Acrylic Painting for Beginners: Getting Started in 10 Easy Steps
The Things I Wish I Knew
When you start in a new medium you have a lot of questions.
In this article I try to answer the main questions that someone starting painting with acrylics might have.
The answers include tips I wish someone would have given me when I first started painting. It would have saved me so much frustration, some time, and some money too.
1. What Paint?
What Kind of Acrylic Paint Should I Buy?
Acrylics come in different size containers, different thickness, and of course different brands.
The good news is that they are all mixable. You can find student quality or artist quality, the latter is more expensive and gives higher performance in terms of color and final results. Get the best paint that you can afford. I advise buying paint of well-known brands, such as Golden, Liquitex, or Utrecht, just to mention a few.
I especially like using heavy body acrylics for their buttery consistence, somehow similar to oil paint.
Each brand develops slightly different hues, so you can buy the colors you like/need from different makers.
Tip: Get the best you can buy
Buy acrylic paint from well known brands, and look for artist quality, not student quality.
By selecting professional-grade acrylics you'll get paint with more pigment for your investment and a greater ability to alter your paint characteristics using gels and mediums.
2. What Colors?
What Paint Colors Do I Need?
To get started, you don’t need to buy a lot of colors. With a little practice you can mix any color you need starting from a few.
To save some money, you can opt to purchase an acrylic paint set of the basic colors, that usually contains cadmium yellow, naphthol crimson, pthalo green, ultramarine blue and titanium white. With some trial and error, you can learn how to mix all the color you need from such a small palette.
I like to add Burnt Umber, which is a nice dark, and mixed with Ultramarine Blue gives a beautiful, chromatic black.
Get also a color wheel, great tool to help you mixing colors.
If you find that you mix the same color over and over, then you can add that color tube to the initial set.
Example of Limited Palette From Trusted Brands
3. Paint Brushes
Which Brushes Do I Need?
Paint brushes come in many types and sizes, and can be very cheap or quite expensive.
Synthetic brushes, usually cheaper than natural ones, are great for acrylics.
The best sizes and shapes depend on your painting style; however, you can start with three or four sizes of filbert brushes – flat, with rounded point - which can be used to obtain different kinds of brushstrokes.
You can learn more about basic brushstroke types here.
To start, I suggest synthetic sable filberts, approximately 1”, ½”, and ¼”, and a thin detail brush.
Be willing to be a beginner every single morning.— Meister Johann Eckhart
Beware of very cheap brushes. Their bristles are not as flexible, and your brushstrokes will suffer of that. They also tend to shed on your painting and after few uses the bristles spread out instead of keeping the shape, making it very difficult to paint with.
To keep your brushes in good condition make sure you clean them thoroughly with soapy water after each painting session, rinsing well, and laying them flat to dry. Never let acrylic paint dry on brushes, it can irremediably ruin your brushes.
For more detailed advice, you may want to read my guide to choosing the best paint brushes.
On What Can I Paint?
With acrylics you can paint on a vast array of supports, as long as the paint sticks after dry - test if not sure.
The typical art supports are stretched canvas, canvas boards, wood panels and paper. If you buy pre-made canvas, double check that it’s primed for acrylic painting. Oil primed will not work.
Also, you can not paint with acrylics on top on oil paint.
How About You?
Do you like color mixing, or would you rather have a tube of the right color you need?
Where Should I Mix Colors?
You’ll need a palette on which you mix your paint.
This can be made of wood, plastic or paper. Non-porous surfaces are highly preferable.
Disposable paper palettes are a good solution for easy clean-up. A grey or neutral color palette helps with accurate color mixing, but white is fine. A smooth paper plate can be used as disposable palette.
Since acrylic paint dries fast, only squeeze out small amounts at a time, and keep the paint moist spraying water with a spray bottle.
Do I Need to Prop My Canvas Up?
You should paint with the support facing you, pretty much perpendicular to your line of sight, not horizontal.
This helps with perspective and proportions, and reduces spills and dust deposits. Tabletop easels are a great option. If you like to stand up, you may opt for a standing easel.
Do I Need Water to Paint with Acrylics?
Acrylic paint is water-based, and it’s important to have plenty of water handy at all times.
Use the water to rinse the brushes and to thin the paint. A small about of water also keeps paint from drying too fast.
Change the water often, or have two containers: a clean one for diluting paint, and one for rinsing the brushes.
Start a painting with fresh ideas, and then let the painting replace your ideas with its ideas.— Darby Bannard
8. Cleaning Brushes
How Do I Take Care of my Brushes?
Don't let acrylic paint dry on brushes.
Rinse them well in between colors and blot excess water on a paper towel or an old rag. Keep paper towels handy also to remove mistakes on the canvas while they are still wet.
For more on the topic of cleaning brushes, palette, and dry paint on clothes, read How to Clean Up Acrylic Paints.
Do I Need to Buy Acrylic Medium?
To improve the paint performance, different kinds of acrylic mediums are available.
I suggest you start getting familiar with the acrylic paint before you buy any mediums, because it depends on what you feel you’d like to improve.
Some of the mediums are for increasing the drying time, for making the paint glossy, for making it thick, or improve the flow. You can improve the flow simply adding water to the paint, this reduces a little the color intensity.
A fun way to get familiar with acrylics and discover what medium you may enjoy using, is to experiment with Creative Painting Techniques.
How Should I Dress for Painting with Acrylics?
Wear comfortable clothes that you are not afraid of staining, or protect more precious ones with an apron. Acrylic paint is pretty hard to wash off.
If acrylic paint gets on your clothes, you need to wash the stain immediately, while it’s still wet, with soapy water, rub well, and rinse thoroughly.
Golden Tip: Avoid Very Cheap Paints and Tools
My biggest problem as a beginner was that I did not understand how using low quality supplies makes the painting process much more difficult, to the point of frustration.
I bought cheap supplies thinking of saving money, but on hind-sight I wish I had invested some extra money at the beginning.
Happy painting! :)
Most Importantly: Enjoy What You Do!
© 2012 Robie Benve