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Acrylic Painting Basics

The art supplies and info you need to start painting with acrylics.

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The Basics of Painting with Acrylics
Photo ©2010 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

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Acrylics are water-based paints, which means they can be mixed with water to thin them down and you clean your brushes with water. They’re made from pigment mixed with acrylic resin and emulsion. Acrylics are very fast drying and can be use in thin, watery glazes or impasto.

How do I know acrylic paints are the right choice for me?
Only you can decide what’s right for you and for your lifestyle. For me the attractions are how quickly acrylics dry and that I don’t have to use any solvents, just water.

What brand of acrylic paint should I buy?
Any of the major brands will do. Many make acrylic paints in a fluid or liquid version as well as with a paste- or butter-like consistency. Artists will have their own preferred brand based on things such as the colors available and the consistency of the paint. You should be able to check the of lightfastness of the pigment on the tube by, for example an ASTM rating (American Society for Testing and Materials).

My favorite brand of acrylic paint is Golden, because of their magnificent colors, followed by Liquitex because the consistency is great to use with a palette knife and they come in plastic tubes which are incredibly robust. But I’ve a lot of Winsor & Newton because they’re what my local art store stocks. When I travel I look out for unusual or useful colors (such as Golden’s range of neutral greys) or bargain buys. Some people insist that you shouldn’t mix brands of acrylics, but the research I’ve done on the issue hasn’t raised any problems with doing so.
(See also: Which Brand of Acrylic Paint is Best?.)

What colors should I get?
For a list of recommended acrylic colors, see Basic Color Palette for Acrylics.

Should the acrylic paints I buy be artist’s quality or will student’s quality do?
Student colors are cheaper for a reason -- they’ve more filler in them. Rather buy a few quality colors than a whole range of cheap colors. Yes, you may be less inhibited about experimenting if you’re using cheaper student colors, but you can’t beat the vibrancy from quality artist’s paints. Tip: Look for paints labeled ‘hue’ or ‘imitation’, for example ‘cadmium yellow hue’. These are made from cheaper modern pigments rather than the more expensive traditional pigments and are very similar in color to the genuine thing.

How many brushes do I need for painting with acrylics?
You’ll need stiff-bristled brushes for thick acrylic paint and soft-bristled brushes for watercolor effects. You’ll be faced with an array of sizes and shapes (round, flat, pointed), and you also get different length handles. If you’re on a tight budget, start with a small and a medium-sized filbert (a flat, pointed brush). I love filberts because if you use just the tip you get a narrow brush mark, and if you push down you get a broad one. Tip: When buying very wide brushes, save money by buying a good-quality household decorating ones. Look for brushes that aren’t too thick, or cut off half the hairs.

Modern synthetic brushes can be of excellent quality, so don’t restrict your selection to only those brushes made from natural hairs such as sable. Look for brushes where the hairs quickly spring back up when you bend them. With brushes, you tend to get what you pay for, so the cheaper it is the more likely the hairs are to fall out. Be meticulous about cleaning your brushes as if acrylic paint dries in a brush, it can be extremely difficult to get it out.

Acrylics are extremely versatile, so it's not surprising so many artists use them. This is Part Two of a Q&A of what you need to get started. (Go to Part one.)

What support should I use for acrylics?
Suitable supports for acrylics include canvas, canvas boards, wood panels, and paper. Basically anything to which acrylic paint will stick (do a test if you’re not sure). If you’re buying a pre-made canvas or board, check that it’s been primed with something suitable for acrylics (most are.)

What kind of palette should I use for acrylic paints?
Wooden, glass, or plastic palettes can be used for acrylics, but it can be tiresome getting all the dried paint off. Disposable palettes -- pads of paper where you tear off the top sheet and throw it away -- solve this problem. If you find the paint dries out too fast, try a palette designed to keep the paint wet - the paint sits on a sheet of wax paper place on top of a damp piece of watercolour paper. (Instructions on how to make your own moisture-retaining palette.)

Can I mix acrylics with anything besides water? What about mediums?
Mediums are added to acrylics to change the paint's consistency (make it thicker so it shows brush marks or thinner for washes) and finish (matt or gloss), to slow drying (retarders), to add texture, and avoid overthinning. If you overthin acrylics by adding too much water, there will be insufficient binder to hold the pigment together and you end up with uneven paint. Trial and error will show you exactly how much water is too much; it's quite a bit.

What should I wear when painting with acrylics?
Because acrylics don't wash out easily once they're dry, it's advisable to wear old clothes, an apron, or overall when painting. No matter how careful you are, at some stage you will get paint on your clothes! Some artists simply wipe their brushes on their clothes, instead of a cloth. Don't forget to wear old shoes too! I sometimes paint barefoot, but if I’m painting standing up (which I do unless I’m really tired) by the end of the day my feet will be letting me know that they would’ve preferred some cushioning under them.

What else do I need to start painting with acrylics?

  • Clean water -- one jar for washing your brushes and the other for mixing water.
  • A cloth or paper towels to wipe your brushes and hands on.

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