This Acrylic Painting Guide aims to give a broad overview of some useful and interesting information about working in this medium.
List of Contents
What Makes Acrylic Paint so Special?
For reliability and versatility, it’s hard to beat acrylic. No other kind of paint offers as much variety of texture or room for customisation – there’s a formula for every application, and no end to the mediums available. Bright, consistent and smooth, it’s the colour of choice for artists such as Lichtenstein and Hockney, and should be considered by any artist wanting to produce equally vibrant work. It’s great for mixed media artists, with a water-mixable formula that adheres to many surfaces and creates a stable ground for almost all wet and dry media. Plus, with no solvents required for painting or clean-up, it’s a convenient choice for those painting at home.
What Is the Difference Between All the Different Types of Acrylic Paint Available?
The thickness of acrylic is often referred to as ‘body’. Professional and artist grade paints often come in several different formulas with different applications. Consistency is no indication of quality – the difference arises from the formulation of the binder, not the amount of pigment in the paint. The type of acrylic paint that’s best for you will be determined by the techniques and surfaces you plan on using.
Heavy Body paints, as the name suggests, are the thickest and heaviest of the lot – they’re also the most popular. With a texture similar to soft butter, they’re the closest to oil paints in handling and retain brush marks and gestures well. They also hold their own on rougher canvases.
Soft Body paints are smoother, resembling yoghurt in consistency. This makes them ideal for mixing with mediums, while retaining enough thickness to paint smoothly and responsively on their own.
Fluid paints have a texture like double cream. Supplied in a bottle, they are perfect for smooth brushing or staining effects and are great for glazes and finely detailed work.
Acrylic Ink is the most fluid of the acrylic paints. It is made of super fine pigments suspended in a state of the art acrylic emulsion that is as fluid as water. Acrylic Ink is intensely coloured and dries with a soft gloss finish. It can be applied using airbrush, pen or brush. This is the consistency of acrylic used to fill empty marker pens. Airbrush Acrylics are very similar to Acrylic ink, but are less likely to clog or impair the flow within airbrush equipment.
Open paints are formulated to dry very slowly, making it easy to paint wet-into-wet and blend colour on the surface of your painting. They’re a great solution for painters who want to incorporate techniques usually only possible with oils.
Interactive acrylics are a regular fast drying artist quality acrylic, however, within the range is a truly unique ‘unlocking formula’, a liquid that re-wets dried interactive acrylic and slows drying if a few drops are added to the paint while still wet. When work is completely finished the Fast Medium/Fixer will seal the layer of paint – once this is done the paint is no longer unlockable.
Acrylic Gouache is creamy with a velvety matt finish. The paint levels brush marks and is particularly popular among illustrators. If you’re looking to paint blocks of flat colour then gouache might be worth a try. Most acrylic gouache isn’t rewettable once it’s dry (although the Lascaux acrylic gouache is rewettable if you let the water sit for a little while). Not to be confused with regular gouache, which is easily rewettable, watersoluble and is essentially an opaque watercolour.
Acrylic Markers are bright, bold, acrylic paint marker pens, perfect for those wishing to combine painting and drawing techniques. Acrylic markers are designed to be high covering, fast drying, water and abrasion proof. They’ll make their mark even on already brightly coloured or painted surfaces and will adhere to most surfaces, from metal to paper.
Acrylic Spray paint allows you to apply thin layers of bold colour onto a multitude of surfaces. Some acrylic sprays contain solvent – for these it is advisable to wear a fume mask or spray in well ventilated spaces. Some other sprays are water based and do not emit heady fumes, so are safe to use indoors. The low pressure handling system offered by some of the ranges allows you to control your applications of colour more carefully – it’s possible to draw fine lines as well as broad splodges of colour with the right amount of pressure. Exciting to use on their own or alongside other acrylics such as markers and regular paint.
All brands and formulas are intermixable, so if something unusual catches your eye there’s nothing stopping you giving it a try!
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Is it Worth Paying More for Professional Grade Paints?
The great thing about all the different types of acrylic paint available is that you can mix heavy body with soft body paint to create a consistency that falls between the two, or Open Acrylic with something faster drying to create a paint that dries just a little slower than regular acrylic. You are in full control of the sheen, drying times and fluidity of your paint, and then when you start to think about adding mediums into the mix you’ll realise that the possibilities are almost limitless.
Paints are graded according to their quality:
Professional are the best quality grade. Characterised by the use of the highest quality pigments and resins, tubes will contain less binder than in other grades. This makes for bright, clean colour with characteristics defined by the pigments used – qualities such as texture, drying times, opacity and staining capacity vary from colour to colour. For experienced painters or limited palettes they’re an exciting experience, but for those new to painting the variations in handling can prove challenging.
Artist grade often use the same pigments as professional paints, but in more affordable proportions. This is normally achieved by increasing the amount of binder in each colour, which makes for good quality paints whose properties are more uniform from colour to colour than is true in professional paints. The characteristics of the pigments in each paint are muted a little (factors such as transparency, natural sheen, drying times, staining capacity etc) as the greater amounts of other ingredients (fillers and binders) mask them.
Student grade have the lowest pigment to binder ratio, and a uniformity of fluidity and gloss within each range. Fillers and mediums are used to extend the pigments and add bulk, which means student equivalents of professional colours often display increased transparency or lower saturation. Opaque colours often appear chalkier than higher grade equivalents because of the fillers that are added. However, if you’re sticking to a budget, you can still make some great work with student paints.
Within higher grade ranges of paint there are usually a number of price bands (known as ‘series’) that reflect the cost of manufacture (some pigments are more expensive than others). The lower grade ranges of paint tends to have fewer price bands.
A Brief History of Acrylic Paint
The acrylic paint story dates back to 1934 when the chemical Company BASF in Germany developed the first usable acrylic dispersion (a formula of acrylic resin, pigment particles and water). Combining the qualities of both oil and watercolour, the discovery of how to make a rich paint that could be thinned with water was a groundbreaking advancement in the world of fine art materials. Between 1946-1949, American Paint-maker Sam Golden (who 30 years later would become the founder of Golden Artist Paints) and his uncle the artist Leonard Bocour developed ‘Magna Paints’. These were Mineral Spirit Acrylic paints; pigment ground into acrylic resin that is diluted in solvent. So while the binder is acrylic based the paints still require thinning in solvent (just as with Mineral Spirit Acrylic Varnish). MSA paint possesses impressive vibrancy and a much glossier finish to modern acrylic paints, and when they were first made were popular among artists such as Morris Louis, Barnett Newman and Roy Lichtenstein.
In 1953 Otto Rohm of the German Chemical Company Rohm and Haas developed an acrylic resin especially well suited to paint manufacture. The amalgamation of compounds including acrylic and methacrylic acids ensured a number of beneficial characteristics, such as better staining protection, greater water resistance when dry, better adhesion to surfaces, better resistance to cracking and blistering in abrasive weather conditions as well as resistance to yellowing when exposed to sunlight. Later in the same year the production of 2 brand new acrylic paint ranges began; In Mexico Jose L. Gutierrez began producing ‘Politec Artist Acrylics’ while in the United States Henry Levinson of the Permanent Pigments Co. started the manufacture of Liquitex paints – these are the very first 2 ranges of acrylic emulsion artists paints to have come into existence!
At the very beginning these water-based acrylic paints were sold as latex house paints, but very soon afterwards artists and fine art paint-makers wanted in on the act and began to explore the potential of acrylic binders and their most attractive feature -that they could be formulated to pretty much any degree of viscosity.
How are Acrylic Paints Made?
Pigments are less dense than water, and if you try to mix them together it doesn’t usually work; the pigment sits on the surface of the water and can stick together in lumps. In order to begin the process of making acrylic paint an acrylic dispersant is added and the mixture is blended together – the even consistency means the colour is uniform and more vibrant. Once the mix is perfectly blended the following additives are added to the paint:
Initiators to initiate the polymerisation process (the joining together of all the acrylic particles in the paint to make a continuous film – in other words, the drying process), even at room temperature.
Buffers such as ammonia which help to maintain a pH balance of between 8-10 which is essential for the stability of the paint (and therefore its long term durability).
Surfactants and protective colloids provide long term particle stabilisation and particle formation (these help with the drying process).
Defoamers counterbalance the foaming properties of the surfactants.
Preservatives to protect against the growth of microorganisms (necessary for long term durability of the paint).
Thickeners and rheology modifiers are added to achieve the desired thickness and flow properties.
Stabilisers to prevent the freezing of a waterborne paint; if paint froze its dispersion would be impaired and the structure of the paint damaged.
How Acrylic Paints Dry
Acrylic emulsions are made from all the ingredients listed above, blended with pigment and water. During the drying process, the water evaporates and as it does so the spherical polymer particles are drawn closer together. Eventually, the particles meld together to form a honeycomb structure. A coalescing solvent additive ensure that the polymer particles remain malleable during and after the drying process, which makes the best possible compaction of particles possible even after all the water has evaporated. Once all the water has evaporated and the film feels solid and dry it is said to be ‘continuous’, however when looked at under a microscope it is likely to still possess some porosity. Porosity increases when paint dries in very cold conditions as the slower rate of drying and the deficit of energy prevents the particles from drawing sufficiently close to one another. Another cause of a greater degree of porosity is if foaming occurs in the paint. Pores will often trap conservation cleaning agents which may cause long term damage to a painting over time. A layer of varnish can help prevent these issues from occurring.
While you’re trying out your new colours, it’s good to be aware of the mediums that are available to you. A medium is something added to a paint to change its properties – to thicken or thin it, to change the rate it dries at, to add texture, and plenty more besides. If your paint isn’t behaving quite as you want it to there’ll be a medium out there to help.
Altering body is normally done with gels, pastes, flow enhancers or fluid mediums. If you just need to thin your paint a little you can use water, but if you use too much it may break down the structure of your paint too much making it brittle when dry. Drastic changes of consistency are best achieved with flow enhancers or fluid mediums, which maintain the paint’s ability to form a sturdy film when drying. Gels and pastes increase the body of paint in slightly different ways – pastes tend to add bulk and are often opaque, whereas gels are viscous and clear. Regular gel is the same consistency as heavy body acrylic paint and will extend colour without thinning the body while heavy gel and extra heavy gel will add bulk.
Altering drying time is a handy trick to be aware of, particularly if you’re just starting out and aren’t so confident with your mark making. Adding a little retarder to your paint will give you more time to work with it, increasing what is called its ‘open’ time. Golden Open Acrylics are designed to be workable for longer without adding retarder (and it has a consistency that falls somewhere between heavy body and fluid paints).
Altering the texture of your paint can really spark creativity – from a stringy gel and expressive drips to a sandy grit that’ll let you use pastels on top of your work, there’s no end to the textures possible with acrylic paint. Available in wet or dry formats, there are simply too many options available to mention them all here!
For an in-depth look at acrylic mediums, read our comparison of Golden’s extensive range of acrylic mediums and additives.
Varnishing Acrylic Paintings
Many painters see varnishing their work as part of the painting process, rather than just the ‘finishing touch’. Varnishes are available in gloss, matt and satin (satin can also be made by mixing gloss and matt varnishes).
What varnish can I use?
Varnish will protect your painting as well as unify the sheen. All fine art varnishes are suitable for varnishing your acrylic painting. Acrylic varnishes are made of polymer resins dissolved in acrylic emulsion and are the fastest drying of the lot. Solvent-based varnishes are slow drying and made of natural resins dissolved in solvent – the matt versions have an added matting agent. Mineral Spirit Acrylic varnish is made from synthetic resins dissolved in mineral spirit. The synthetic resin used in MSA varnish has been specially developed to ensure that it does not yellow over time – something that natural resins like dammar can be prone to do.
How should I varnish my acrylic painting?
A much more informative resumé of things to keep in mind when varnishing an acrylic painting can be found in our Varnishing Acrylic Paintings post, however below is a brief summary:
Your painting needs to be clean and completely dry before you varnish it. An isolation coat made of 2 parts soft gel and one part water will allow you to remove and reapply layers of varnish in the future without damaging the painting. Keep the work in a dust-free environment; you may want to wipe it with a damp clean rag and allow it to dry just before you varnish to get rid of any possible dust or dirt on the surface. Use a clean soft varnishing brush and apply your varnish in thin even layers. It’s worth adopting a technique to ensure that you don’t go over already varnished areas (raking light can help you see where is shiny and where isn’t). Once the varnish has reached the ‘tacky’ stage of the drying process you’ll be able to lean your painting against a wall, painting side inwards, to prevent dust settling on the wet varnish, without the varnish from running (so long as it’s been applied thinly). Once the layer has dried you’ll be able to apply another layer. As ever, several thin even layers always produces better results than one thick layer.
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Links to materials at Jackson’s
- The Four Viscosities of Acrylic Paint
- Painting with Acrylic on Top of Gold Leaf
- Acrylic Painting Surfaces for Experimentation
This is an updated version of an original post published on 21st September 2017