Acrylic paint is a versatile and vibrant medium with which you can create paintings of any style. But before you can create beautiful paintings, you’ll have to learn how to use acrylic paint. Want more? Check out these other resources for beginning acrylic painters!
If you’ve never used acrylic paint before, it might seem like an intimidating medium to master. But as you’ll see in this post, it’s anything but — in fact, it’s one of the more accessible methods of painting for beginners. Supplies are minimal and the method is quite easy when you break it down.
Let’s explore the wonderful world of acrylic painting so you can get started creating your own art.
Assemble your materials
What do you need to get started with acrylic paint? Actually, not a whole lot. Here are some of the things you’ll need.
Acrylic paint comes in a dizzying array of colors and textures. Which kind is right for you? In general, you’ll find two different types of acrylic paint:
- Fluid, which is thinner and will drip out of the tube
- Heavy body or high viscosity, which is more like the texture and thickness of soft of butter.
One is not better than the other; it simply depends on what type of look you are going for. If you ultimately want to move on to thick, Van Gogh-style creations, go with the heavy body style. If you want to create fluid, dreamy landscapes, try out the fluid kind.
In terms of colors, for a beginner, it’s good to start out basic with tubes of red, blue, yellow, black and white paint. Between these colors, you can mix any color, from skin tones to nature scenes.
Not only is choosing minimal colors the most cost effective way to get started with acrylic paint, but it will help you learn how to mix colors so that you can attain your desired hue and can understand the role that each color plays in mixtures.
You’ll need some brushes appropriate for acrylic paint before you get started. Acrylic brushes are typically longer and sturdier than watercolor brushes, and needfully so, as they are often pressed harder into the work surface while painting.
To get started, stay fairly minimal: one large and one small round brush, and maybe one large and one small flat brush, should be a perfect starting point.
You need a surface to mix different colors of paint. Paper is too absorbent, and your paint will stick to it. You want a non-stick surface. You can use palette paper, a professional palette or even a porcelain plate.
A palette knife
A palette knife is an inexpensive and invaluable tool for working with acrylic paint. It will help you mix paint colors in the most efficient way. You can use the knife not only for mixing colors, but to apply paint to a surface, too — this lends particularly painterly effect to your pieces.
You can, technically, mix colors with your brush. But you may find that paint gets embedded in the brush and ultimately gets wasted and not mixed properly. Plus, the vigorous mixing motion can damage the bristles, so it’s not suggested that you use a brush to mix colors as a rule.
A work surface
What type of surface would you like to paint on? If you’d like to ultimately paint on canvas, canvas paper is a great beginning medium that is inexpensive and has a texture similar to stretched canvas. Board, wood, and bristol board are all great choices, too.
Depending on your work surface, you might find it easier to set up your surface on an easel. An easel is not appropriate for paper or more flexible work surfaces, though.
Have a cup of water at the ready for cleaning your brush and watering down the paint if needed. If you’re using a drinking cup, designate this as a paint-only cup from now on.
Scrap paper is fantastic to have on hand to wipe away excess paint from your brush or test out paint quality. It can be as simple as a sheet of blank printer paper.
Assemble your work station
By having your work station set up properly, you’ll make the painting process far easier.
Set up your palette
Once you have your supplies ready, you can set up your palette. Regardless of what you want to paint, it can be helpful to have a dab of each primary color plus black and white.
Space each color so that there is plenty of “white space” around it, so that you have room to mix and that the paint can spread without getting crowded.
Treat your surface
If you’re painting on canvas, you’ll want to treat your surface before you get started. A coat of gesso will dry quickly and will keep your painting archival. Not all surfaces require treating. Check the manufacturer’s suggestions on whichever work surface you’ve chosen.
Start painting! Adjust the consistency of your paint using a small amount of water on the brush as desired. You can begin to paint free-form, or try out a simple method like a monochromatic painting or try a self portrait.
Experiment, and enjoy!
From here, you can take your art into your own hands. Experiment with different styles, or different media, including painting with your palette knife or including catalyst wedges in your art.
Acrylic paint tips
These tips will help ensure painting success.
Cover colors if you need to take a break
Acrylic paint cannot be “revived” once it dries, so if you need to take a break, seal your paint in an airtight container to keep it wet. For a short break, you could simply cover the palette with plastic wrap; for a longer break, you could put the entire palette in an airtight storage container, or use your palette knife to transfer individual colors to airtight containers.
Let your painting dry completely
After your painting is done, let it dry completely before you move it. There’s no bigger bummer than creating a masterpiece and then accidentally mashing your thumb into wet paint.
You might not be creating masterpieces right from the get-go, but with practice, you’ll begin to develop skills and confidence in your painting. It’s a wonderful journey — enjoy it.
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Editor's Note: This post was originally published in July 2015 and was updated in January 2018.