A Complete Guide to Acrylic Painting

Are you an acrylic painter looking to brush up on techniques? Or perhaps a beginner who is interested in taking up this medium? If you've ever been captivated by the mesmerizing world of art and have been eager to explore your creativity on canvas, acrylic painting is the perfect medium! Known for its vibrant colors and fast-drying properties, acrylic remains to be a popular choice for many artists.

Vibrant acrylic pour painting picture

Whether you're an absolute beginner or an experienced artist looking to refine your skills, this guide will take you into the world of acrylic painting. We will tackle the history of acrylics, painting techniques, famous artists, and some handy tips and tricks for using this medium. So, grab your brushes, prepare your palette, and let's dive into the vibrant world of acrylic painting! 

I. What Is Acrylic Paint?
a. Characteristics of Acrylic Paint 
b. Anatomy of Acrylic Paint
II. History of Acrylic Painting
III. Famous Acrylic Painters
IV. Acrylic vs. Oil Paints
V. How to Use Acrylic Paint
a. Supplies You Need for Acrylic Painting
b. Acrylic Painting Techniques 
c. Tips and Tricks for Acrylic Painting

I. What Is Acrylic Painting? 

Acrylic paint is a type of water-based paint that uses acrylic polymer emulsion as its binder. It is a popular medium among artists due to its versatility, quick-drying properties, and ability to create vibrant, long-lasting artworks. Acrylic paint was first developed in the mid-20th century and has since become one of the most widely used and loved painting mediums in the art world. 

  1. Characteristics of Acrylic Paint 

Many artists like acrylics because of their versatile nature. You can choose the way it behaves as a medium by diluting it with thinner or using less water. Acrylic paint can be used to mimic both watercolors and oil paints. This is possible due to their chemical composition.

PRO TIP: Acrylic paint can be easily cleaned when wet, but once they’re dry, they become waterproof! So take this property in mind when working with this beloved medium.

One of the significant advantages of acrylic paint is its ability to be used on various surfaces, including canvas, paper, wood, metal, and more. It can be thinned with water to create transparent glazes or used directly from the tube to create thick impasto textures. Additionally, acrylic paint is known for its excellent lightfastness, meaning the colors are resistant to fading over time when exposed to light.

A beautiful acrylic painting of red flowers on a hill

Another benefit of acrylic paint is its ease of clean-up. Since it is water-based, artists can clean their brushes and tools with water instead of harsh solvents, making it a more environmentally friendly choice compared to oil paints. 

  1. Anatomy of Acrylic Paint

The main components of acrylic paint include pigment particles, which give the paint its color, and an acrylic polymer emulsion, which acts as the binder that holds the pigment particles together. When the paint is applied to a surface, the water in the emulsion evaporates, causing the acrylic polymer particles to merge and form a flexible and durable film on the surface. This fast-drying process allows artists to work more quickly and make adjustments to their artwork without long waiting times. 

In general, most acrylic paints are made up of three main elements: pigment, binder, and vehicle. 

  1. Pigments: Pigments are finely ground color particles that provide the paint with its hue and color. These pigments can be organic or inorganic compounds, and they come in a wide range of colors. The choice of pigments determines the color quality and lightfastness of the acrylic paint.
  2. Acrylic Polymer Emulsion: The second key component of acrylic paint is the binder, which is commonly an acrylic polymer emulsion. This is a water-based substance made of acrylic polymer particles suspended in water. The emulsion acts as the binder that holds the pigment particles together and adheres the paint to the painting surface. 
  3. Vehicle: Acrylic paint's vehicle is water-based, meaning that its primary liquid component is water. The vehicle is the liquid substance that carries the pigment particles and allows the paint to be spread and applied to a surface.
  4. Other ingredients: Acrylic paint may also contain various additives to improve its performance and characteristics. These additives can include thickeners to control the paint's consistency, stabilizers to enhance shelf life, retarders to slow drying time, and flow enhancers to improve brushwork and flow. Some acrylic paints may also contain fillers to modify the texture or opacity of the paint.

A hand swatching some paint pigments

II. History of Acrylic Painting

The history of acrylic painting is a relatively short one compared to other traditional painting mediums, such as oil painting. It all began with early developments in the 1930s when chemists and artists laid the groundwork for what would become acrylic paint. Among them was German chemist Otto Röhm, who, in 1901, synthesized acrylic resin, and in the 1930s, the acrylic polymer emulsion was developed by BASF. People initially used it for household painting purposes due to its easy-to-clean, quick-drying nature. During this time that Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros also experimented with early forms of acrylic paint, employing it to create murals that showcased its potential. 

However, it wasn't until the 1950s that acrylic paint took a significant step forward for the art industry. In 1953, American paint manufacturer Leonard Bocour and chemist Sam Golden collaborated to produce the first commercially available water-based acrylic paint. This product, known as "Magna" acrylic paint, marked the inception of acrylic paint as we know it today. Simultaneously, artists' paint manufacturer Liquitex also began producing acrylic paints, contributing to the medium's early popularity. 

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With its fast-drying properties, versatility, and vibrant color possibilities, acrylic paint quickly gained traction among artists, especially during the 1960s and 1970s in the United States. Renowned artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein embraced acrylic paint, harnessing its potential to create distinct works of art. Because of this development in its use, acrylic painting presented artists with a different approach to painting, encouraging experimentation with various techniques and mixed media applications. 

An acrylic painting hanging on a wall

Advancements and innovations further propelled the popularity of acrylic paint over the years. Paint manufacturers introduced a variety of acrylic mediums, additives, and gels that expanded the creative possibilities for artists. These innovations enabled the creation of textured surfaces, glazes, and other effects, elevating acrylic painting to new heights of artistic expression. 

Today, acrylic painting stands as a versatile and accessible medium, widely embraced by artists around the world. Its use spans various styles, from realistic and abstract to mixed media and more contemporary approaches. 

III. Famous Acrylic Painters

Acrylic painting has attracted numerous talented artists over the years, and many have achieved fame and recognition for their exceptional works in this medium. Here are some famous acrylic painters who have made significant contributions to the art world:

  • David Hockney (1937-present): A British painter, printmaker, and photographer, David Hockney is renowned for his vibrant and colorful acrylic paintings. His works often depict swimming pools, landscapes, and portraits, and he is considered one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century.

An acrylic painting by David Hockney

  • Gerhard Richter (1932-present): A German visual artist, Gerhard Richter is known for his diverse range of styles, including abstract and photorealistic paintings. He has incorporated acrylic paint into his works, creating stunning and thought-provoking pieces that have garnered international acclaim.
  • Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015): An American artist associated with the Color Field and Minimalist movements, Ellsworth Kelly's acrylic paintings are characterized by their bold use of color and geometric shapes. His works are celebrated for their simplicity and purity of form.

An abstract acrylic painting by Ellsworth Kelly

  • Judy Chicago (1939-present): An American feminist artist, Judy Chicago, has been a pioneer in using acrylic paint to create powerful and provocative artworks that explore themes of gender, sexuality, and social issues. She is best known for her monumental installation, "The Dinner Party."
  • Bridget Riley (1931-present): A British artist, Bridget Riley, is famous for her op-art paintings that create optical illusions through the use of geometric patterns and colors. Her innovative use of acrylic paint has inspired many artists and impacted the art world.
  • Frank Stella (1936-present): An American painter and printmaker, Frank Stella is associated with the minimalism and abstract expressionism movements. He is known for his large-scale acrylic paintings that feature bold geometric shapes and vibrant colors.
  • Alex Katz (1927-present): An American figurative artist, Alex Katz, is recognized for his stylized and larger-than-life portraits. He often uses acrylic paint to achieve a flat and contemporary look in his works.
  • Takashi Murakami (1962-present): A Japanese contemporary artist, Takashi Murakami, is famous for his colorful and playful artworks that blend traditional Japanese art with pop culture elements. He frequently uses acrylic paint to create his iconic manga-inspired characters and vibrant compositions.

These are just a few examples of the many talented artists who have embraced acrylic paint and significantly impacted the art world with their innovative and inspiring works. Their contributions have helped elevate acrylic painting as a respected and versatile medium in contemporary art.

 IV. Acrylic vs. Oil Paints

Acrylic and oil paints are two of the most popular and widely used painting mediums, each offering unique characteristics and advantages. While oil and acrylic artworks share similar looks and textures, there are key differences between the two mediums: 

Acrylic Paint
Oil Paint
water-based paints oil-based or linseed-oil-based paints
fast-drying time; usually within minutes to a few hours slow drying time; allowing you more time to blend and manipulate the paint
dries to a flat, flexible. and water-resistant finish dries to a rich, glossy finish
helps you create both smooth and textured surfaces helps you create a luscious, buttery texture, and has a three-dimensional quality
can be used on a wide range of surfaces, including canvas, paper, wood, metal, and more typically require specialized surfaces, such as primed canvas or boards, for the best results
water-based and have lower toxicity require the use of solvents, that omit toxic fumes


When viewing these characteristics, you can see how much more beginner-friendly acrylic paints are as a medium. Ultimately, the choice between acrylic and oil paints depends on your preferences, working style, and desired outcomes. Acrylics offer convenience, quick drying times, and ease of use, while oil paints provide a rich, luxurious appearance and a more extended working time for blending and layering. In the end, it's up to your creative needs and wants as an artist! 

V. How to Use Acrylic Paint

Using acrylic paint is a rewarding and enjoyable experience that allows you to explore your creativity and bring your artistic visions to life. Whether you're a beginner or an experienced artist, here's a step-by-step guide on how to use acrylic paint effectively:

Prepare Your Materials

Gather all the necessary materials, including acrylic paints, brushes, canvas or painting surface, palette, water or acrylic medium for thinning, and a water container for cleaning brushes.

Set Up Your Workspace

Choose a well-ventilated area with good lighting to work in. Cover your work surface with a drop cloth or newspaper to protect it from paint spills.

Choose Your Brushes

Acrylic paint can be used with a variety of brushes, including flat, round, filbert, and detail brushes. Select the brushes that suit your painting style and the level of detail you wish to achieve.

Prepare Your Palette

Squeeze a small amount of each acrylic color you plan to use onto your palette. Keep in mind that acrylic paint dries quickly, so only dispense a small amount at a time to avoid waste.

Understand the Basics of Color Mixing

Acrylic paints can be easily mixed to create new colors and shades. Refer to the color wheel and familiarize yourself with primary, secondary, and tertiary colors to achieve the desired hues.

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Start Painting

Dip your brush into water or acrylic medium and mix it with the paint on your palette to achieve the desired consistency. Acrylic paint can be applied thickly or thinned to create transparent washes.

A Frank Stella acrylic painting

Experiment with Techniques

Acrylic paints allow for various painting techniques, including wet-on-wet, dry brushing, glazing, impasto, and more. Experiment with these techniques to create different effects and textures in your artwork.

Layer and Blend Colors

Acrylic paint dries quickly, which allows you to layer and blend colors efficiently. Use this to your advantage by building up colors gradually and creating smooth transitions between different shades.

Clean Your Brushes

Rinse your brushes in the water container frequently to avoid the paint drying on the bristles. After each painting session, thoroughly clean the brushes with water and soap or a brush cleaner.

Allow Your Artwork to Dry

Acrylic paint dries to the touch quickly, but it's essential to let your artwork fully dry between layers to avoid smudging or muddying colors. If necessary, use a hairdryer on a low setting to speed up the drying process.

Varnish Your Finished Artwork

Once your acrylic painting is dry, consider applying a protective varnish to enhance its appearance and preserve its longevity.

Remember, the beauty of acrylic painting lies in its versatility and the freedom to explore different techniques and styles. Don't be afraid to experiment, and most importantly, enjoy the process of creating art with acrylic paints.

a. Supplies You Need for Acrylic Painting

Acrylic painting supplies include an easel, a paint palette, and some brushes

Acrylic painting requires a few essential supplies to get started and create beautiful artwork. Here's a list of the acrylic painting supplies you'll need:

  • Acrylic Paints: Purchase a set of acrylic paints in various colors. Consider getting primary colors (red, blue, yellow) and secondary colors (orange, green, purple) to allow for color mixing.
  • Brushes: Invest in a selection of brushes suitable for acrylic painting. Common brush types include flat, round, filbert, and detail brushes. Different brush sizes and shapes will allow you to achieve various effects and details in your artwork.
  • Painting Surface: Choose a canvas or painting surface suitable for acrylics. Standard options include canvas boards, stretched canvases, acrylic paper, and specially primed boards.
  • Palette: You'll need a palette to mix and blend your acrylic paints. Consider using a traditional palette made of plastic or wood, or opt for a disposable paper palette pad for easy cleanup.
  • Water or Acrylic Medium: Acrylic paints can be thinned with water or an acrylic medium to achieve different consistencies and effects. Using an acrylic medium can also extend the drying time and enhance the flow of the paint.
  • Easel (Optional): An easel can provide a more comfortable painting experience by allowing you to adjust the angle and height of your canvas.
  • Palette Knife (Optional): A palette knife can help you mix colors, create texture, or apply paint in a more impasto style.
  • Container for Water: If you choose to use water as your medium, have a water container nearby to clean your brushes.
  • Rags or Paper Towels: Keep some rags or paper towels on hand for wiping brushes and cleaning up spills.
  • Varnish (Optional): Once your acrylic painting is complete and thoroughly dried, you may apply a varnish to protect and enhance the appearance of your artwork.
  • Sealable Containers: If you mix custom colors or have leftover paint, use sealable containers to store them for future use.
  • Apron or Old Clothes: Acrylic paints can be challenging to remove from clothing, so wear an apron or use old clothes you don't mind getting paint on.

As you progress in acrylic painting, you may discover additional supplies that suit your style and techniques. Remember that quality materials, such as the best acrylic paints, can make a difference in your painting experience, so invest in tools that fit your budget while providing good performance. Enjoy your acrylic painting journey!

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b. Acrylic Painting Techniques 

Acrylic paint is a fun medium to work with, and because you can apply it on many mixed-media surfaces, the sky's the limit! There are many creative acrylic painting techniques you can do, but here are a few to get you started:

  1. Wet-on-Wet: This technique involves applying wet paint onto a wet surface. It allows for blending and seamless color transitions, creating soft and atmospheric effects. To achieve this, keep the surface slightly damp with a misting spray or acrylic medium before applying the paint.
  2. Dry Brushing: Dry brushing involves using a brush with minimal paint and lightly dragging it over the canvas. This technique creates textured and scratchy marks, adding depth and dimension to the artwork.
  3. Glazing: Glazing involves applying transparent or translucent layers of paint over dry layers. This technique is excellent for adding depth and altering the color of a painting without losing the details of the underlying layers.
  4. Impasto: Impasto is a technique where thick layers of paint are applied to the canvas, creating a textured, three-dimensional effect. Artists use palette knives or stiff brushes to achieve bold and expressive impasto marks.
  5. Stippling: Stippling involves applying paint in a series of small dots or dabs. This technique is ideal for creating subtle shading and texture or adding details to a painting.
  6. Sgraffito: Sgraffito is a scratching technique where the artist uses a tool (e.g., a palette knife or the back of a brush) to scratch through a layer of wet paint to reveal the color or surface beneath. This method adds texture and visual interest to the artwork.
  7. Pouring and Dripping: Pouring acrylic paint directly onto the canvas and letting it flow or dripping it from a height creates spontaneous and abstract patterns. Artists can tilt the canvas to manipulate the paint's movement, resulting in unique and unpredictable effects.
  8. Splattering: Splattering involves flicking or tapping the brush against your hand to create small splatters of paint on the canvas. This technique adds energy and texture to the painting.
  9. Masking: Masking is a technique where specific areas of the canvas are covered with masking tape or other materials before painting. Once the paint dries, the mask is removed, revealing untouched areas and sharp lines.
  10. Collage and Mixed Media: Combine acrylic paints with other materials, such as paper, fabric, or found objects, to create mixed media artworks with added depth and texture.
  11. Scumbling: Scumbling is a technique where a nearly dry brush with a small amount of paint is applied lightly over a dry layer. It creates a hazy, softened effect, ideal for creating atmospheric elements or adding highlights.

An acrylic painting of some mountains c. Tips and Tricks for Acrylic Painting

Now that you've gone through understanding acrylic paint as a medium, are you ready to try it for yourself? Let these tips and tricks guide you as you create your first artwork with acrylics:

  • Acrylic paint dries fast, so plan your composition and work efficiently to blend colors and create smooth transitions.
  • Build up layers of paint gradually to achieve depth and richness in your artwork. Let each layer dry before adding the next.
  • Mist your canvas with water or an acrylic medium to keep the surface moist while working, especially for wet-on-wet techniques.
  • Before applying color directly to your artwork, test it first on scrap paper to see how it looks, especially when dried, and ensure it matches your vision.
  • Avoid excessive reworking of the paint, as acrylics can become muddy when overmixed. Embrace the spontaneous nature of the medium!
  • For crisp lines and edges, use masking tape to protect areas you don't want to paint over.
  • Experiment with different brush strokes to add texture and interest to your painting. Combine thick and thin strokes for dynamic effects.
  • Blend various acrylic mediums like gel, glazing, or texture paste into your paint to create unique effects and enhance your artwork's appearance.
  • Integrate paper or fabric collage elements into your painting to add depth and texture! You can also add materials like sand, rice, or fibers to the paint to create interesting textures in your artwork.

Start Your Very First Acrylic Artwork Today With This Guide! 

In summary, acrylic painting is a captivating and versatile medium that has captured the hearts of artists worldwide. Has it captured yours yet? Throughout this comprehensive guide, we've delved into the world of acrylics, exploring everything from its history and composition to essential techniques and supplies. With its fast-drying nature, vibrant colors, and adaptability to various surfaces, acrylic paint offers artists endless possibilities for creative expression. 

Whether you're a seasoned painter or just starting your artistic journey, the tips and tricks shared here will undoubtedly enrich your acrylic painting experience. So, pick up those brushes, let your imagination soar, and embark on a colorful adventure into the enchanting realm of acrylic painting. Happy painting!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):

Acrylic paints are water-based pigments that contain a plastic polymer emulsion. They are versatile, fast-drying, and can be used on various surfaces such as canvas, paper, wood, and more. Unlike oil paints, they dry quickly, and unlike watercolors, they become water-resistant when dry.
Acrylic paints can be applied to a wide range of surfaces, including canvas, canvas boards, paper, wood, cardboard, metal, glass, and some plastics. It is essential to prepare the surface properly, and some may require priming or gesso before painting.
Acrylic paint typically dries within minutes to a few hours, depending on factors like thickness, humidity, and ventilation. Thin layers may dry within minutes, while thicker layers may take a few hours. To extend working time, you can use acrylic retarders or keep a spray bottle with water handy.
Rinse them thoroughly with warm water and mild soap immediately after painting. Gently rub the bristles with your fingers to remove paint residue. Avoid using hot water, as it may damage the brushes. For dried paint, soak the brushes in a brush cleaner or use a cleaning solution.
Yes, acrylic paints can be used with other media. They work well with oil pastels, colored pencils, and other dry media, allowing for interesting mixed-media effects. Make sure the acrylic layer is dry before applying other media on top.

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