Today’s 3T Art Blog is about Acrylics. There’s a lot of information coming your way about acrylic paints and the different techniques you can create with them. We’ll start by discussing the different grades of acrylic paint you can choose from and their general characteristics so you have a better idea of how to manipulate acrylics in your artwork. Then comes the fun part! We’re going to get into different painting techniques using acrylic paints. Some you may be familiar with, others may be new. Either way, I know you’ll be able to use some of these techniques in your own work. Now, grab your paints and brushes, and let’s go!
First, let’s get you familiarized with acrylic paint. They’ve been around a short time compared to oil and watercolour, only being popularized and readily available to the general public from the early 1950’s. Since then, many company brands have come on the market. They share common characteristics such as fast drying time, water solubility and a wide range of vivid colours, but not all acrylic paints are created the same!
Pigment is the most import thing in your acrylic paint. Well, any paint for that matter. These rules apply to oil and watercolour as well, but right now we’re going to discuss them with acrylic paint in mind.
Pigment can be defined as ‘the actual colouring substance of a paint’. It’s what gives all of your paints their colour. Pigments can be natural or synthetic. They’re ground down to fine powders and mixed with an acrylic polymer emulsion.
By Dan Brady - https://www.flickr.com/photos/11853009@N07/1382064216/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3534510
Some natural pigments have been around for thousands of years. The earliest known pigments are ochre, charcoal and lapis lazuli. Winsor & Newton has an interesting post about the origins of pigments and it’s fascinating that some of pigments and methods of production are still used today. Golden Bone Black and Liquitex Ivory Black are both made from charred animal bones as they were centuries ago.
Another thing you’ll find interesting is that the names of some paint colours can be tracked down to their original pigment origins. For example, Raw Sienna and Burnt Sienna were both originally mined from ore in Siena, Italy. Raw Umber and Burnt Umber originated in Umbria. These pigments were eventually synthesized by chemist who created modern versions of these colours based on the originals, but their names have remained the same.
But, one thing that isn’t always the same is the colour you’re getting in that tube of acrylic paint you just bought. There are differences in colour when it comes to brands of acrylic paint (oil and watercolour too). Have a look at the difference between Golden and Liquitex Raw Umber. Yes, that’s a big difference when you’re using it in a painting or mixing it with other colours. You can’t just replace one brand for another. Maybe you’re thinking the difference is because Golden and Liquitex used different pigments in the Raw Umber. Well, they didn’t. They both use natural iron oxide containing magnesium.
What I like to do so that I don’t have to deal with colour inconsistencies is to buy the same colour in a few different brands. I test them to see which one is going to work best in the artwork I produce and stick with the colour. I’ve also mixed two brands of the same colour together to get the perfect colour I wanted in my work. Either way, you may want to do some testing too. You can start by doing a swatch of your colours mixed with titanium white of the same quality. Just add a dab of white beside your colour, then run a palette knife through it.
It can be a bit pricy to start, but having the right colour palette for your work will save you a lot of time and cost in the future. And keep your swatches. They come in handy.
Before we move ahead, a few last words about pigment. What’s important for you to know about pigment is that its quality and quantity in a paint will determine the grade of the paint. The higher the quality of pigment and the higher the pigment load, the more intense the paint colour will be.
All high-quality acrylic paints contain a high percentage of pigment. This higher ratio of pigment to acrylic polymer emulsion binder will increase the price of your paint, but it will provide you with better overall coverage. You’ll use much less paint than you would with a low pigment to binder ratio paint. This is where different grades of paint come into play. Let’s have a look at them.
Grades of Acrylics:
Many people think when they start learning to paint that they should use the cheapest, lowest grade acrylic paint they can buy. If you’re a beginner, I know you probably don’t want to invest a lot into something you may not end up wanting to do, but you have a better chance of creating work you’re happy with using medium to high-quality paint.
Here’s what you need to know about paint grades and how they differ:
Acrylic Craft Paint (low end): Sold in small plastic bottles, these paints are available in an unbelievable amount of colours. These paints aren’t created to be mixed. They're ‘squeeze out and use’. Craft paints are made with low quality pigments and don’t have much of a pigment load. They’re also low viscosity which means they’re mostly liquid and flow very easily.
Americana – source: Amazon
Because they don’t have a lot of pigment, but have fillers, they tend to be chalky and flat compared to paint with a lot of pigment. These paints are mostly used for folk art or crafts, which is their specific purpose, and they're great if you stick to using them for what they’ve been produced to do.
Student Grade Acrylics (middle of the road): This grade of paint was developed with the beginner artist in mind. No matter the brand, they have a good pigment quality and decent pigment load to give artists who are just starting out a workable paint to learn with. The better the paint you’re working with, the more enjoyable learning to paint will be. These paints have a higher viscosity than craft paints but fall short when compared to a high-quality paint.
When it comes to student grade, you’ll find the prices very reasonable, but the selection of colours is very limited. Keep in mind, student grade paints are great to use when you’re painting a study or as an underpainting when you’re working out the colours you’ll be using in a painting.
Professional Grade Acrylics (high end): This is the top-of-the-line when it comes to paints. Professional or Artist grade paints have quality pigments, high pigment loads and are high in viscosity. You will have vibrant colours of paint that are thick enough to see brush strokes in even without any additional mediums. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of working with Golden or Liquitex Heavy Body paints (two of my fave brands), you’ll know what I’m talking about.
High-quality acrylic paints come in a wide variety of colours, are easy to mix to create your custom colours and can be used not only with a brush but also with a palette. There are different mediums you can added to acrylic paints to thicken them up, give them texture or to extend their open time. I’ve tried a few extenders and found them very sticky. If mixed in the wrong ratio, drying time becomes too slow. Now, there are acrylic paints available that share the same high-quality pigments as regular acrylics but have an extended open time. Golden Open Acrylics is one of them.
Professional grade paints do have a lower grade option. Have you ever noticed the word ‘hue’ on some of the paint tubes? What that means is that you are getting a lower grade of high-end paint. Confusing? Well, maybe just a little.
Let’s have a look at Liquitex Cobalt Blue as an example. This colour comes in its original form and also as a Hue. The pigment in the original Cobalt Blue is oxides of cobalt and aluminum. The pigment in the Cobalt Blue Hue is complex silicate of sodium and aluminum with sulfter, and titanium dioxide, which is used to make titanium white.
Cobalt Blue: hue left, original right
Titanium dioxide is used in hues and other grades of paint as a filler. It slightly cuts down the intensity of the colour it’s in, just like when you add titanium white to a colour you’re mixing. It doesn’t just make your paint colour lighter, it actually dulls down the intensity of the colour. There’s a saying, ‘The Titan eats the colour’. That’s exactly what adding titanium white to any colour does. If you want to keep the intensity, try a zinc white instead. It’s transparent and gives your high-quality colour a chance to stay that way.
Since the ingredients in the Cobalt Blue and Cobalt Blue Hue are different, the colour out of the tube is too. But, if you’re looking to spend a little less, still get a high-quality paint and don’t mind the shift in colour, then you should definitely explore using hues in your artwork.
One last word on high-quality acrylics. Read the labels just like you do at the grocery store when you're buying food. Learn what pigments are used in which colours. Most acrylic paints are non-toxic and are labelled as such, but there is some toxicity to all cadmium colours (red, yellow and orange), cobalt and chromium. When working with these colours, try to keep them off your skin. If you can’t, consider wearing gloves while you work. Be aware of what’s in your paint.
Acrylic Painting Techniques
Here we are! The fun part! This is where we talk about different acrylic painting techniques. Some will be very helpful to you in your work, others will be more experimental, but still something that may be applicable to your work in some way and across mediums.
We’re going to look at three substantial techniques first, then dabble in a few simple acrylic techniques you can experiment with when you have some time.
Grisaille Painting and Grisaille Underpainting:
We touched on grisaille painting in an earlier 3T Art Blog post. Basically, it’s a painting done completely in one colour, usually grey. Think about an old black and white or sepia photograph. Grisaille paintings have the same kind of feel to them. Earth tones like Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber and Red Oxide work extremely well with this technique.
Grisaille painting were used in large decorative murals and they were painted to imitate sculpture. Renderings in grisaille were popular because they were quicker and cheaper to create as sketches than full-colour versions as a model for engravers to use for their designs. Grisaille work was also chosen for its esthetic value, being similar to drawings, it was easier for Renaissance artists-in-training to produce. (Yes, this all relates to oil painting in grisaille, but it can be applied to painting with acrylics today.)
If you look at this painting by Andrea del Sarto, you can see the parts of the painting the artist wanted his viewer to look at. White has been used in areas of this verdaille work (grisaille painting done in green) creating focal points and giving this tone on tone artwork a lot of depth. Not something you’d think possible using the grisaille technique, but in fact it’s done very successfully.
Artist: Andrea del Sarto, Gray and brown grisaille frescoes in the
Chiostro dello Scalzo, Florence, Italy (1511-26)
Working in grisaille is also a great way to work out the values when you start a painting. You can definitely apply this to any acrylic painting you're going to be working on. Values create forms which in turn create shapes, giving you a better understanding of your new painting. It helps you see what you’re going to be painting, because, let’s face it, if we can’t see what we’re painting, we’re never going to be able to paint it.
Image courtesy of Judy Sherman, shermanj.com
This is a great example of the start of a painting. You can see how the rabbit has been sketched out using a brush and Burnt Sienna. Below, the artist is still working out how the rest of the rabbit is going to look but we have a good idea based on the few charcoal lines that have been drawn in.
The term dead colour has been around for centuries as well. It can be described as ‘an underpainting in colour’. It’s an easy way to get started on your painting. Jump in. Lay out your colours. Begin creating the roadmap that’s going to be your masterpiece.
Acrylics are perfect for this because of the range of colours available but mainly because of their fast drying. Many oil painters use acrylics when they begin a painting to save time. Instead of doing their underpainting in oil and waiting a few days before they can work on it again, they paint it in acrylics and can add the first layer of oil the next day.
Here’s the progression of one of my paintings to illustrate the process, from dead colour to finished painting:
This is the dead colour stage of the first design I had in mind for this 24x48” painting. It’s not a pretty stage of any painting. I’m just starting to explore my design and colours. It’s important to get paint down on your entire work surface right from the start or you won’t be able to judge how well your concept is working. Anything and everything can be easily changed and adjusted at this point.
And change it did. Not just the layout of the buildings, but also the colours of the entire background. By putting colour down on your painting surface, you can make critical decisions that’ll help your painting right from the start. You can judge how the colours work together, or not. You can see how the overall design works, or not. This is the time to finalize your changes and fix what isn’t working instead of waiting until you’re close to a finish to address any problems.
Before I show you the finished painting, let’s take a minute and think about how colours work together. Black, white and grey are a good example. (This is going to be a bit of an explanation, but hold tight, it’ll all make sense at the end.) Imagine a white canvas. You take the biggest brush you have and paint a circle using a mid-tone grey right in the middle of it. How does that grey look next to the white? I bet it looks quite a bit darker than the white, doesn’t it? Now, take another canvas and paint it all black. When it’s dry, paint a circle using the same mid-tone grey right in the middle of the black canvas. What do you see when you compare the circle on the white canvas and the circle on the black canvas? The grey circle on the black canvas looks much lighter than the grey circle on the white canvas, doesn’t it? But, how can that be? You used the same mid-tone grey. Well, it’s because whatever colour you see, its relevance is based on what colour is next to it. This is why you should always cover your entire painting surface with a technique like dead colouring when starting a new artwork. It will be much easier to understand the colour relationships you’re creating and it’ll save you time repainting later. Make sense? I sure hope so.
Finally, after all the dead colouring and adjustments, the finished painting.
Have you ever created a painting using only two colours? This is a painting technique every artist should try at some point. Using acrylics for this technique is perfect especially if you're thinking of it as a study that you can move through quickly and learn a lot from.
You’re probably thinking two colours are way too limited. How can you paint something successful using only two colours? Well you can. It’s where your knowledge of and experimentation with mixing paints comes in. Think about it, two colours can be mixed into a hundred colours!
Let’s have a look at what a two colour painting using only cadmium yellow light and ultramarine blue would look like. It’s easy if you think of it in values. Yellow can be your lightest value, ultramarine your darkest value and an in-between mix of the two, green, will be your mid-tone value. So, we have our light, mid-tone and dark which is what we need to create form on any object we decide to paint. Form creates the shape. It's all we need.
Source: Etsy - Reflection by Yuri Pysar
Here’s a beautiful example of what can be done with just yellow and blue. This abstract landscape has everything a painting needs. Light, dark and mid-tone, as well as a background, mid-ground and foreground. And a focal point. The tree to the right side immediately draws your eye in.
Give this technique a try when you have some time. You’ll be amazed at what you can achieve and how much better your understanding of mixing colours will be afterward. I’d suggest sticking with two primary colours and using a secondary colour as your mid-tone.
Other Acrylic Painting Techniques:
For this next part, we’re going to have a look at some fun acrylic painting techniques that you should definitely find time to experiment with.
Dry Brush: This is a dry-on-dry technique best done using a semi-hard, well-worn brush. It’s great to use on a textured surface or where you want to rub in colour instead of painting it. This acrylic technique can give you work a luminous glow and give you an easy way to enhance highlights. Just take a small bit of paint on your brush and work most of it off on a paper towel. Carefully swirl or rub the brush onto an area that could use just a little bit more of a highlight.
Source: Pinterest, Artist: Kevin McSherry Illustrations
Acrylic Pouring: This acrylic technique needs a little bit more than paint but it can be a lot of fun. The best part is you just won’t know what you’ve got until its poured and completely dry. If you’re planning on trying it, you’ll need fluid acrylic paints, a paint additive like Floetrol or white glue to keep the paint open and flowing easily, a bit of water or isopropyl alcohol. To help with cell formation, you can use liquid silicone, but beware, if you plan to paint on your pour afterward, you’ll need to find a way to remove the silicone. Paint doesn't' stick to silicone. A suggestion about colours if you plan to pour; make sure to avoid using complementary colours in the same pour. They’ll create muddy colours once they mix together.
Acrylics are a versatile paint. They can have the look and feel of oils. They’re available in colours just as vibrant, if not more so, than oil paints. The best part about acrylics vs oils is you don’t need to use any turpentine or linseed oil with it, just water.
Acrylics can be built up in layers like oil paint can, with or without additives to thicken the paint. This makes them a perfect medium to use with a palette knife. Palette knives aren’t just for mixing your paint. They’re a very clever tool that artists use to build up layers of colour and add wonderful texture to their work. I think it would be easy for an artist to completely immerse themselves into their work when using a palette knife. The paint is carefully moved here and there to create a 3D effect that can actually be felt to the touch once the work is dry.
This is a beautiful example of a painting created by Mona Edulesco. (Check out her work on fineartamerica.com.) Her colours are like a rainbow, drawing you into her textured world.
Source: Fine Art America, Artist: Mona Edulesco,
The last acrylic technique we’re going to look at is wet-on-wet. Because acrylic paint is so versatile, it can also be used as a watercolour of sorts. It can be watered down to be as transparent and flowing as you want it to be. But unlike watercolour paint, you don’t have to worry about it lifting if it get wet again. Once your acrylic dries, it'll stay adhered to the surface you painted it on, no problem.
There are few different wet-on-wet techniques you can try.
Wet Sponge: Just dab a bit of sponge into wet acrylic paint and dab onto your surface.
Colour Gradient: This requires two colours blended together. Don’t dilute the paint for this one, instead learn to blend the two colours using your brush. It takes some practice to do it flawlessly, but it’s worth taking the time to learn.
Soft Edges: This technique needs a single colour of paint and some practice feathering out the edges using water on your brush. Be careful not to use too much water or you’ll end up washing all of the colour away. This technique needs a very light touch to be successful.
Glaze is a medium that can be added to acrylic paints. It extends their open time but it also changes the composition of the paint. You won’t be able to paint with an acrylic glaze the same way you do with acrylic paint, instead you’ll need to apply thin layers to your work with a very soft brush to gradually enrich colours. Glazing is a great technique to even out large areas of colour or enhance other colours. For example, you’re painting a beautiful sunset sky with all kinds of vivid colours in it. By glazing colours into your sky, you’ll be adding transparent layers of colour that not only give the colours a boost but they also create a depth to the sky that you can’t do with painting.
Here’s a lovely example of glazing in an artwork. This piece almost looks like it’s been painted on a sheet of glass from behind or was done with some type of encaustic. The artist has definitely created a unique depth to this work.
Source: artistsnetwork.com, Artist: Chris Cozen,
I’m going to wrap this up fast. That sure was a lot of information about acrylic paints and painting techniques. And there is still so much more to share with you, but it’s going to have to wait until another time.
I hope you got a take-away or two from this post and it would be great if you’d give a few of these techniques a try. They will help you with your artwork. Helping you is what the 3T Art Blog is all about. And please share your work. Let’s get a strong community of artists going who are there to share their work and help each other. Just send your email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next time, we’ll be looking at oil paints and different painting techniques associated with it. My guest artist in the post will be Cathy Fairs. She is an award winning oil painter and I know you’re going to love the unique perspective of her work as much as I do.
Until next time,
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