All About Acrylics: A Beginner's Guide
What is Acrylic Paint?
Acrylic paint is arguably the most versatile painting material out there. You've likely used it in the past at some point in your life, like when you made crafts as a kid or putting together a school project.
They can be thinned and used almost like a watercolour or can be used in their regular, thick state to build texture.
You can find them in a several varieties, like soft-body (or fluid) acrylics, heavy-body, an ink form, or even in a spray!
Acrylic paint is often thought of as as gateway into art exploration. It's fun and easy to use, with countless applications and techniques. It's permanent, and yet super easy to clean up. There is a wide variety of brands, and within each of those brands you can find an endless combination of colours to choose from.
If you're looking to get started in painting, acrylic paint is the perfect place to begin.
Let Wallack's help guide you through the process!
Wallack's Heavy-Body Acrylic Paint vs. Wallack's Fluid Acrylic Paint
What makes an acrylic paint?
At it's basic level, acrylic paints are made up of three ingredients:
- This is what will give paint its unique colour. They are materials (natural or hand made) that are ground down into a super-fine powder.
- This is what will actually bind the pigment together and hold the paint in place. The binder in acrylic paint is called Acrylic Polymer, which is essentially a plastic. When the polymer is dry, it becomes hard, permanent and waterproof. A binder will also help the paint stick to whatever surface that it’s applied to.
- Solvents (Also known as a paint vehicle)
- This will mainly effect the fluidity of the paint. The solvent in Acrylic paints is water. The solvent will help to have the binder spread over the surface and will simply evaporate, causing the paint to dry.
The quality of each of these components can vary drastically.
Check out the main differences between beginner-level paints and high quality artist-level acrylics.
Student-level vs Artist-level
Acrylic paints are typically divided into two categories: Student-level and artist-level paints.
When an acrylic paint is artist-level, there will be a few main differences that make it excel:
- The paint will contain a higher concentration of pigments to binder ratio
- The paint will have higher quality pigments, and more often will have single-pigment paints like Cadmium or Cobalt pigments
- These pigments are harder to source and therefore are more expensive
- The paint will contain a higher quality binder that will be smoother and easier to work with.
When an acrylic paint is student-level:
- The paint will have less pigment and more binder
- The pigments will be lesser in quality and typically will use cheaper pigments in combination to give the effect of a single-pigment paint.
- These paints will be called "Hues". As an example, in student quality paints you will see a Cadmium Red Hue, which uses a combination of several red pigments to achieve it's bright red colour.
Mediums Vs. Additives, What's the difference?
Simply put, a medium will contain a binder, whereas an additive will not. You can just simply put an additive into your paint to change it's qualities. Mainly, additives cannot be used on their own because they will evaporate as the acrylic dries.
However, a medium can be used on its own or added to acrylic paint to extend paint or to change its working properties. The most important thing to mention is there is no danger of adding too much or too little medium into your paint. Essentially, a medium is like an acrylic paint without pigment.
Read more about the differ types of mediums below:
Get to know some Mediums!
Mediums are an amazing way to change the characteristics of acrylic paint to make them even more versatile! There are so many different products that exist that will change the properties of your paint that it can be quite overwhelming to a beginner artist.
Many acrylic mediums will perform multiple purposes. For example, you may find a fluid medium that will also act as a varnish.
It's important to always read the bottle of your medium to see what it can do for you. Some mediums will change based on which brand you choose!
Gel mediums are very thick in consistency. The consistency is similar to a heavy-body paint when it is straight out of a tube. You’ll typically see these mediums found in containers like tubs that will encourage artists to scoop out the material using a palette knife.
Gel medium is designed to extend acrylic paint, increase transparency, and increase texture and holding capabilities. Gel medium can withhold its shape when dry, and is even strong enough to hold embedded objects.
Gloss and matte mediums are more fluid that their gel counterparts, and are often seen as the pourable version of gel mediums. These mediums will vary the finish of your painting to be either glossier or more matte. They will lower the viscosity of heavier body paints allowing them to have an increased flow, and will extend your colour further without affecting acrylic stability. Additionally, in some brands you can use them as a non-removable varnish to protect painting.
If you’re looking to adhere things like glitter or lightweight materials, gloss or matte mediums can be used.
If you’re interested in trying out a cool technique with these mediums, they can also be used to transfer printed images onto another surface.
Take a look at these incredible transferred images using a matte medium!
Image provided by Golden Artist Colours to reference transfers
Similar to that of a gloss medium, a glazing medium is an even thinner material that can be mixed into your acrylic paint in varying amounts. The purpose of this medium is to achieve extremely thinned-down layers of paint that are built up over time to make faint changes in colour. A glazing medium is useful instead of just adding water, because the acrylic paint will still remain stable.
Textured mediums are similar to modelling paste, but will typically contain materials like gritty sand, flakes of minerals, or even glass beads to achieve unique effects in your painting. These materials are mixed into a binder that is similar to modelling paste or gel medium, and as a result, they are thick and great to use to build up interesting textures.
Image provided by Golden Artist Colours
A modelling paste it is a thick, textural material and more opaque when dry. Their consistency can be as thick, or even thicker than gels, and when mixed in with acrylic paint, they will lighten the colour.
Pouring Medium is permanent and waterproof when dry. When mixed with fluid acrylic colours, it creates a smooth coloured film. The pouring medium gives a glossy relief to a flat surfaces and creates a water drop effect when applied sparingly. It will retain a high gloss and a wet appearance when dry. It can be used directly from the bottle without adding any colour for a thick varnish effect. The medium is milky in the bottle but will dry clear and glossy once dry, so don't worry when you mix your paint colour in! It will appear very close to the original colour once it's dry.
Slow Dry Medium
Slow dry medium is sometimes known as a retarder. This is technically an additive and not a medium that is used to slow the drying time of acrylic paint so that you can take time to blend the paint easily.
Learn some Mixing Techniques!
You can mix acrylic paint with any medium in any ratio you'd like! The more medium that you add, the more the acrylic's pigment will be diluted, so consider this when you're adding the two together.
To mix acrylic paint with other acrylics or mediums, simply lay the products together on your palette and use a palette knife to blend the two together until they are fully combined. Using a palette knife is preferred over the use of a brush because you will be able to use all of the product without it being lost amongst the bristles.
If you have extra of the mixed products, then use a small airtight container to store the remaining portion until you need it again. Empty cosmetic containers work great for this, or you can use plastic bottles like these.
Whats the deal with Cleaning?
Arguably one of the best things about acrylic is how easily you can clean up when you're done for the day!
The best way to keep your paint brushes and palette looking new is:
- Keep your brushes stored in water while you're working with them
- This will keep the paint wet as well, so that it won't stick to the surface of the brush or get stuck in the bristles
- As soon as you're done with your brushes, remove any excess paint from the bristles by scraping it off with a palette knife and keeping it on your sealable palette for later! Wahoo, less waste!
- Take them to the sink and thoroughly rinse them with water and a brush soap, like this one from Masterson's
- If you have a plastic palette, you might be able to leave the paint to dry on the surface, and then peel it away afterward, once dry.
- Alternatively, take your palette with you to the sink and let it soak for an hour. This will let any dried on paint loosen up, and make it easier to scrape down to a clean surface.
Storing Acrylic Paints
To store acrylic paints, it’s best to keep them in a cool, dark space. In this environment they will last the longest. Ensure that their lids are securely closed and that any excess air has been squeezed from the bottle.
Protecting Your Painting
Image provided by Golden Artist colours to demonstrate varnishing
To protect the surface of your acrylic painting once it is complete and dry, you'll want to use a varnish to seal it in.
A varnish has a few benefits, but primarily, they will eliminate harmful UV rays from penetrating the surface of your paint and destroying the lightfast pigments, and it will also help protect it from dust and dirt.
Varnishes can come in a few different finishes, ranging from matte, satin and gloss. A gloss varnish is usually recommended for darker paintings, as it allows the paint to show in it's truest, dark form.
Which type of varnish should you be using?
There are two types of varnish:
- Paint-on varnishes are fluid and come in containers that are meant to be poured over the surface of a painting and then distributed with a brush or sponge. This varnishes are great if you like to have more control in the application and tend to lay on a lot thicker than their spray counterpart.
- Spray varnishes come in aerosol cans and are sprayed onto the surface of a painting. Spray varnishes are great for paintings that have a lot of texture in them, or that use materials that are not permanent when dry, like watercolour or chalk pastel.
Both types of varnish require ventilation while working, and need to have a clean, dry environment to ensure no dust particles hit the surface while drying.
With or without a varnish, you'll want to keep it protected by keeping it away from the sun, in a temperature-controlled and moisture-controlled environment.
Preparing Surfaces for painting
Luckily, acrylic paint will work well and apply on almost every surface because of it's binding qualities. However, there are ways to allow acrylic paints to reach their fullest potential.
To do this, it's a good idea to prepare the surface you're planning to paint on. One way to prepare a surface is to apply gesso which is an opaque and matte material that can be painted onto the surface of canvases and panels. Gesso is typically made of three primary ingredients: Binder, chalk and pigment.
Gesso provides two purposes:
- It allows paint to sit on top of the surface, rather than be absorbed into it
- It allows the true colour of the paint to show and be reflected back to the viewer
What you’ll need to get started
- A selection of Acrylic paint (If you're just starting out, you might consider getting a set of acrylic paint instead of buying individual tubes)
- Typical Range of colours includes:
- Alizarin Crimson
- Cadmium Red Medium
- Cadmium Yellow Medium
- Phthalo Green
- Phthalo Blue
- Ultramarine Blue
- Raw Umber
- Raw Sienna
- Burnt Umber
- Burnt Sienna
- Titanium White
- Mars Black
- Typical Selection includes
- Large Flat brush for colour washes
- 2-3 Round Brushes
- 1-2 Flat brushes
- Canvas or prepared surface like a panel or board
- Additional items
- Palette knives
- More unique brushes
- Paper towel
- Spray bottle
Laying out your palette
The best practice in laying out your acrylic palette is to first think about what palette you should be choosing.
Because acrylic paint dries so quickly, it might be best to choose a palette that will protect your paint while its not in use. For this purpose, choose a palette that seals closed like the Masterson Sta-Wet Palette.
Otherwise, it would be smart to choose a palette that is either disposable, like a palette paper pad, or a plastic palette that the acrylic will easily peel off of.
If you don't choose any of these options, it will be best to clean off your palette while the paint is still wet.
So, to lay out the colours on your palette, consider that you'll need adequate mixing space.
Choose the colours that you'll be working with that day, and lay a small amount out at a time in the colour-order of a rainbow. This way, if paints touch, they won't cross contaminate too much.
Tip: keep a spray bottle with you as you work, and spray your palette every half-hour to keep it wet. You'll waste WAY less paint!
Image provided by Holbein of their Fluid Acrylic Paint
Other Forms of Acrylic
Acrylic paint comes in other forms as well! As mentioned before, you can get acrylic paint that comes in a fluid form (sometimes known as a soft-body acrylic), or even in an ink form as well!
Fluid acrylics have a lower viscosity than their heavy-body cousins. This means that they flow a lot better when coming out of a bottle, and they tend to level out a lot easier as well.
Acrylic inks are even more liquid than fluid acrylics, and tent to have more "solvent" aka water mixed into the paint. Acrylic inks are great to use in refillable markers and will provide a permanent solution to artists who like to have the control of working with a marker.
Spray Paint is one of Wallack's most popular forms of acrylic paints, especially among the Ottawa's muralist community. Essentially, spray paint is a thinned-down acrylic paint that has additional solvent and is held inside of a compressed can. When you press the nosle, the paint is released in a thin spray pattern that will quickly and evenly cover almost any surface. It's popular with graffiti artists and muralists because of the opacity of the paint and it's ability to cover a large vertical area with less effort than using a liquid paint.
At Wallack's, when we're helping a new artist choose the type of paint to work with, we always point our customers in the direction of acrylic paints. Why is this? It's because acrylic paint is the perfect starting point to begin experimentation with art supplies.
There is a wide range of acrylics that someone can choose from. They are meant for advanced artists, crafters and beginner artists alike. You can easily mix acrylic paint in with different mediums to achieve a wide range of effects. They have excellent layering properties. They clean up easily with just soap and water. And most importantly, they have a significant range of colours in any brand that you may choose, which means, you have endless possibilities to create!!
If you haven't already worked with acrylic, then what's stopping you?
Check out our full collection of Acrylic Paints and Accessories here