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Choosing and Using
Acrylic Paints

Acrylic paints are one of the newest painting mediums, being introduced as 'recently' as 1955. They have come a long way since then, with an ever-widening range of paints and associated art materials.

The acrylic paint technique thus offers both the new and experienced artist a very versatile method of painting.

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What are Acrylic Paints?

A water-based medium, the usual texture and consistency is similar to oil paints. However, unlike oils, you can get acrylics in various densities.

These range from an ink-like consistency thin enough to be used in airbrushes through various degrees of 'flow' very much like oil paints, to the consistency of soft cream cheese.

This allows really heavy 3D (impasto) effects.

Various substances are available to be added to the paint to create all sorts of textures.

Or you can use your own, such as plaster or sand, for a further variety of textured effects.

All the brands and thicknesses can be thinned back down using water. Some artists I know actually use thinned down acrylic in a pure watercolor style. This gives subtly different but important qualities.


Pros & Cons of Using Acrylic Paints

As in all painting, the acrylic paint technique has benefits and drawbacks. The good things are that:

  • It is easily diluted with water, so there's no need for special thinners
  • Brushes are cleaned with soap and water
  • By and large you use the same brushes and knives as with oil paints, so you don't need to re-invest in this area
  • If you prefer however, an increasing range of 'acrylic-specific' brushes is coming on the market which gives you extra options
  • It dries fast - often within minutes - unlike oils which can take weeks or even months
  • Once dry, you can instantly put additional layers on top without ever muddying the ones below -as can happen with watercolor paints
  • You can paint on a wide range of surfaces including art canvas, watercolor and other types of specially formulated oil and acrylic paper, wood, various types of board - or even use your room walls as large murals!
  • Colors change very little from their wet to dry state - unlike watercolors - so the strength of colour you see first is what you end up with
  • It washes off clothes and carpets when wet, just by using soap and water
  • There is no solvent-type smell, as there is with oils and turpentine
  • Thinned acrylic paint makes an excellent underpainting if you're using oils

However, like all painting mediums, there are downsides when using acrylic paint. These are mainly around one of its main virtues... its quick drying properties. Here are some things you need to consider:

  • Drying so quickly makes it difficult to subtly blend paint, as you can with oils - when painting a cloudy sky or portraits for example
  • You have to keep all your brushes moist as you are painting. Never let them dry with acrylic paint on the bristles or you'll end up with a nice-looking set of short garden canes.
  • Paint which dries on the blade of a palette knife is very hard to get off. This can leave a film which may adversely affect the ability of the knife to make a smooth mark
  • You need a special palette to stop your paints drying out as well. These aren't cheap for what they are. (However, read the article on acrylic paint techniques to find out how to easily make one for next to nothing)
  • If acrylic paint dries on carpets, clothes etc, you'll be lucky to get the stain off. So wear old clothes and/or cover the table and floor with an old cloth!
  • If there's any grease on the painting surface, acrylics will not adhere, unlike oil paints.
  • Acrylic paint tends to be quietly abrasive and soon takes its toll on softer brushes. Try using it with a small nylon 00 watercolor brush, for example, and you'll be lucky to get more than two or three good sessions out of it
  • If acrylic paint gets inside the ferrule and dries it's almost impossible to get out without damaging the brush hairs. What then happens is the dried paint makes the bristles spread and the brush loses much of its value as a quality tool
  • Don't leave the tops off tubes of acrylic paint, the contents will go rock hard in no time. If this happens, you throw them away. Full stop
  • Some brands of acrylic paint have small tops on the tubes. They are extremely difficult to get off as the paint dries in the threads.
  • If you have problems gripping small items, you may want to choose tubes which have large caps - or buy a good pair of pliers!
  • Acrylic paint is a close cousin of PVA glue and as such, quite an effective, if somewhat colourful, adhesive.

Brushes and Palette Knives

You can use the same brushes for acrylic paints as you would with oils - as long as you haven't let the acrylic paint dry on them!

Have a look at the following points you should be aware of:

  • Bristle brushes will leave lovely textured brush marks in the thicker acrylic paints. Palette knives will also leave their own distinct texture.
  • You can also use brushes designed for watercolor. However, I certainly wouldn't use my best or favorite watercolor brushes with acrylic paints.
  • You can buy a widening range of acrylic brushes especially designed for the acrylic paint technique.
  • These tend to have nylon filaments, softer than bristle but coarser than the synthetic or natural hairs used in watercolor brushes.
  • When using acrylic paints, always have a shallow tray filled with about 1/2inch of water as well as a jar of water for rinsing and thinning paint.
  • As you rinse a brush, lay it flat on the side of the tray with the bristles in the water, so they don't bend.
  • You can leave nylon and bristle brushes like this almost indefinitely, though I prefer to clean and dry my brushes thoroughly once I've finished a painting session for the day. It only takes about 5 - 10 minutes.

Painting Surfaces

Despite the disadvantages we've looked at, acrylic paint is really a very versatile medium. This is particularly evident when looking at the surfaces you can actually use on which to paint.

As a direct alternative to oils, acrylic on canvas is an excellent choice.

Make sure though, the canvas is coated with an acrylic, rather than oil-based primer, or gesso (a product specially made for the acrylic painting technique). Acrylics won't stick to an oil-based primer.

You can use various papers and watercolor paper is particularly good, even for the thicker paint.

Although it doesn't have to be primed, it is helpful to stop paint soaking in to the surface and risking leaving a patchy image.

This also applies to painting on boards such as Masonite and MDF. In fact you can exploit the primer or gesso properties by putting it on with a coarse house-painting brush.

If you only have household latex-type emulsion paint, use that instead, for a cheap primer.

Add a touch of acrylic colour to it (Raw Sienna is good) to give a warm base to your picture.

Paint first in one direction, then when dry, lightly in the other. With care you can create a nice texture that approximates to canvas, which will show through your picture.

Alternatively try stippling the primer on for a different texture.

And if you really want to economise, I've seen some excellent acrylic pictures painted on brown wrapping paper and even newsprint! In fact...

Looking at some of the newspapers in the UK, there are those who might say that painting over some of the drivel that's printed is a much better use for the paper!

And don't overlook the possibilities for this painting medium in your house.

If you are fed up with bland painted or papered walls in your bedroom, try painting a scene of your choice instead.

Paint on your preferred basecoat color of household latex or vinyl.

Keep this a fairly light shade. A white with a tint of another colour is ideal. Then sketch in your design.

Finally, paint the picture on the wall, using acrylic paints.

They are from the same family as household vinyl and will inter-mix without difficulty.

It doesn't have to be the whole wall, just a corner if you like. Maybe if it's one of the young one's bedrooms, they could do it themselves, under your supervision.

I can't think of a better way to persuade the kids to decorate their own room!


Palettes

You can't use a conventional wood or plastic palette with acrylics. Well, you can... once!

Acrylic paint's quick-drying, adhesive qualities make it a real pain to get off once dry. You could try scraping it with the side of a razor blade but this is slow, messy and hazardous.

Manufacturers have developed a palette that keeps paint moist for several days or longer.

Usually plastic, it consists of a shallow moulded well, about A4 size 11inches x 8 inches.

Sometimes there's a small tray moulded in to keep your brushes moist. This is very necessary as I've already described.

In the large well is placed a fairly thick piece of white absorbent paper.

This is wetted and on top is placed a translucent waterproof paper 'membrane'. On top of this you squeeze out your colours.

This waterproof membrane allows just enough dampness through to stop your paints drying out.

The palette usually has a lid which allows you to keep your paints moist for several days, providing you keep the bottom layer of paper wet.

These acrylic palettes do work extremely well. However they are, in my opinion, expensive for what they are, as is the 'special' paper.


Here's how to make your own for next to nothing...

Get an old plate or shallow plastic tray (preferably white).

Place a couple of layers of kitchen towel on the plate so it covers most of the surface.

If you have white blotting paper then this is fine - in fact the 'special reservoir paper' manufacturers use, looks suspiciously like this...

Dampen the towel or blotting paper with clean water.

Take a sheet of greaseproof or kitchen baking paper (again preferably white) and lay it on top, pressing it down slightly so it sticks to the damp kitchen towel.

Now squeeze your acrylic paints around the edge of the greaseproof and use the centre as your mixing surface.

Keep the kitchen towel damp (not flooded) by adding a drop of water now and again. Experience will tell you how much and how often.

At the end of the session, throw the paper away with the used paint residue inside and keep the plate for next time.

Alternatively, stretch a piece of clingfilm over the plate and when you come back the following day your paint will still be moist. However, make sure you re-dampen the kitchen towel if you do store it overnight.


Additives

There are a number of additives which you can put into acrylic paints to achieve various effects. We've covered some of these earlier and the best advice is to see what's available and then try them for a particular effect.

However, much of the fun of acrylics is finding your own additives, (e.g. sand, grit, or even small pebbles etc.) to add to and work with the paint.

Because of its ability to create texture, really have a go at this. Try pressing a twig or a piece of rock or coal in to half dry, thick paint and see what happens!

The one additive that I've left to last is probably the most important...

This is acrylic gel retarder. It's a white, semi-clear gel or cream which you add to your paints on the palette.

It slows drying time down by up to 50% and is especially useful if you want to blend areas of color. It won't give you that much extra time but it does help.

And Finally...!

Hopefully, this quick intro into what acrylic paints is all about will help you get started.

I think it's a flexible and forgiving medium. Maybe if you hadn't thought about using acrylic paints before it'll inspire you to have a go.

If you do be sure to look out for the upcoming acrylic paint technique articles. These will be packed with hints and tips about getting the most from your paints.

In no time you'll be producing great pictures - or even bedroom walls - you can be proud of!


Related Articles

Quick Guide to Using Acrylic Mediums
There are so many additives and acrylic mediums available, it can get confusing as to what does what...

Which are the best acrylic paint brushes?
Painting with acrylics can be great fun. However, the acrylic paint brushes you use are essential to the quality of your finished painting.


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