’s water-mixable means you can avoid the toxic, odorous substances required for oils. It’s child-friendly, too, although younger kids will need to be supervised, and dressed up in overalls. Because acrylic doesn’t rehydrate with water, it’s almost impossible to get out of carpets and clothes. You can generally peel fallen splotches of acrylic off non-porous surfaces, but we don’t suggest you risk it.

Lastly, its flexibility when dry means it can be applied to nearly anything – and we really do mean nearly anything. Canvases, boards, scrapwood, old furniture – providing the surface is dust-free and primed (we’ll dive into that later), it’s good for acrylic painting.

What are the disadvantages of acrylic paint?

Acrylic’s main disadvantage is also its drying time, and it’s chiefly this that has earned the medium such derision over the years. Nearly every single newcomer to acrylic painting will find themselves frustratedly sending a brush through claggy passages of half-dried paint at some point.

Similarly, brushes are often one of the first casualties in acrylic painting. All too often, they’re left to one side covered in paint, only to be discovered later: dried, hardened and useless. This is why all unused brushes need to stay submerged in a jar of water. Also, unlike oils, acrylics dry to a slightly darker colour when they dry, which is something you’ll need to factor in when mixing your colours.

If this all sounds a bit knife-edge, that’s often how it is for beginner acrylic painters. But with a little practise, you’ll start to remember all these things.

What is acrylic paint and how to use it: beginners guide
Photo by Unsplash/Hello I'm Nik

Acrylic paint: Essential equipment

The basics

Have you got a rag? This will become your best friend: you’ll use it for everything from taking the excess paint off your brushes to wiping mistakes off your painting. Two old jars? Fill them both with water: you’ll want one for cleaning out your brushes and one for diluting your paints. And we’re assuming you’re already wearing an apron and not your Sunday best.

Acrylic paint

If you’re a newcomer to painting in general, you’ll want to kick off with anywhere between four to ten colours. Acrylic paint manufacturers have dozens upon dozens of different colours in their ranges, and it might be tempting to buy them all – but you won’t learn to mix colours that way, and you’ll be overwhelmed by sheer choice.

At the very least, you can kick off with white and the three primaries (red, yellow and blue), but black, green and a couple of earth colours will probably come in handy too. Be prepared to get through lots of white.

A 60ml tube of acrylic paint will cost anywhere between £2.50 and £7 – it will largely depend on whether you’re buying student- or professional-grade paints. The pricier the paint, the more pigment-rich and vibrant it will be. It will also be more lightfast, which means it is less likely to fade over time. The acrylic brands to look out for are Daler-Rowney, Windsor & Newton, Golden and Liquitex.

If you’re seeking out an affordable student-grade paint, Daley-Rowney’s System 3 range is a great choice. But even if you’re trying to keep your spend to a minimum, avoid the own-brand ranges sold by high-street stores: they’re typically low in pigment and poor-quality.

Our advice for newbies is to simply spend what you can afford: you’ll reap better results, and you’ll learn faster. The two sets below are both our favourite choices for acrylic beginners.

Palette

Because acrylic paint dries so quickly, it can’t be wiped off your palette like oil. One thing you don’t want is to prise layers of acrylic away with your fingernails at the end of every session. There are tear-off pads with pages of disposable palette paper available, but these can prove pretty costly in the long term. You could always buy a stack of disposable paper plates, but that’s a little wasteful.

Your best bet is to buy a stay-wet palette, such as the Masterson Sta-Wet. Alternately, you can make a DIY version by lining a tray with a damp layer of a sponge or J-cloth and topping that with a layer of parchment paper. The paper is porous enough for the acrylic to absorb the damp cloth’s moisture, which keeps it wetter on the palette for much longer. Trust us: this one’s a game-changer. Another way to keep your paints wet is to give them regular spritzes of water with an atomiser, and to cover them with clingfilm at the end of the day.

Brushes

Newcomers should adopt a ‘posh paints, cheap brushes’ mentality. Acrylic brushes tend to take a battering, and we don’t suggest you invest in any expensive ones at this point. Look for a selection of rounds and flats of varying sizes. Unless you’re working in miniature, don’t buy any brush below size 0, since small brushes are no guarantee of intricate detail. In fact, a great way of developing your mark-making is by limiting yourself to one or two larger-size brushes – you’ll be surprised by the delicacy you can achieve.

For easel-scale painters, Cass Art’s synthetic starter set is a sound choice, and if you do want some detail brushes, there’s also Daler-Rowney’s Taklon set.

Your brushes will need some TLC at the end of your painting session. They’ll need to be patiently and thoroughly cleaned with detergent, since any acrylic that’s left to dry in their bristles won’t be removable. Gently splaying your brushes against a bar of soap under running water is the best method we’ve found.

Support

Your support is the thing you’re painting on. You’ll find a range of ready-made canvases online. We suggest you buy a handful at once, since you’ll become a better painter by making Cass Art stocks a range of highly affordable triple-packs in a variety of sizes.

Nervous beginners might be better off buying a pad of canvas or acrylic paper: which are pre-primed and ready for painting. Canvases have a habit of cluttering spaces; early (and possibly disastrous) efforts on paper can be tucked away easily.

One great way to throw yourself into painting is to paint on scrap material: think about the cardboard in your recycling bin. Since you’ve spent nothing on the support, there’s far less pressure to create a masterpiece. You’ll just need to prime it first… which brings us to the next essential.

Primer

Just like oil, acrylic works best on a well-prepared primed ground of gesso. In principal, shop-bought canvases won’t need priming, but they often benefit from one or two extra layers of this runny, chalky and absorbent white paint. Gesso can be smoothed over with fine-grain sandpaper, or left to have a little tooth (texture).

One tip we’ll offer is that you mix a red or earth acrylic colour into your gesso, so you can create a warm-coloured ground for your painting. You’ll find it much easier to build your painting this way – and it’s a heck of a lot less intimidating than a blank white surface.

And for later…

More advanced painters might want to incorporate acrylic mediums into their work. There are several different types. Glazing mediums will let you build your acrylics in translucent layers, modelling paste will give it added texture. There are also retarder gels that slow down that pesky drying time. But these are definitely something to look at after the beginning stages. For now, we hope you enjoyed our guide to acrylic painting for beginners – good luck!

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If you enjoyed this guide, you might also like our guide to pencil drawing techniques for beginners or our easy watercolor painting ideas.