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  1. Design & Illustration
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Design

Introduction to Traditional Media: Acrylic Paints

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This post is part of a series called Introduction to Traditional Media.
Introduction to Traditional Media: Watercolour

In this tutorial I will introduce you to acrylic paints, setting you on the path to using a very exciting medium.

Why Acrylic Paints?

I have used acrylics since the early 1980s, and have found them easier to get to grips with than oils and watercolour. If you are starting to paint for the first time, I would recommend acrylics before any other painting materials.

Acrylics are extremely versatile, and with them, you can...

  • paint on almost any surface
  • use them with water, and they become water resistant when dry (they are fast drying too)
  • use them as you would oil paints (without the smell) and create thick brush strokes and textures on your canvas
  • apply thin washes like watercolour
  • create unique finishes that can only be done with this kind of paint—let your imagination and ingenuity run free

A Tiny Bit of Chemistry and a Brief History

A Tiny Bit of Chemistry

Acrylic paint is a polymer-based emulsion that holds pure pigments in suspension, giving you vibrant colours.

A Brief History

Developed in 1934, acrylics did not become commercially available until the 1950s, when they were used as house paints. Artists (including Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock) spotted these versatile paints and started to use them due to the hugely reduced drying times and their permanence.

What Do You Need to Start With?

What should you have to hand before you start painting with acrylics for the first time?

  1. A small selection of acrylic colours
  2. Brushes
  3. Mediums
  4. Work surface
  5. Support for your work
  6. Palette
  7. Water
  8. A desire to experiment as far as your imagination will take you

1. Acrylic Paints

Acrylic paint tubes

There are so many colours offered by makers, e.g. Winsor and Newton, Liquitex and Daler Rowney, that it can be quite confusing. The pronunciation of some of their names can be rather daunting too (just consider them tongue twisters). Stick to a limited palette, and add in one or two of your favourite colours. I would start with the following:

  1. Lemon yellow
  2. Cadmium yellow medium
  3. Ultramarine blue
  4. Naphthol red
  5. Burnt sienna
  6. Burnt umber
  7. Titanium white

And then, because I love them, I would add dioxazine purple and cobalt turquoise. You should choose your favourites as an additional couple of tubes of paint.

You won't need black. I have to be honest, I don't like black tube paint; it seems so unnatural when you place it on a canvas. There is no black in nature (a black cat in sunlight is dark brown). However, to achieve very dark shadows, ultramarine blue and burnt umber mixed together make a wonderful dark shade.

Student Acrylic Paints

Most manufacturers produce a secondary set of tubes of paint aimed at beginners and students.

The paints are cheaper because they are thinner, the quality of the colour isn't as high as in the artist quality paints, and there are fewer colours to choose from. However, they will give you a feel for acrylics and will allow you to experiment and make mistakes without spending too much.

You can also buy the paints in a variety of sizes (below) ranging from 22ml up to 1000ml depending on the colour.

Paint tubes sizes

Something Different

Acrylics offer something that no other paint medium does: additional outlandish colours.

There are the usual metallics which are also available in watercolour and oil, but you can also get iridescent (far right, below) and fluorescent paints.

Iridescent colours can be mixed into the colours you already have or used directly from the tube or pot. The effect is metallic and the colours differ depending on the angle you are looking at them. I love them.

Fluorescents are available in all the usual colours—yellow, green, pink, green and blue—but there are a few more out there if you want to have a look online. Liquitex and Daler Rowney both have a selection. However, unlike other acrylic paints, fluorescents will fade over time.

Metalic and iridescent paints

Costs

There is an important point I would like to make about the cost of colours, and it carries across all paint media, watercolour and oil too.

When you buy individual tubes of paint, you need to know that they are priced by Series. These Series start at 1 or A which is the cheapest, and depending on the manufacturer can go up to 5 or D. I have circled this information below.

Paint tubes series number

The difference between these Series is the cost of the original pigment. Some are costly to obtain (natural ones), while others are expensive to manufacture. Cerulean blue is infamously pricey, as are a number of pinks and yellows. This has always been the case; even Titian (also known as Tiziano Vecellio or Tiziano Vecelli), who famously used a lot of blue in his 16th century paintings, did so to show off the wealth of the patrons who were paying him. It was well known that blue was very expensive.

So be aware of the colours you choose. Some are a lot more expensive than others, but can be very much worth the extra outlay too. If you are tempted to go for an expensive series, buy the smallest tube you can get.

Drying Time

Advantages

  • Acrylics dry quickly.
  • Once they are dry, they are permanent.
  • You can work quickly and have a painting finished in a day.
  • If you don't like what you have done, you can easily paint over and adjust your work, with no risk of previous colours mixing with new ones.

Disadvantages

Generally, the disadvantages stem more from bad practice than anything else, except my first point.

  • You won't get thick, textured paint once dried unless you mix acrylic with mediums—they tend to flatten out when dry.
  • If you get acrylics on your clothes or anywhere you don't want them, the paint is there for good.
  • Letting your brushes dry out with paint on them leaves you with only one option: the bin.
  • If you don't put the cap back on your tubes properly, like me, they will dry out and you will end up with a solid tube of ruined paint...
Dried tube of paint

You can slow down the drying time with the use of mediums. I'll go into them later, in section 3.

What Should You Buy?

I would suggest, to start with, going down the student quality paint route. Winsor and Newton call theirs Galeria, while Daler Rowney have a set called System 3. Both are a good place to start. 

However, if you are a purist or history buff, Liquitex were the first company to produce acrylics and produce a student brand called Basics. All are available either at your art store or online.

2. Brushes

Acrylic brushes

Brushes for acrylics depend on your painting style. If you like to paint with bold strokes, and lots of paint, I would go for a stiff bristle. If you prefer to paint in layers with thin paint and glazes or in a watercolour style, I would use a soft bristle. I say this because acrylic is so versatile that you can use it like oils (stiff bristles), watercolour (soft bristles), in between (medium bristles) or all of the above at the same time.

However, if you have never painted before (and as I previously said, I believe acrylics are the best place to start), you should go for a brush that is in between.
Brush display

However, as you can see above, in art stores, there is always a wonderful choice of brushes. Have a look through the display, pick up the brushes and feel the bristles, flicking them with your fingers. This will give you a feel for what you like. Some will be very stiff and others soft, while you will see a vast array of shapes.

What Should You Buy?

Synthetic brushes are best for acrylics, as the nature of the paint will damage natural brushes as time goes on. Synthetics feel natural, don't mind spending long periods of time in water, and are cheaper. However, you need to clean them well and reshape them when you have finished your painting session.

A starter pack is the way to go. You can buy ones that are specifically for acrylic beginners in your local art store or online. Daler Rowney offer a System 3 set of brushes that have a variety of shapes and range from 3 to 5 brushes. They are very reasonable and are available online. If you prefer to shop in person, ask at your local art store for a starter pack—they should have one.

3. Mediums

Mediums change the way you use acrylics. They can slow down drying time, thin your paints, make them glossy or matt, and add all sorts of textures. Mediums make acrylics something special and are genuinely really exciting additions to your paints, making them so much fun to use. New ones are also always being developed as technology improves and changes.

There are a lot to choose from, but I would suggest one or two (at the most) to start with: matt medium and retarder.

Matt Medium

I think this is the most important medium. If you don't want to spend too much money when you start on acrylics, only buy this one.

When you paint with acrylics, it is very tempting to use just water to thin them down. Not a good idea. The more water you add to acrylics, the more you break down the polymer-based emulsion suspending the pigments. This will lead to grainy colours and possible flaking or peeling of your work—the last thing you would want.

Use matt medium to thin your paints right down. You can lay glazed areas on your work (areas you can see through) and use it to create the initial primed base on your canvas.

The medium looks white when it comes out of the tub or tube, but mixes well with your paint, making little difference to your colours. A little goes a long way, but try and get into the habit of using matt medium instead of water—the water is for cleaning your brushes.

Retarder

Mediums - retarder

Acrylic dries quickly and once it has, it is permanent. I mentioned this before, and there's really nothing you can do once it's dry.

If you mix a bit of retarder into your paint, though, it slows the drying time down. This is great if you are a slower painter or like to mix your paints on the canvas.

Other Mediums

Mediums - shop samples

If you go into an art store to where the acrylics are situated, you should find a panel or samples of which mediums are available (above). Have a feel of them and choose a favourite to experiment with.

I love crackle medium because of its unpredictability (below).

Mediums - crackle glaze

The packaging normally tells you how to use your selected medium, so have a go, experiment, and get excited.

What Should You Buy?

As I said before, start with matt and retarder mediums. Mediums are available anywhere you can obtain acrylics, online and in store. Go for Winsor and Newton, Daler Rowney or Liquitex.

4. Work Surfaces

Unlike other media, acrylics can be used on just about anything, with the exception of papers unless they are stretched.

But if you are starting off for the first time, I would recommend canvas or canvas boards.

1. Stretched Canvas and Canvas Board

There is a vast selection of sizes and shapes (below is only a tiny choice): square, rectangular, tiny and enormous to the point of immobility.

Canvases

Stretched Canvases

A stretched canvas is a textured linen or cotton that is stretched around a wooden frame, and then primed ready for painting. When you lay a brush on it, it has a bit of give. The texture on these canvases can vary from rough to smooth. I prefer something that is in the middle.

You may have heard of box canvases. These are made in the same way, but the depth of the edge is far thicker, starting at around 2 cm. You can continue your painting around these edges, giving you the option of not having to frame your work.

Canvas Board

Canvas boards work in the same way as a stretch canvas, but the canvas is stuck down on a thick card. As a result, they are very portable and easily stored, and it's much easier to scrape into the paint than with canvas. However, you are limited by size—they tend not to be any bigger than 40 x 60cm—as any larger and they will warp.

2. Watercolour Paper

Wash and thick paint

As you can see above, I have done a wash and then added thick paint on top. Acrylic is great for this, and you can do it on paper best (washes aren't great on any other surface). Here, I treated acrylic like watercolour.

Watercolour paper used to need to be stretched before use. You had to wet the paper, lay it on a flat surface, and then tape down all of the sides without letting any of the tape buckle or have air bubbles (which was always inevitable when I did it), causing the paper to wrinkle. Then you had to leave it to dry thoroughly, and only then would you know if it had worked.

Watercolour pads

You can still do that, but buying ready-stretched blocks of watercolour paper (above) is so much easier, and they come in a variety of sizes from A5 to A3. Make sure you buy the gummed pad (the gum is the black bit around the edge of the pad) as this will lessen the chance of wrinkling when your painting is finished.

Use the thickest paper you can find, as there will be less chance of wrinkling—300gsm is good. Acid-free will help prevent the deterioration of the colours. Texture is up to you, but I would recommend you start with a NOT (also known as cold pressed) paper. The surface is not too rough and not too smooth (that’s not why it’s called NOT; this refers to the way the paper has been made—not hot pressed).

Thin paper is a complete waste of time as it will buckle, and may even tear as you work.

3. Other Surfaces

There really is no limit when it comes to what you paint upon, as long as there is a slight tooth to the surface. If you want to paint on metal or plastic, just take some sandpaper to it first, or the acrylic will just peel off once dried because they are so shiny.

I have used acrylics to paint murals for years (mixed with matt emulsion to make them go further)...

Mural

... and have even painted the tops of rocks as markers in my herb garden. I sprayed the acrylic with exterior varnish after writing on it in permanent ink. The rocks have lasted through a Scottish winter and summer and look just as bright as the day I painted them.

Painted stones

What Should You Buy?

I would recommend starting off on a medium to small painting. You can work on either stretched canvas or canvas board. Get a feel for the different types of surface, and how you like to work: in detail, boldly, or both.

Look for primed canvases, as they are ready to work on without you having to prepare them. They are very readily available at all art stores and online.

5. Supporting Your Work

This very much depends on you. I prefer to stand when I work, using an easel. I like to step back when I am painting to give myself a different view and if there is good music on, some dancing may be involved too.

Wooden easels are the standard, but try to avoid both portable and metal ones as they tend not to feel as sturdy as a standard wooden one.

If you would rather work seated, there are table-top easels that you can set either upright or at an angle, depending on your preferences.

You could also prop your work up on a couple of books, and if you are working in a watercolour format, make sure you put a sheet of absorbent paper along the bottom to catch drips.

What Should You Buy?

Easels range greatly in price, but to start with, choose a smaller one and stay at the lower price range. Your local art store will have a selection that isn't too expensive, and you should be able to fiddle with them to get an idea of how they work and how to make yourself comfortable before you buy.

Once you find your feet, you will have a better idea of your needs and can then buy a larger easel if you prefer.

Daler Rowney do a very good selection if you would like to look online.

6. Palette

Palettes

It really is very tempting to go off and buy a palette, but you don't need to. An old plate, a plastic box lid (above, with the green splodge on it) or a sheet of glass will all do very well. You have the added fun of peeling off the paint when the palette is completely dry—very satisfying—as the surface is shiny.

You can buy palettes like the one on the right, or smaller, which work really well.

There is the more traditional curved palette with the thumb hole in it, but I find them awkward. If you carry it, it becomes heavy, and if you lay it down, the thumb hole is just a place to lose paint.

However, having said all that, if you are wanting to work on large projects that will take a number of days or if you work at a sedate pace, you may want to consider a stay-wet palette. These have been designed especially for use with acrylic paints. They consist of a plastic tray, a wet layer of sponge, and a wet layer of stay-wet palette paper. You lay your paints out on top of these layers and when you have finished, there is a lid that when properly sealed keep your paints workable for days. These can be bought online and in art stores and are very reasonable.

But, at first, I would go for anything with a shiny surface.

Working With a Palette

Laying your paint out around the edge in a specific order is the only way to go. Start working from left to right from yellows to oranges, reds, pinks, brown, greens, blues, purples and (if you are using it), black. White is normally placed before the yellow. This is done to help you keep your tube colours clean, and when you run low, you know where to squeeze out more. You'll also find you can select the colour you want without thinking if you always put it in the same place.

The centre of the palette is used for mixing your shades and adding your mediums.

Only use small amounts of paint at a time, and if you haven't mixed them with a retarder, you can cheat by spraying them with a spray bottle of water to keep them damp.

7. Starting a New Piece Of Work

How you start depends on the surface you are using.

If you are working on a canvas or canvas board, I would recommend using either charcoal on your canvas to map out the layout of your painting or thinned (with medium) paint. On anything else, use pencil.

Don't use ball-point pen. I did on a mural once and it kept seeping through the paint (luckily the mural was in my own home). I couldn't get rid of it—the pen, not the mural.

Once you have your layout, you can keep using thinned paint to block in colour. This will dry fairly quickly and will be easily worked over.

Some artists use thin paint like this to build layers of colour up as their preferred method of painting, while others then use thick paint, mixed with mediums achieving texture, and all sorts of paint effects.

8. Cleaning Up

If you have a stay-wet palette, pop on the lid tightly, or if you have finished, throw out the paper. Other palettes can be scraped clean with a palette knife or wiped with a cloth. If your colours have come out of tubs, scrape excess paint back into them, but make sure you don't contaminate them with other colours.

Clean your brushes in cold water. When you think they are sparkling, place a cake of soap in the palm of your hand and rub the brush into it. Rinse this in warm water. You'll be amazed at how much paint is still left.

Conclusion

There is no limit to what you can do with acrylics. There is still a bit of snobbery about their use, but it is beginning to fade—just remember Andy Warhol.

Acrylics are vibrant and versatile and, when used with mediums, create effects that no other paint can achieve.

Experiment with acrylics and your fun will know no bounds.

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