Step-by-Step Acrylic Painting for Beginners
How to Paint With Acrylics
To start an acrylic painting you need to make sure you have these two things:
- 7 basic painting supplies (see below), and
- ideas for what to paint.
Of course, there are techniques for how to make your idea into a piece of art. We will discuss those further on, including:
- best lighting
- planning your painting's layout
- tinting your canvas
- drawing your idea first
- painting the middle values first
- then adding details and highlights
Let's get started!
7 Supplies You'll Need for Acrylic Painting
Do you want to learn how to paint with acrylics? I've compiled a list of the seven things you'll need to get started with more detail further on:
- acrylic paint
- a variety of brushes
- painting support (canvas or gesso boards)
- a palette
- cloth rags or paper towels
Basic Acrylic Painting Supplies
1. Acrylic Paint
Get the best quality paint you can afford. Aim for artist quality, not student quality. The student quality hues have more fillers and respond less efficiently to color and media mixing. You don’t need many colors; a limited palette of basic colors is great for starters. To begin with a very limited palette, you can buy single tubes and make your own primary color combination. If you want a pre-made set, the Liquitex 4-Color Mixing set has a good choice of tubes: Quinacridone Crimson, Yellow Medium Azo, Phthalo Blue (Green Shade), and Titanium White. Black can always be obtained by mixing the three primary colors together.
Note of caution: If you use phthalo, either blue or green, be aware that it's a very strong pigment. A small amount goes a long way. I avoided phthalo for many years because it can really mess you up, but I grew to love it. When used in small quantities, it's an amazingly flexible color, very useful in many color mixes. I rarely used it pure, right out of the tube, however.
2. Brushes of Different Shapes and Sizes
A rule of thumb for brushes is to use big brushes for big areas and loose painting styles and to use small brushes for small areas and details. That's why it's important to have a variety of sizes.
3. Painting Support
Acrylic paint works on many kinds of surfaces, including canvas, paper, or board. If you buy pre-primed canvas, make sure it’s primed with acrylic gesso. A canvas primed for oil painting is not suitable. Acrylics don’t stick on oily surfaces and would peel off with time.
Your palette is the surface on which you mix your paint. You can use any flat, tray-like object made of plastic or other water-proof material.
Get a big jug of water to rinse the brushes when you switch from one color to another. Better yet, you should have two containers of water: one to rinse brushes after painting and one with clean water to use to dilute paint and moisten brushes when needed. (Read Tips for Cleaning Acrylic Paint Brushes for more information.)
6. Cloth Rag or Paper Towel
These come in very handy to dab brushes after rinsing, correct mistakes, and keep your hands clean.
It’s beneficial to keep your painting support at an angle directly opposite you as you work. This helps a lot with perspective and proportions. To keep your canvas or board inclined, you can use a stand-up easel or a tabletop one. Easels come in different shapes and prices. You can get a tabletop easel for less than $10.
The student grade supplies are cheaper, but they can make your work harder. Cheap canvasses don't seem to grip the paint as well as more expensive ones.
Pay Attention to the Quality of Materials!
The quality of the materials you use is crucial, especially the paint. There are student quality canvasses, brushes, and paints and professional ones available as well.
Student quality has a smaller percentage of pigment in the acrylic binder and fillers. It’s hard to see the difference until you start painting with it. The paint behaves in a less efficient and more challenging way. When in doubt, go for the professional quality. Otherwise, you may waste time and energy to obtain the results you want.
The rule of thumb is this: Get the best tools you can afford. For paint, Golden is a great brand and so is Liquitex. Pay attention to the labels and avoid paints that say "student" or "studio". Go for "artist" quality.
For example, Liquitex Basics is student quality and Liquitex Heavy Body is artist quality.
"Painting is damned difficult - you always think you've got it, but you haven't." Paul Cezanne
How long have you been painting with acrylics?
There is no substitute for practice. The more acquainted you are with the acrylic medium... the easier it is to express your ideas with more professionalism.— Joseph Orr
Getting Started Painting
What Is the Best Light for Painting?
Once you've gathered your painting supplies, it's time to find a well-lit area. The old masters like Leonardo and Botticelli set up their studio in a room with tall windows that would get northern light because it's less direct, remains pretty stable throughout the day, and does not alter colors with its warmth or hue.
- If you can’t have a nice Northern window in your painting area or if you need to paint when it’s dark outside, make sure that your artificial lighting has a neutral light scope. Compact fluorescent lights (CFL) are good for this.
Arrange your light source and your canvas so that the light is higher than the canvas, and it’s not coming from behind you. This is to avoid disturbing reflections on the painting surface and having your shadow cast on the painting surface.
Deciding Your Painting's Focus
What do you want to paint? What are you trying to represent? Maybe it’s a landscape, but what is it about that landscape that inspired you to paint it? Its light? Its calm? Its liveliness?
Before you get started, decide what you are trying to represent in your painting and plan the composition of your painting around it.
If you work from a photograph, there is no reason to be 100% faithful to the photo layout and/or colors. You can alter sizes, positions, and colors of things to suit your artistic goal. You can edit some of the trees out, add some others, and move a home or a bridge to make your composition more balanced.
In fact, if you do use a photograph, use it for reference only, don't copy it. Make a sketch of the elements and shapes that you like, but then put the photo away. Then feel free to rearrange the figures and create your own composition for your painting.
Easy Things for Beginners to Paint
The best painters don't necessarily choose complicated subjects to paint. One of the most difficult things to paint, for example, is a portrait of a person. But think about all of the beautiful paintings you've seen (or seen pictures of) that are of much simpler subjects.
- A vase of flowers
- A simple landscape
- A scene at the beach
- A still life of simple objects
- A bowl of fruit
- A spot in your garden or a local park
These subjects will offer plenty of challenges for a beginning painter while keeping allowing you to keep your painting simple.
Plan Your Layout: It Will Save You Trouble Later
The temptation to start painting right away is huge, but if you jump right into the drawing and painting on your canvas, you may find yourself stuck with a weak painting that needs improvement and you don't know how to "save" it. In many cases, this is a sign of poor composition and value structure.
Before you jump into your painting, make some preliminary sketches to use as a reference. The rule of thirds can help you decide how to plan the layout of your painting and where to place your focal point.
You can paint different colors from what you see in order to stick with a specific color scheme. Some planning using value sketches can make a huge difference.
The quick drying time and incredible flexibility of acrylics allow for 'almost' foolproof experimentation.— Corrine Loomis-Dietz
Start Drawing on a Tinted Canvas
I used to draw first and then apply a tinted background for my painting. The problem with that is that the paint smudges your drawing and it can make details hard to see.
I learned to tint the canvas first and then draw my layout. It’s much easier this way.
You can pick any ground color that complements your composition. When in doubt, I usually paint a diluted base of yellow ochre on the whole canvas. It provides the painting a vibrant undertone and it helps me avoid the feeling of artist’s block in front of a white canvas.
Tips for Painting With Water-Based Paints
- Acrylic paint is water-based so you can thin it with water. There is no need to use chemical paint thinner. You can also clean your brushes with water.
- Even though acrylic paints are water-soluble, they dry quickly and are water-resistant when they're dry.
- You can't mix acrylic and oil paints (oil and water don't mix!).
- You can use acrylics with a watercolor technique, but unlike watercolor paints, you can't reactivate the paint once it's dry.
Paint the Middle Values First
When you are happy with your composition, fill the rough shape of the focal point of your painting with the middle value for that object.
Then move to another object or shape adjacent your focal point and paint its rough shape with the middle value.
Keep working around the whole composition blocking in all the shapes and objects. Don’t bother about shadows and highlights at this stage.
Here's some guidance on different brushstroke options to help you.
Adding Details to Your Painting
Once you have blocked off all the shapes in your composition, step back and take a look. Does it make sense? Did you choose good colors for each object?
Then go back and make any needed changes to the colors. When you are happy with the colors, it is time to start filling in more details: smaller shapes and different values. Start with the lighter values then move to the darker ones.
Paint the shadows. Shadows should be of a cooler color than the rest of the object. Note: Shadows are never black.
Paint the Highlights Last
The last thing you need to do is to add the highlights. Highlights don’t have to be white; they can be a very light value of the main color of the object.
Step back often and look at your painting from a distance. This will help you see the direction your painting is going and evaluate the values and areas that need tweaking or improvement.
Tell a Story on Canvas
Throughout the process, keep your focal point in mind. What were you trying to achieve? Does it come through to the viewer? The goal should not be to represent something, but to tell a story, to convey feelings. To remind yourself of the story that you are trying to depict, it’s a good idea to decide on a title that summarizes it from the beginning and keep it in mind. It might help to write it down and keep it in front of you.
Keep Painting Fun, No Matter What!
One of the main challenges for beginner artists is that the painting does not come out looking like what you had in your head. How our imagination envisions the final piece is often very different from the results on canvas.
It’s okay for the painting to take a different turn during execution and come out different. It takes a lot of practice to be able to plan to know exactly how to render a certain effect.
Don’t get discouraged. Keep painting and don’t forget the most important thing: in painting, the fun is in the journey, not the destination.
Enjoy every step of it, even the mistakes, because they teach you a lot.
Questions & Answers
Do you have any tips for keeping my acrylic paints usable after they've been mixed on a palette?
I like to keep my acrylics wet by spraying them with water as soon as I squeeze them out. Creating a moisturizing film on top prevents the blobs of paint from drying.
I make sure I spray throughout the painting process, including the mixed paint pools. Don't spray too much water; you don't want to make the paint too runny, just wet on the surface.
I've heard of people using a stay-wet palette, and they say it works. I haven't tried it yet, but I think I need to look into it, especially if I start painting more with acrylics (I've been doing a lot of oil painting lately).
This palette has a lidded plastic tray containing a piece of acrylic paper over a thin rectangular sponge. Keeping the sponge wet provides moisture to the paint and, once you close the lid, it can stay wet for days.Helpful 51
- Helpful 7
I've never painted before. I usually draw animation, but I've been asked to paint something lively and radiant on a fabric canvas. I've sketched an elegant but straightforward landscape drawing on paper, and now I'm going to my canvas. Any tips on how I begin to sketch, and what I should avoid doing as a beginner?
It sounds like so far you have been doing the right things.
To transfer your sketch to canvas, maybe you can use the grid method. You may want to look it up online, but in a nutshell, you draw a grid of squares over your sketch and draw a proportional grid on your canvas. Then you focus on one square at a time and draw the image on each square on your canvas until the entire image has been transferred. Keep the grid lines light, and when you're finished, you can erase or paint over them, and start working on painting your landscape. I hope this helps.Helpful 11
How can I convince people that painting is fun to do?
Convincing others that anything is fun to do is quite tricky.
I have a kid that does not want to have anything to do with painting, and I tried to convince him he can do it, but he's stubborn on his refusal. So, trying to convince people that painting is fun does not always work, but it's worth a try.
That said, I can think of two analogies that may come in handy.
1. Appetite and food enjoyment.
Even if we are not hungry, seeing someone eating with true pleasure and enjoyment can make us crave that food. I remember as a child seeing a cartoon of Vicky the Viking where the hungry Vikings devoured huge roasted thighs, holding them with their hands and taking big bites out of them. Those scenes made a life-long impression on me. I still crave roasted thighs now, after many years.
2. Bob Ross.
He made millions of regular people think that painting was easy and fun. How did he do it? He showed how much fun he was having creating and that making mistakes is not a big deal, you can fix mistakes or turn them into opportunities for unplanned beauty.
The two examples have one thing in common: both the Vikings and Bob Ross were truly enjoying what they were doing, and that showed through.
In short, I think the best way to convince others that painting is fun is to do it and talk about it with passion. Show them how much you enjoy painting, talk about how it makes your life happier.
Talk about painting with a sparkle in your eyes and a grin on your face, and they will want to have that joy in their life.Helpful 10
© 2012 Robie Benve