What to know when Learning how to Paint with Acrylics

Oil paints had a corner on the art materials market for hundreds of years, but in the mid-20th century, a formidable opponent arrived on the scene. Acrylic paints have since joined oil and watercolor as one of the most popular painting media in the world. If you love to paint, then you’ll love learning how to paint with acrylics.

Acrylics are water-based, quick-drying, not reliant on any toxic solvents and can be applied to a wide range of surfaces. When dry, acrylics are light fast and permanent, and the surface becomes strong and flexible. Acrylics clean up with simple soap and water.

In addition to painting with acrylics, you can use these versatile paints for craft projects made of wood, on canvas, on leather and many other surfaces. Acrylics can be applied with brushes, rollers and painting knives; sprayed with an airbrush; poured, spattered or dribbled. You can modify the consistency of acrylic paint with a bewildering variety of gels, pastes and mediums.

Because of the properties of its polymer base, acrylic paint can be used in thick applications similar to oils; the paints can also be thinned with water or medium and used in a manner comparable to watercolors. When used with gels, pastes and mediums, acrylics can create effects unattainable with oils or watercolors. In fact, acrylics lend themselves to so many different acrylic painting techniques, the possibilities are practically endless.

Whether you’re new to acrylics or advanced in this medium, knowing how acrylics mix and mingle with other art materials and mediums is critical for painting success.

Can you intermix oils and water-based acrylics?

No—they’re chemically incompatible.

Can you paint oils over acrylics?

Yes, but the painting’s layers may become unstable because the oils may not adhere adequately to the acrylic beneath. Also, the oils and acrylics will respond differently to environmental conditions such as humidity and temperature, which could cause the layers to separate.

Can you use traditional oil-painting techniques with acrylics?

The quick drying time of acrylics will require you to modify your oil painting techniques somewhat. Wet-into-wet techniques (wet paint applied to or blended with wet paint) are more difficult with acrylics, but scumbling and dry brush techniques are easier.

Can you use traditional watercolor techniques with acrylics?

Most traditional watercolor techniques can be used with acrylics since both media are relatively quick-drying. Just as watercolors of the same name by different manufacturers produce different staining or granulating effects, acrylic colors will differ from traditional watercolors. Also, unlike watercolors, acrylics can’t be rehydrated once dry.

Are acrylics less permanent than oils?

Although research on acrylics is less abundant, the medium seems to be as permanent as oils. Acrylics are chemically stable when cured, but, as with all paint media, they’re only as permanent as the surface they’re painted on.

Acrylic Mediums, Pastels, Gels and Additives

When learning how to paint with acrylics, keep in mind that most brands of acrylics come in a range of viscosities or “bodies.” Soft or medium body is fluid, creamy and smooth; heavy body is thicker, buttery and retains brushstrokes; extra or super heavy body is very thick and ideal for impasto applications. The following products can be used with acrylics of any viscosity to create an almost limitless variety of effects.

Mediums are mixed with paint for thinning and glazing, and can be used as an adhesive for collage and mixed media work.

  • Matte medium—dries flat without a glossy shine
  • Gloss medium—dries with a glossy shine
  • Blending medium—thins the paint while increasing open time (the time the paint is wet) to aid blending
  • Flow improver—makes the paint flow evenly and quickly

Pastes and gels are mixed with paint to add texture or to increase or retain thickness of the paint while adding transparency and lengthening drying time.

  • Gel medium—thickens and adds transparency
  • Heavy gel—adds texture, allowing the paint to hold its peaks
  • Modeling paste—a very thick additive that allows the artist to create highly textured effects that dry to a flexible film

Retardant is mixed with acrylics to slow the drying time and is useful for wet-into-wet techniques; too much may result in a film that never dries properly.

Varnishes are applied to finished acrylic work to provide a protective, dust-resistant film; some reduce damage from ultraviolet light. Varnishing with a non acrylic material, such as mineral spirit acrylic varnish, allows you to remove the layer later, if needed.

Many other additives are available, offering the artist a lifetime of experimentation and discovery.

  • Iridescent colors
  • Metallic colors
  • Interference colors
  • Glass bead gel
  • Pumice gel
  • String gel
  • Natural sand
  • Pouring medium

Useful Acrylic Tools and Supplies

Brushes: Synthetic materials such as nylon are the best choice for acrylic paintbrushes. Stiff brushes are good for applications of thick paint; soft and supple ones are good for applications of thinned paint. Acrylics are harder on brushes made of animal hair, which can swell and lose its spring when soaked in water.

Palette: The acrylic painter needs a palette that’s flat and impervious to water. Plastic palettes designed for acrylics are available; some have lids or sealable compartments to prevent drying. Enameled butcher trays, thick glass, and plastic cutting boards also work well. Aluminum pans from frozen pies and melamine plates can work in a pinch. Avoid wooden palettes, which absorb water.

Surfaces: One of the advantages to working with acrylics is that you can apply them to almost any stable, non greasy surface. Water-absorbent surfaces, such as wood, need to be sealed beforehand. Preferred painting surfaces include artist’s canvas, hardboard, fiberboard and heavy (400-lb) watercolor paper that has been prepared with a good quality acrylic dispersion primer. Using prestretched “gessoed” canvases saves time, but they’re often not of archival quality.

Water container: A large, unbreakable water container is a must. Change the water frequently so you don’t contaminate the colors on your palette.