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  1. Design & Illustration
  2. Acrylic Paint

How to Paint Realistically With Acrylics

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

In this tutorial I will show you multiple tips and pointers on how to create a realistic landscape painting with acrylics. I will walk you through the process and share some valuable tips to take your painting to the next level. 

Firstly, we will cover composition, canvas preparation, and sketching. We will then grab our brushes and work our way forward from back to front. Finally, I will give you a couple of general pointers on how to create a realistic sense of depth which will draw the viewer into the scene.

What You Will Need

Before we begin, we need to ensure we have the right supplies. Below is a general list of materials and tools which I use to create my paintings.

  • Pencils: I usually use a H pencil. It is soft enough that it won’t leave indents and light enough that it won’t show through the paint.
  • Acrylic paints: The colours I use most often include Turquoise, Aqua Green, Light Blue, Cerulean Blue, Greens, Payne's Grey, White, Red, Brown, Yellow, and Yellow Ochre. 
  • Additives: Atelier Gloss Medium and Unlocking Formula, Gold Open Gel, and Liquitex Gloss Varnish. 
  • Brushes: A range of brushes from thin (0) to large, fan brushes. 
  • Rulers: Flexi-ruler and a regular ruler.
  • Masking Tape: Various types and widths of masking tape.
  • Easel (optional): Sometimes I prefer the kitchen table. 
selection of paints and brushes for a realism painting

1. How to Compose the Scene

Step 1

The first step when composing your scene is to include a geometric object as the focus.

This post protruding from the water gives some excellent dimension to this scene.

reference photo for a realism painting

Step 2

The second rule I use when composing a scene is the rule of thirds. In the photo below, the horizon is roughly a third from the top and the nearest post is a third from the left.

the rule of thirds gridline on reference photo

2. How to Prepare Your Canvas

Step 1

The first thing that I would recommend is to fork out the extra money to get a professional artists canvas. They look better and last longer. 

You can find them at any good art store. If you require a custom size, you can always get one made. The canvas I used for this particular painting is a smooth "Stretched with Love" canvas from Gordon Harris. 

blank canvas used for realism painting

Step 2

Priming your canvas helps the colours stand out by ensuring they don’t bleed into the linen. I recommend applying at least two layers of gesso primer, even if your canvas is pre-primed. Use a thick flat brush so that you don't leave brush strokes. The brand of gesso I am using is Winsor & Newton. 

applying gesso to the blank canvas

Step 3

The final step in the preparation is to decide whether you are going to paint around the edges or leave them blank. Choose one style for that painting and go all in. It looks sloppy if you have paint splashed unevenly around the edges.

If you choose to leave them blank, use thick tape to cover the edges so that you get a crisp, tidy line.

masking tape on the edges of the canvas

3. How to Sketch the Scene

Step 1 

Use a ruler, set-square and t-bar to get the lines straight. Start with the outline of the main components in the picture so you get the general composition sketched.

Be careful not to draw the lines too dark as you don't want them to show through the paint later on.

jack magnus mcdonald sketching up a painting

Step 2 

Start adding more detail to your sketch. A little trick to improve your accuracy is to draw light grid lines on the canvas and corresponding grid lines over the reference photo.

This effectively breaks your sketch up into smaller sketches which are much easier to handle, and when you have finished each micro-sketch... BOOM... you have your full sketch.

dividing the reference photo into a grid

4. How to Paint the Scene

Step 1 

Begin with the sky. You want your paint to stay wet for as long as possible as this allows the colours to blend more consistently, which reduces the chance of streaks. 

I generally paint my skies on cold days and add Atelier Unlocking Formula to extend the drying time of the paint. 

Using a thick flat brush, begin by painting a horizontal strip of warm white just below the horizon.

Add small amounts of the sky's base colour to the white as you work your way to the top of the painting, where the colour is at its most saturated.

the sky of the painting once the paint has dried

Step 2

Once the sky is finished, I start working on the background. Working from back to front means that closer objects obscure those in the distance, which helps to depict a sense of depth.

Beginning with the background also allows you to build up layers of paint. The thicker paint in the foreground helps the objects pop out from the thin paint behind them.

the background of the realism painting of weliington

Step 3

The background should be less vibrant and have less contrast than the foreground. This is because of atmospheric interference (i.e. haze) between you and the horizon. 

A simple technique to dull down your background is adding white to your colours. This helps create the washed-out feel. The most distant hills are completely washed out.

If you need to add some darker details or darken your colours, try using Payne's Grey instead of Carbon Black. This helps take the edge off things without deadening the underlying colour or adding unwanted contrast. 

painting with paynes grey

Step 4

You can also create a hazy effect by creating a wash which you apply over the objects in the background. Take a light colour, such as off white, and dilute it down with water or a transparent additive. Then simply glaze over the background with a wide brush and you have your haze.

It is important that you test the transparency of the wash before you apply it. If the wash is too opaque, you'll hide the details you worked so hard to paint. It is best to test it on a small section, or even better yet, another canvas, before you apply it to the actual painting.

applying a wash to the painting with a thick brush

Step 5

You paint the water much like you paint the sky. You want to use additives to slow the drying time of the paint so that you can mix the colours smoothly. Like the sky, the colours nearer the horizon are often lighter and less saturated, getting deeper as they approach the vertical extremes. 

It is easy to think that water is simply different shades of blue and to neglect the other colours. It is also easy to be too conservative and water down the other colours. It took me a while to trust my instincts and paint all of the non-blues just as strongly as I painted the blues. This was the moment that took my water to the next level. 

painting the undercoat of the water

Step 6

You have been restrained with your use of bold colours up until now, but the time has come to unleash. In the foreground you want to make your darks darker, your brights brighter, and ramp up the saturation of your colours to make your scene jump out of the canvas.

the undercoat at the front of the painting

Step 7

As you move forward in the painting, increase the range of colours. For example, the post nearest to us has more than ten variations of green, the middle one has six, and the post at the back only has four.  

Pay particular attention to the details in the front of the scene. The human eye is lazy and tends to focus on the things that appear closer, so it is important to be precise.

Keep your lines sharp and your paint thick.

adding more detail to the front of the realism painting

Step 8

This is perhaps the most important bit of wisdom I can impart to you. When you think you’ve finished, take a break. Avoid the painting at all costs for at least three days. When you return to it, you’re guaranteed to notice a few things that are not quite right. It's these one-percenters that make a good painting great.

the finished painting ready for review

5. Varnish Your Painting for Longevity and Increased Vibrancy 

A clear, glossy varnish helps bring out the vibrancy of the colours, makes your painting dazzle under lights, and protects it from fading.

I apply two or three coats with a thick brush so that I get an even coverage and reduce the chance of streaks.

I recommend applying your varnish in an enclosed place where it is less likely there are particles in the air. 

I would also recommend having a set of tweezers or a pin handy as you are likely to get the odd brush hair in your varnish. 

applying the varnish to the finished painting

Awesome Work, You're Done!

There you have it, the steps I use to paint realistically with acrylics. Try applying them to your next painting and share your results with us below. 

finished acrylic realism painting hanging on wall
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