How to use acrylic paints

How to use acrylic paints

At a glance, what are acrylic paints?

Acrylic paint is regarded as one of the most versatile and most popular mediums on the market, used by traditional and contemporary artists, beginners, intermediate and professionals. It is also an amazing medium for all types of decorative painting techniques for hobbyists, model makers, crafters, for both adults and children alike. It is safe to use, water-soluble, non-toxic and dries water resistant. There is a wide and vibrant colour range to choose from including metallics, pearlescent and fluorescent ranges. When dry they are durable and UV resistant.

What are acrylic paints? What are they made of? What is their composition?

Acrylic paint is very finely milled organic, inorganic, synthetic or natural pigment suspended in an acrylic polymer binder.

  • Pigment; the colour of the paint
  • Acrylic polymer binder; the substance that holds all the milled pigment particles together.
  • Water; part of the emulsion, which then evaporates in the atmosphere or through absorption, leaving a water resistant film and trapping all the pigment particles onto your substrate. (note; adding more water to dilute your paint can cause under-binding problems such as flaking)  

Are acrylic paints safe?

Yes they are very safe, much safer than oil paints, they are;
  • Non toxic
  • Low odour
  • All mediums and gels are non toxic
  • Clean brushes with soap and water, no harsh solvents needed
  • Non-flammable
  • No fumes
  • Ideal for education

What can I use acrylic paint on?

Because of acrylic paints versatility and flexibility you can apply it to traditional art substrates and also to a variety of craft surfaces.

  • Primed canvas
  • Sealed wood painting panel 
  • Primed canvas board
  • Heavier weight paper, or card
  • Primed glass (may need sealing after painting)
  • Primed plastic
  • Paper mache
  • Primed metal (may need sealing after painting)
  • Leather
  • Fabric
  • Grease free and primed indoor walls for murals
  • Grease free and primed exterior walls for murals. 
  • Grease free, mirrors

How do I choose acrylic paint? | What acrylic paint choices do I have? | What acrylic paint is recommended for my type of work?

Acrylic paints come in many different guises;depending on the kind of project you are undertaking, you will be able to choose from; 

  • Acrylic Gouache - Opaque and semi opaque colour finishes, thinner consistency than acrylic Heavy body, dries Matte and is very flat on the surface, is water-resistant, colours are vibrant, great for solid blocking of areas, graphic design, illustration, surface pattern design, and lettering, digitising and scanning. 
  • Soft Body- low viscosity, creamy and smooth, even levelling, highly pigmented acrylic colour, smooth satin finish, excellent coverage. Great for all kinds of techniques.
  • Acrylic Heavy body - rich and smooth colour, stiffer paint, good for holding brush-marks and creating texture, holds peaks well, great for impasto techniques. Provides the best coverage. Available in many sizes and in many vibrant colours, Fluorescents, metallics and pearlescents. 
  • Acrylic pouring  - very fluid consistency, especially formulated for pouring techniques and art work. Available in many vibrant colours, Fluorescents, metallics and pearlescents. Used on canvas and canvas board.
Acrylic paint pouring
  • Acrylic ink - highly pigmented ultra-fluid liquid ink. Fade resistant. Dries waterproof. Transparent and permanent. Can be mixed with flow additives for greater transparency and watercolour effects. Can be used with a brush or quill, dip pen or technical pens and a diffuser. Great for pen & ink techniques. Can be mixed with other mediums for colouring canvases or for pouring techniques. Available in manyvibrant colours, Fluorescents, metallics and pearlescents. 
  • Acrylic spray paintthese cans contain highly pressurized paint, not for the fainthearted or for the beginner. The colours are vivid, lightfast and very durable. They can be sprayed onto multiple surfaces such as wood, concrete, metal, glass, plastic and canvas. Some surfaces will need a primer. Great for street art, murals, use with stencils, and for furniture and interior design renovations. They are quick drying and can cover vast areas.  They can have various finishes and are available in metallic, fluorescent and pearlescent colours.
  • Acrylic paint markers - Professional water-based acrylic markers for artists, designers and illustrators. They are lightfast, versatile, can be used in conjunction with acrylic spray paint and heavy body acrylic  paint on murals and canvas. Durable and permanent, suitable for interior and exterior use. Great for calligraphy, lettering, poster design, sign boards and display boards. Come in a range of vivid and vibrant colours.

    What acrylic paint colours should I buy first?

    Acrylic paints come in many different colours, including metallics, pearlescence, and pastel colours. However if you are a beginner you might try using a limited primary colour palette until you are more confident. Too many colours can become confusing.

    Suggested colours would be; Alizarin Crimson,Cadmium Red,Cadmium Yellow, Lemon Yellow, Ultramarine Blue, Prussian Blue, Burnt Sienna or  Burnt Umber or Raw Umber, Titanium White and Mars or Ivory black. 

    These warm and cool primary colours will provide you with a good range of secondary and tertiary colour schemes and palettes. Adding white will give you a variety of tinted pastel colours whilst adding grey will tone them down and adding black will darken their value. To desaturate and mute your colours you can also add small amounts of complementary colours to each other i.e blue to orange, red to green or purple to yellow. You would only add very small amounts of pigments to each other to adjust your colour. 

    Alternatively if you are really stuck there are many beginners acrylic sets out there you can try. 

    System 3 Original Acrylic Studio Set - 10 x 37ml Tubes FREE BRUSH
    System 3 Original Jumbo Selection Set (8 x 150ml tubes)
    System 3 Acrylic Introductory Set
    System 3 Acrylic Mixing Set (Formerly Process Set) - 6 x 59ml
    Acrylic Paint Set for Artists - 10 x 22mls Tubes
    Daler Rowney Graduate Acrylic Colour Selection Set - 24 x 22ml Tubes

    acrylic paint set
    Daler Rowney Graduate Acrylic Selection Set - 10 x 38ml Tubes
    Winsor & Newton Professional Acrylic 12 Tube set
    Daler-Rowney System 3 Selection Acrylic Paint Set - 8 x 59ml
    Amsterdam Acrylic Paint Standard series Study Set - 72 x 20ml
    Sennelier Abstract Acrylic Paint Pouches - 5 x 120ml - Primary/Introductory
    Liquitex Professional Heavy Body Acrylic - Classic 12 Set
    Royal & Langnickel Essentials Mixed Media Brush/Paint Set
    Galeria 10 Tube set Small - 20ml
    Galeria 10 Tube Set - 60ml


      What is the difference between artist quality and student quality acrylic paints?

      Artists grade acrylics often contain pure pigments and depending on their availability, manufacturers group colours into various price bands called series A or series B or number the colours 1 to 9. (series 9 being the highest price, series 1 the cheapest price) The higher the letter or number, the more expensive the colour is to produce:  leading to greater colour intensity meaning there’s less change in the colour once the paint is dry. They are also formulated to last longer than their student counterpart being made to resist reactions with water, UV light and exposure to the elements. The artist’s quality paints intermix well and are more vibrant due to the strength and purity of the pigments; if mixed with mediums they should also maintain their intensity of colour.

      Student grade acrylics can be made from the same pigments but dispersed in more binder and filler. Also some of the more expensive pigments may have been replaced by a combination of alternative colour mixes to simulate the pure pigment, these synthetic pigment alternatives are called “hues”. The less expensive formulas don’t tend to mix cleanly but make up for it in handling very similarly to artist quality. Being more economically produced also means they are great for when quantity is required. Student quality paints are great for covering large areas, as a base coat and to use when you are just starting out as an acrylic painter. Student quality paints only come in series 1 and series 2. 

      What is the drying time for acrylics?

      • They dry quickly for thin applications usually about 10 - 12 minutes.
      • Thicker applications will take longer, especially if you have used them in conjunction with gels or mediums such as glaze medium or modelling paste.
      • Once dry they remain water resistant.
      • Acrylic paints are usually lightfast and very durable. 

      How much water do I use with acrylic paints?

      Firstly you should never dilute your acrylic paint with more than 25% water. Instead you should use a wetting agent, glazing agent or a flow improver. This will ensure you don’t under-bind your painting. This simply means if you use too much water, once dried your paint could flake or peel or crack. This happens because the binding agent which holds the pigment together has become too diluted and can’t form a solid film over the painted area.

      How do I mix colours with acrylic paint?

      Mixing acrylic colours to create new and exciting hues could not be easier! There is only one rule to stop you creating muddy colours, and that is to never mix more than three colours together.


      Always add very small amounts of colour at a time to shift your value high or low. Use very strong or dark colours sparingly. Some Acrylic paint colours can be translucent or opaque or semi opaque. A good tip would be to create some colour charts to help you get to know your colours before embarking on a final painting.

      How do I create texture?

      There are many ways to create texture using acrylic paint, either with or without adding a medium. Heavy Body acrylic paint will be the most effective as it retains brush and knife marks. Its heavy consistency allows you to scrape into the paint or press interesting textures into it such as rope or hessian etc. However there are many mediums and gels on the market which you can add to change the consistency and viscosity of your paint, some may change the colour slightly. You can build your paint up with a modelling paste or create a sand like quality using a fine pumice gel. There are many different brands out there to choose from; Golden,  Liquitex and Winsor & Newton Galeria. Below is just a small example of what we sell.

      galeria-heavy-carvable-modelling-paste

      Changing the paints consistency and characteristics of acrylic paint

      There are many other additives on the market which change the characteristic of the paint once out of the tube or bottle and onto your palette. You can use flow improvers to keep the paint open (stops it from drying too fast) and to make it more diluted without compromising on the vibrancy of the colour or underbinding your pigment. You can change the lustre of the finish to a gloss, matte or satin. Galleria, Winsor & Newton, Liquitex and Golden all provide a plethora of mediums that can be used with all acrylic paint. They also provide sealers, gesso, ground and acrylic varnishes to use on your surfaces/substrates before or after painting.

      Does Acrylic paint dry a different colour? (Colour shift)

      Some student quality acrylic paints will dry slightly darker than others, but it is very slight. Also if you use a lot of modelling medium, this will lighten your colour slightly. You can however apply modelling paste onto the canvas first, leave to dry then paint over with your desired colour.

      What does tinting strength mean?

      Tinting strength simply means the amount of paint it takes to create a pastel colour. To make a pastel colour you simply add any paint colour to white acrylic paint. So if you only use a very small amount of pigment this means the paint you are using  will have a high tinting strength. You will use less for darker colours and more for lighter colours.

      What else do I need? Palette, brushes, paper.

      Ellie Jakeman
      Ellie Jakeman

      I have had a strong interest in the visual and creative arts since a very early age. I completed with great success ‘A’ level Fine Art, Textile and Embroidery City and Guilds, Foundation Diploma in Fine Art, (BA hons) Degree in Embroidery and Textiles from Manchester Metropolitan University and a PGCE from the University of Huddersfield. I have taught Art and Design, Fashion and Textiles, Textile design and Fine Art print and Illustration for over 20 years. I have also instigated and program managed many projects for the local community. Before teaching I was a freelance artist and illustrator and decided 4 years ago I would return to freelance and commissioned work. I have created many domestic and commercial murals for hospitals and hospices. I work part time for Artdiscount as a content creator and product tester.


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