Acrylic: An Introduction

Top 10 Frequently Asked Questions About Acrylics 

1. Why choose acrylics? The best reason to choose any painting medium is that you have an affinity for it: you have seen it at work, admire it, and want to use it. Acrylic paint is remarkably diverse in is applications and results. Because there are so many surfaces on which you can work, so many effects you can get, so many methods you can try, acrylic paint is a great choice for the artist who likes to explore and experiment.

2. What is acrylic paint?  First marketed in the 1950’s, acrylic paints continue to be popular because they are adaptable, convenient and economical. Technically, these water-soluble paints are pigment in acrylic polymer emulsion— in other words, plastic! They are different in composition from either oil paint or watercolour, and have their own properties.  Acrylics are notably fast-drying, permanent, and versatile. Being a water media, it cleans up easily with water, and water can be added to the paint to thin it, as with watercolours. Like watercolour, it dries fast. Unlike watercolour, acrylic paint can be mixed with a wide range of specially created mediums to remarkable effect.

3. Are acrylics difficult? An often-expressed opinion says that acrylics are the easiest of the three major painting mediums (acrylics, oils, watercolours). Acrylic paint is more flexible than oil paint, and can be used on a wider range of supports, including raw canvas. In fact, acrylic doesn’t need a support: use in on a plastic surface and peel it off when it is dry. An acrylic painter need not observe the same strict painting practices as other painters and can experiment in a number of ways not open to watercolourists or oil painters. The difficulty of acrylic paint may simply lie in making the best use of the paint itself.

4. Are acrylics expensive? As with other paints, the student grade of acrylics is less expensive than the professional grade – and has less pure pigment, thereby making for less vibrantly coloured paintings. Also, some pigments, like cadmiums, are expensive, but closely matched substitutions are available. Without mediums, acrylic paints are less exciting to use. Mediums extend the paint, as does water, but with a variety of desirable results that differ considerably from water’s simple thinning of the paint. Therefore, you will want to consider adding the cost of some mediums to the cost of paints. Acrylic paint sets are a great way to get started. They are price right and colours are already selected for you .

5. What is needed to make an acrylic painting, besides acrylic paint? Feel free to paint on canvas, primed or raw, stretched or unstretched; on other fabric; on wood panels, rock and found objects. on almost anything. You can use brushes, with synthetic fibers or palette knives, or fingers, or pour the paint on – versatility is the hallmark of acrylic painting.

If you are painting with acrylics on canvas or board, for example, you will most likely want to acquire a range of brushes. We can show you a range of brushes from small to large in flat or round shapes. If painting detail is important to you, choose the smaller sizes. For broad expressive strokes, use large brushes. We would be happy to explain what the other shapes will do for you, such as filberts and brights. We have a preference for synthetics – one of the reasons is the ability to rejuvenate synthetics when they get bent by dipping them very briefly into boiling water. (This will not help if it has a paint build-up in it. Very dried-on paint can be removed with Windex.) Another advantage is their long life and
durability. There are other tools to consider, too, such as various blades and wedges in silicon, metal or plastic. Serrated edges, angled blades and other such shapes are well worth considering for the range of marks they will make. Try moving two colours into one another with a spatula shape, or combing one colour

Click here to learn about Acrylic Brushes

over another with a serrated palette knife.

We have many types of easels to choose from, depending on your needs. The most economical is a tabletop easel, used to paint while sitting. For the home studio, and for working on larger pieces, consider a floor easel. These are available in many sizes and prices. If you need an easel for classes or painting outdoors, portable easels are available, too. Holbein is a professional-grade product, available at a reasonable price. Hobein makes thick-bodied, high-viscosity acrylic and liquid acrylic, as well as acrylic inks. acrylic mediums, gels, additives and gessos. Talens makes a student-grade acrylic called Amsterdam Standard. Chromacryl is a standard acrylic for schools. Golden is our top line, with heavy body, liquid and Open lines (‘Open’ are slower drying). Like Holbein, Golden offers a very wide range of gels, mediums, and additives for you to explore.

6. How important are mediums to acrylic painting? Mediums for acrylic paints range for those that thin the paint, making it more like watercolour, to those that thicken it to oil-paint consistency, as well as those that texturize the paint so that it is resembles plaster or that modify the colour . Some add gloss, others matte the paint. Each acrylic paint company has at least one, and sometimes a great many, mediums, each with a special purpose. Aside from their use with acrylic paints
some mediums, such as gels, are used in image transfers, to thicken paint for impasto effects and in multimedia projects. You are not exploring acrylic paint if you are not exploring mediums.

Several quick distinguishing points about acrylics:

  • They can be matte, semi-gloss, or gloss, depending on the brand, or on the medium with which they are mixed.
  • Fluid acrylics more obviously resemble watercolours, heavy-body resemble oils. Like watercolour, either can be thinned with water (never more than 50%) but, unlike watercolour, they do not rewet. Like oil paint, both can be made thick, juicy, and impasto, or layered in fine glazes. Unlike oil paint, they dry quickly and will not yellow with age.
  • Tools used for acrylic application include brushes, palette knives and silicon blades and wedges. They can also be sponged, poured, dripped and thrown. Air brushes are also available.
  •  Dry acrylic paint is flexible. In fact, acrylic ‘skins’ can be created by pouring or layering the paint onto a surface from which it can be easily removed, such as a sheet of plastic. The skins can be shaped and carved.
  • An ever-growing number of mediums, including fluids, pastes, and gels, modify their behaviour and appearance. The key to getting acrylic paint to perform at its utmost capability is mediums and gels.
  • Acrylic mediums and gels can be used independently of paint. For example, objects can be imbedded or impressed into gels, among a myriad other project possibilities. You can print textures, create strings of paint, make mounds of it, make skins of it….It is worthwhile to do some research on acrylic paint or take a short introductory class on the many ways it can be used. Learning to use acrylic mediums will only enhance your painting experience and lead to new discoveries.
  • Mixed media art can use acrylic paints advantageously: drawing materials like charcoal, pastel and ink can be applied over or under paint, while any number of materials can be added into it— sand, glitter, objects.
  • Acrylic is used in making printing and writing inks, gouache, markers and spray paint; these have similar properties to acrylic paint.

7. Are there any drawbacks to acrylics? Acrylic paints cannot carry the same pigment load as oil paint, and some painters prefer oils for that reason. Acrylic paint dries quickly. Thin applications will dry in minutes and may not be easily removed. Thicker applications will dry to the touch in 1 – 3 hours and will become tough and permanent after about a month. Additives like Retarder can be used to slow the drying process. Other ways of extending the palette time (open time) of your acrylics during use are by adding retarder or Golden Acrylic Glazing Liquid, or by spraying your work and palette with a mist of water. The Golden Open Acrylic line stays workable for longer than other acrylics, and is a soft, blendable paint, making it desirable for some styles of painting to which regular acrylic is not suited. A humidified room will also help them dry more slowly.

8. How versatile are acrylics? Acrylic paint is so versatile you can do more than paint with it. You can sculpt with it, cut it and shape it. It is durable. Acrylics are used for canvas, wood, or paper painting (with or without acrylic gesso), decorative art, airbrushing, screen printing and fabric painting; almost any non-greasy or degreased surface will take acrylic paint. Likewise acrylic mediums are used in many contexts. Mixed media works can benefit from the use of acrylic paints and mediums. Artists are able to customize the appearance and working properties of acrylic colour by adding gels or mediums. Shine levels can range from matte, satin or gloss. The texture of paint can be water-thin to thick-impasto (and everything in between). Transparent or opaque is another option. Even drying times can be somewhat controlled. As you can see, acrylics go well beyond mimicking oil and watercolour: they offer a distinct, enormously versatile means of creating visual art.

Although acrylics can be used straight from the container or thinned with water, mediums are invaluable in exploiting the versatility of acrylic paint. Moreover, they will keep thepaint film strong and lustrous, where water can tend to weaken it. Both gels and mediums can be added to artist colours to make a larger volume of paint

9. Colour Mixing Beginning painters should feel free to experiment with their colours and their paint. In colour mixing, the 3 primary colours, red, yellow and blue,
can be mixed to obtain many other colours including purple, orange and green, and even a nice range of browns, greys and blacks. For example, try Crimson Red with a touch of Ultramarine Blue and see the glorious purples they make. Or try Azo Red and Phthalo Blue for a more subdued purple. For some brilliant greens, use a pinch of Phthalo Blue with Hansa Yellow. Other similar primaries will give you variations on green. A suggested palette of about 12 colours can be used to mix, to produce virtually any colour you may desire. A colour wheel is a handy way to look at what combinations to try. For more information, colour mixing guides are available in our book department.

10. Should acrylic paintings be varnished? After an acrylic painting is thoroughly dry, let’s say six months from completion, a removable varnish can be applied to give the surface coherence and to protect from dust and dirt. Many painters question the need for varnishing, because they mistakenly think of a very glossy finish; varnish, however, can be matte or semi-gloss as well as gloss. It is a matter of preference.

Workshops: To learn more about the versatility of acrylics, we recommend you attend one of our introductory workshops. Hands-on experience, as provided by our knowledgeable instructors, is great for learning about the unique ways you can use acrylics. We hold other workshops on different specific topics such as painting with light and colour, abstract acrylic painting, and mixed-media collaging, the last of which makes use of many acrylic products, including paints, mediums and gels. Check our workshop schedule and register early.

Click here for links to acrylic painting projects for schools.


Kim Fjordbotten (June 2020) As owner of The Paint Spot, Kim Fjordbotten is passionate about helping artists use materials and make art. She is available as a speaker and educator for teachers and art associations. The Paint Spot offers exhibitions, workshops, and beautiful art materials to inspire your creativity.

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