How to Paint with Acrylics- 5 Top Tips from Pro Artists

Acrylics are one of the most versatile mediums in the art world, but this can also make it hard to know where to start. Most mediums have a standard set of ‘rules’ or practices that artists tend to follow to get the best results.

For example you might have heard of the ‘fat-over-lean rule’ for oil painting, which helps the artist decide how much oil medium to have in their paint as they progress through the painting.

Acrylic painting is a bit different, and each artist will have their own way of working with this medium. The great news is that, unlike some mediums such as watercolours, acrylics are very forgiving and most ‘mistakes’ can be easily corrected with another application of paint.

There’s no need to worry about getting things right first time around. In fact, it’s hard to get great results with acrylics in one single layer of paint. Acrylics tend to work at their best when they’re built in several layers, giving the artist the chance to correct and alter the direction of their art as they go.

A acrylic painting in progress, by Amber Tyldesley

If you’re unhappy with an acrylic painting you have been working on, the good news is that you can just keep adding paint until you are satisfied. To help with this, we have put together our five top tips for getting the most out of your acrylic paints.

How to Paint with Acrylics- Our Top Tips:

  1. Add an extra layer of gesso to store bought canvases. The acrylic paint will adhere better and you can create more detailed and smoother paintwork.
  2. Adjust the viscosity of your acrylics if needed, by adding water or an acrylic medium.
  3. Build your painting in layers. Layering acrylic paints allows you to create more depth and add detail to your work.
  4. Use a range of synthetic brushes to create flowing, varied brushstrokes.
  5. Keep your acrylic paints workable for longer by adding retarder and covering your palette between sessions.

What you’ll need

If you’re wondering what you need to get started with acrylics, here’s a list of some key materials:

  • A painting surface, such as a primed canvas or wooden panel.
  • A selection of artist quality acrylic paints
  • Palette
  • Water container, for cleaning your brushes.
  • A selection of synthetic acrylic brushes in different sizes and shapes. The most common brush shapes we use are filbert, flat and round.

Tip 1: Prepare your Surface

A lot of store-bought canvases have enough primer or gesso to allow your acrylic paints to adhere, however applying additional gesso can increase this adhesion and make some acrylic painting techniques easier.

For example, if we are looking to create highly detailed work, we will apply another one or two layers of gesso and sand the surface to reduce some of the texture of the canvas. This will make it easier to apply fine brushstrokes.

Having a smoother canvas can also help if you want to create soft looking blended areas, as the paint will be able to flow over the canvas much more easily.

Tip 2: Adjust the Viscosity if needed

Acrylic paints are water soluble, which means that they can be thinned with water if you would like to reduce the viscosity of the paint. You can also purchase acrylic mediums, such as a flow extender, if you wish to make your acrylic paints glide more smoothly over the canvas.

Many artists begin their acrylic works with an underpainting, which involves applying a thinned layer of paint, usually in just a single colour, to the canvas to block in some of the basic tones, lines and shapes of their compositions.

This gives the artist chance to judge the overall impression of their work before they progress any further, giving them the chance to assess what works and what doesn’t. It’s much better to spot issues with proportions and values at an early stage in the painting before you’ve spent hours refining the colours and details!

As acrylic paints dry quickly, if you see something you don’t like, you can simply paint over this with a new layer of paint.

If you add water to acrylic paints, you may find that the paint does not adhere well to the surface if you over-dilute the paint. Just a small amount of water can increase the fluidity of acrylics, so you may wish to experiment with adding just a little water first and see how you go.

Tip 3: Build your Painting in Layers

Most acrylic paints, especially the more affordable ‘student-quality’ acrylics, will not give full opaque coverage in a single layer. You may find that when you try and paint a solid layer of colour, your brushwork is still very visible and the white of the canvas shows through in some areas.

Unless you are applying your acrylic paint very generously, you are likely going to need to apply additional layers to achieve a more solid and opaque layer of colour.

This is also true when trying to achieve soft, blended areas of colour. A lot of artists find blending acrylics frustrating, as the first couple of paint layers are likely to show lots of brush marks. Sometimes the acrylics have begun to dry before the artist has finished blending the paint entirely.

However, as you apply additional layers of paint, the brushmarks should become less noticeable. This is because acrylics flow well over previous layers of paint, and you will also have less of the stark white background of the unpainted canvas showing beneath.

You can also control the consistency of acrylic paints by adding a little water or medium, which can help achieve blended paintwork in the final layers. You may even find that simply wetting the brush, rather than adding water to the paint, will improve the flow of paint to the extent you’d like. 

Tip 4: Use Synthetic Paintbrushes

The soft bristles of synthetic paintbrushes are ideal for use with acrylic paints. Hog bristle brushes, commonly used with oil paints, are very coarse and will leave more streaks and brushmarks in your work. If you wish to keep brushmarks to a minimum, a smoother application of paint can be achieved with synthetic brushes instead. 

Try not to use just one brush for a painting. Using just one size or shape of brush can make the all of the brush strokes look the same, making the work less interesting for the viewer.

Instead try using a variety of different brushes in your work. We have hundreds of different brushes for all sorts of different painting styles and techniques, but you only need a handful to get started. There are three brushes that we use in nearly every painting:

  1. A large one to two inch flat brush
  2. A medium filbert brush
  3. A small round brush

Make sure to clean your brush thoroughly in water when alternating between different colours of paint. This will help prevent your colours unintentionally mixing on the canvas.

Tip 5: Preserving your paint

The fast drying time of acrylics has many advantages, however one major disadvantage is how quickly it dries on your palette. You may have mixed the perfect colour for your piece that you need to use a bit later on, however if you leave it on your palette it would most likely be dry and unusable by the time you came back to use it.

Thankfully, there are a couple of things you can do to keep the acrylics on your palette usable for longer.

The first thing you can do is mix a little acrylic retarder into your paints. This medium slows the drying time of acrylics and will not affect the colours. Only a small amount is required (approx 1:20 ratio of retarder to paint).

The second thing you can do is to keep your palette covered in between painting sessions. A layer of cling-film over your paints will help increase the drying time. 

In Summary

We hope our top five tips will help you with your next acrylic painting! Here’s a quick look back at the key points:

  1. Be prepared to add additional gesso to your canvas for a smoother surface.
  2. Add water or acrylic medium to your paints to alter the viscosity.
  3. Built your painting in a series of layers.
  4. Use a variety of synthetic brushes.
  5. Cover and/or add retarder to the acrylics on your palette to keep them usable for longer.