Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she has learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.
Things I Wish I Knew as a Beginner in Acrylic Painting
When you start with 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. I hope you find this useful!
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 a 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.
- I especially like using heavy body acrylics for their buttery consistency, which is somehow similar to oil paint.
- Each brand develops slightly different hues, so you can buy the colors you like/need from different makers.
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 select colors.
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, which is a great tool to help you mix colors.
- If you find that you mix the same color over and over, you can add that color tube to the initial set.
3. Paint Brushes
Which Brushes Do I Need?
Paint brushes come in many types and sizes. They can be very cheap or quite expensive. Synthetic brushes, usually cheaper than natural ones, are great for acrylics.
The best sizes and shapes are going to depend on your painting style. However, you can start with three or four sizes of filbert brushes—flat with a rounded point— which can be used to obtain different kinds of brushstrokes. Learn about basic brushstroke types so you are equipped to paint!
- To start, I suggest synthetic sable filberts, approximately 1”, ½”, and ¼”, and a thin detail brush.
Beware of very cheap brushes. Their bristles are not as flexible, and your brushstrokes will suffer from that. They also tend to shed on your painting. After a few uses, the bristles spread out instead of keeping their shape, making it very difficult to paint.
- I recently bought a brush set from D'Artesan Shoppe and I was a little worried that they would be cheap quality, but I ended up loving the set. It has a great assortment of brushes and it's a surprisingly good quality for the price.
- To keep your brushes in good condition, make sure you clean them thoroughly with soapy water after each painting session, rinsing them 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.
Be willing to be a beginner every single morning.
— Meister Johann Eckhart
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 you're not sure.
The typical painting surfaces are stretched canvas, canvas boards, wood panels, and paper. But the possibilities don’t stop there. I’ve seen people paint with acrylics on stones, vinyl tiles, walls, furniture, fabric, and more.
I like to buy canvasses that have already been primed with gesso. You could coat any canvas or board that you want to paint on with some gesso. It's not hard, maybe a little time-consuming. Here are step-by-step instructions for how to prep a canvas for painting.
When you buy pre-made canvas, double-check that it’s primed for acrylic. Oil primed will not work - never paint with acrylics on top of oil.
How About You?
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 a disposable palette.
Since acrylic paint dries quickly, only squeeze out small amounts at a time. Keep the paint moist spraying water on it with a spray bottle.
To keep my acrylic from drying, even in between painting sessions, I am now using a Sta-Wet Palette. It keeps acrylic paint wet for days! No more stingy paint lumps for me. Now I feel comfortable squeezing out good amounts of paint.
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 while also reducing spills and dust deposits.
- Tabletop easels are a great option, and they are very affordable.
- If you like to stand up, you may opt for a standing easel.
If you have no easel, you can use books or other objects to prop your painting up, but I strongly recommend buying some kind of easel, it just makes your job much easier.
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?
The main trick to keep brushes in good shape is to avoid letting acrylic paint dry on the bristles.
In between colors, remove the excess paint with a paper towel, then rinse the brushes well. Blot the excess water on a paper towel or an old rag.
At the end of a painting session, apply some mild soap on the wet bristles and rub them in circles on the palm of your hand, until the foam becomes clear.
Rinse well and lay flat to dry.
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.
Here is what some mediums are for:
- Increasing the drying time
- Making the paint glossy
- Making the paint thick
- Improving the flow.
- Modifying the density of the paint.
- Adding texture.
You can improve the flow by simply adding water to the paint, but this reduces a little of the color intensity.
A fun way to get familiar with acrylics and discover what medium you may enjoy 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. Otherwise, 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. Use soapy water, rub the paint well, and rinse the clothing item thoroughly.
Avoid Cheap Paints and Tools
My biggest problem as a beginner was that I was trying to be frugal buying low-cost supplies. I thought, if the material is not very expensive, I would not feel bad if I made mistakes or used up pint and supports experimenting.
What I did not understand was that using low-quality supplies makes the painting process much more challenging - to the point of frustration.
I bought cheap supplies thinking of saving money, but in hindsight, I wish I had invested some extra money at the beginning.
Happy painting! :)
Most Importantly: Enjoy What You Do!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: Do I paint directly on the canvas without putting anything on it?
Answer: With acrylics, you can paint on pretty much every surface, as long as it's not oily. You can paint on canvas with no prep work or sealer, but I would not recommend it. The raw canvas absorbs a lot of the paint, making your job very hard. The best option is to buy canvas that has already been base-coated with gesso. You can also buy some gesso and coat any canvas or board that you want to paint on. In this case, follow the directions on the container.
For best results, apply two or three layers; diluting the first coat with water, and lightly sanding between coats.
Question: What kind of paper should you use for acrylic paints?
Answer: You can paint with acrylics on any kind of paper. However, thicker and less absorbent paper seems to work best. Multimedia paper, for example, works nicely for acrylic paint. Canvas paper is also great.
Question: What kind of medium should I use for better painting with acrylic colors?
Answer: 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.
Here is what some mediums are for:
Increasing the drying time
Making the paint glossy
Making the paint thick
Improving the flow.
You can improve the flow by simply adding water to the paint, though this reduces a little of the color intensity.
A fun way to get familiar with acrylics and discover what medium you may enjoy is to experiment with creative painting techniques.
Question: If something used after painting with acrylics for glow and smoothness?
Answer: I like to apply varnish after the paint is completely dry. Varnish makes the surface homogeneous and creates an even look, which could be shiny or glossy, depending on the kind you use.
Glossy varnish gives some kind of a glow and smoothness to the painting.
Question: How can l remove starch from an acrylic paint bottle?
Answer: If the starch is on the outside of the paint bottle, just wash it with soap and water, that should do it. If the starch is mixed in with the paint, then you may not be able to remove it.
Question: Should I always paint the background of the canvas with a solid color first?
Answer: When it comes to toning your canvas, you can enjoy the freedom of choosing any color or a combination of colors you like. There are a few generally trusted ground colors that most artists would pick, like raw sienna, raw umber, or yellow ochre, but you can really get creative with it.
My recommendation is that you observe other artists' work and get inspired by what them, then, when you create your own paintings, you experiment and try new combinations of colors to find out what works for you.
Here is the link to an article about toning your canvas with tips about how to pick the color(s) and how to apply it.
Question: What kind of acrylic paint would be considered "low-quality"? A random acrylic from the craft store?
Answer: To see the quality of the paint, look at the label on the container. If it says "craft acrylic paint" it's usually low quality. The high quality paint usually says "artist" somewhere on the label. If it says great for students and beginners it's usually lower quality, but it may still be ok.
It's up to you, where you are in your carrier, and what kind of work you do. You choose what works for you at any particular time.
Just be aware that the pigmentation of the paint is much higher in the artist paint. Which means lower quality paints can make your job a little harder.
Question: Do I need to coat the canvas with white paint before I begin? If the canvas is coated with gesso, does that change its color?
Answer: A canvas coated with gesso is usually very white. However, there is also clear gesso, and that will show the canvas original color. You may even find black gesso, some artists like to start from a black canvas. The bottom line is that you need some kind of gesso on the canvas, and then it is your choice if you want to apply an extra coat of paint, white or any other color, before you start your masterpiece. I usually apply a thin coat of a bright color to unify the painting and get rid of all the white.
Question: I'm a beginner painter and it’s a little overwhelming to decide if I should buy a beginners painting kit or buy items separately. Do you have a recommendation?
Answer: You are right, it's very hard to decide. To be honest with you, I started with a beginners kit. I bought an easel that inside had a set of acrylic paints and a set of oils, a palette and a couple of brushes.
I used them for a while, but the quality of the paint was not very good. I realized that later, when I bought single tubes of better quality paint, and the way the colors mixed and layered made painting easier.
I think the reason for that is that the beginner set had less pigment in the paint, and colors where less strong, more transparent.
The easel served me very well, but If I had to start now, I would probably buy a set of artist quality paints and go from there.
Question: Is there a foundation that needs to be used to prepare the canvas for painting?
Answer: If you buy a stretched canvas from a store, it's usually ready to go. If you are painting on a generic canvas or fabric, acrylic gesso is the recommended foundation.
You can read more about how to prep a canvas for painting here
Question: Can you use both watercolor and acrylic paints in the same painting?
Answer: Acrylic and watercolor are both water-based paints and that makes them compatible, so the short answer is yes, you can use them both on the same painting. However, while acrylic dries to a final state that can be covered with more paint but not changed, watercolor will be reactivated by the contact with water or wet paint. No matter how much time you let go by, once reactivated with water, watercolor will lift and/or mix into the next layer of paint.
That might be just fine for the effect you want to accomplish. However, if you aim to preserve the watercolor layers and make them stable, spray them with a fixative before you apply anything wet on top - like water, paint, or varnish.
Question: How do I start a painting?
Answer: Try this other article of mine, it might help you find your starting process for the first painting.
Question: Impossible for me to do blending properly when painting with acrlyic. Do you need a medium for blending?
Answer: Blending is tricky with acrylics due to their fast drying time. You can use a drying retardant medium or a type of paint that dries slower, like the Golden Open, and that makes blending easier.
With regular acrylics, you have to act on the blending right away, can't wait to come back to that area later, or it would be dry already.
Question: What shirt should I wear to paint?
Answer: To paint, wear something that you don't mind staining. An old shirt would do.
Neutral colors are best, especially if you are painting in a brightly lit area, or outdoors, avoid wearing bright colors that may cause a colorful reflected light on your canvas and palette, interfering with how you see the colors that you are mixing.
White, earth tones, or black are safer colors, as far as the reflection issue.
When I paint in my studio, I pretty much wear anything that I don't mind getting paint on.
Sometimes I wear an apron.
Question: Can I achieve a cloudy effect using the same color, adding water to acrylic?
Answer: Thinning a color with water makes it more transparent, so you can surely try and see if that works for the purpose of your painting.
The great thing about acrylic is that you can always paint over and fix things without having to wait for a long drying time.
Experiment and try different techniques, you can hardly go wrong.
Question: Do we need to oil the brushes?
Answer: When painting with acrylic you should never enter any kind of oil into the painting process.
Acrylics are water-based and water and oil don't get along.
Clean your brushes with soapy water and rinse well.
Question: What kind of varnish am I supposed to use on acrylics?
Answer: I varnish my acrylic paintings with an acrylic varnish either Golden or Liquitex brands. I like a satin finish the best, but they are available in matte, satin, gloss, and high gloss. They are all inter-mixable, for example, I often mix some gloss varnish into the satin for a shinier finish.
Question: Do you have to prep the canvas before painting? Like with Gesso or water on the back?
Answer: If you buy a ready-canvas for the store it's already prepped. You can paint on canvas with no prep work or sealer, but the canvas would absorb a lot of the paint, making your job extra challenging. I like to buy a canvas that has already been base-coated with gesso. You can also apply gesso to any fabric or board that you want to paint on. In this case, follow the directions on the container.
For smoother results, apply two or three thin layers, letting dry between coats.
© 2012 Robie Benve
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on September 11, 2020:
Ivanna, where you can buy acrylic painting tools depends on where you live. In Italy, for example, you would have to find art supply stores that sell pints, canvasses, drawing tools, and all the necessities for artists. They are easier to find around art schools. In the USA, there are art supply stores like Dick Blick, and there are craft stores like Michaels, JCMoore, JoAnn Fabrics, that have a wode array of art tools. These are the big chains, then of course there are the locally own stores that vary by location. If you don't have any near you, you can order online. Jerry's Artarama and Cheap Joe are two more sellers for the online shopping. I hope this helps.
Ivanna on September 10, 2020:
I am a beginner,I am looking for acrylic paint and brushes to buy but couldn't find,please where do I buy them
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on August 02, 2020:
Hi Justine, if you are just getting started with acrylics you already have a double advantage in knowing that you are dealing with student quality paints. 1. You can blame the paint for things you don't like ;) - 2. You don't feel like they are precious to the point that you don't want to waste them.
Sometimes, using lower price supplies lifts some pressure and frees our creativity. Happy painting!
Justine Forelli from Lafayette, CA on July 28, 2020:
Thanks for the tips. I have never tried acrylics but I just bought some for my daughter and now I think I will try them out. I should have read this article first though because I think we just got student quality ones.
Sp Greaney from Ireland on July 24, 2020:
This is really good advice for a beginner interested in using acrylics. Thanks for sharing your tips.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on May 09, 2020:
Hi Mary, for a beginner I would recommand choosing subjects to paint that are simple and a good way to practice rendering color, tone, and form. One of the best ways to practice is to paint from life what is in front of you. A pear, a cup, a plant, etc, and expand from that. I would not recommend a busy and intricate scene, pick something relatively simple, like a seascape or a landscape with big shapes, and focus on getting all the subtle variations correctly in relations to each other.
Mary on May 07, 2020:
WHat are some basic scene to paint as a begginer
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on September 10, 2019:
Thanks a lot K Herston, I appreciate the feedback and the cleaning tip. :) I didn't know about alcohol being used to clean up acrylic from clothes, windex is my go-to usually, ah! Thanks!
K herston on September 09, 2019:
The I work with acrylic paints professionally painting toys, it gets everywhere, little tip* use rubbing alcohol to get out of clothes. Great article btw.
Art Taiga on August 21, 2019:
Khushi on August 01, 2019:
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on June 16, 2019:
Acrylic paint is wet, so if you are working on paper choose a kind that can handle water and does not buckle too much.
Watercolor paper and mixed-media paper work well. You may want to tape it to a rigid support along the edges to keep the sheet flat.
Patricia on June 12, 2019:
Which paper should I use?
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on May 06, 2019:
Usually, I brush it with a big soft brush, to remove dust. Since dry acrylic is waterproof, you can also wipe it with a wet rag. Just be aware of the texture, if the surface is coarse, it might catch into the fibers of the clots and trap lint.
Karen on May 05, 2019:
How do you clean a painted canvas painted with acrylics?
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on March 22, 2019:
Way to go Nora, nothing better than a fun event to inspire you to create! Wishing you lots of hours of happy painting.
Nora Meats on March 18, 2019:
I attended a wine and canvas night with my daughter and loved it! Now I want to start painting regularly and your article has been very useful, thanks.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on February 27, 2019:
You said it, Auntieartist, you just need to start. :) Jump in and put some paint down, create shapes and forms that please your eye, and go from there.
At the beginning it's helpful to get inspiration from famous paintings, trying to replicate their structure, does not have to be exactly the same image, but the composition is usually what makes a painting great. Good luck to you, and happy panting!
Auntieartist on February 22, 2019:
How can someone who can't draw paint? There must be techniques to use? I have acrylics, brushes, small easel ... just need to start.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on January 22, 2019:
I'm afraid acrylic paint would peel off the glasses when you wash them. I would use paint made specifically for glass.
Anita on January 20, 2019:
Can I use Acrylic paint on glass wine glasses?
Phyllis Safdo-Schwartz on January 16, 2019:
I am 65 years old and can not even draw a stick person however, I am excited about learning how to paint with acrylics. I have always wanted to learn and I feel deep inside myself that I have a hidden talent for painting. My mother had on a 9th grade education and had never taken an art course and yet see could draw anything see saw. She was an amazing artists. I saw you had taught yourself to paint so as a retired teacher I believe that you would qualify as a great teacher to teacher us new beginners.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on January 13, 2019:
Get all the supplies you need and dig in.There is no wrong way to do it, really. For more detailed info try this other article of mine
Jennifer Osinachi on January 13, 2019:
Hw do I start up my painting
Quresh on November 26, 2018:
Thanks for your tips on getting started. I have been hesitating for a long time but your 10 tips have given me a push.
Tanya on February 15, 2018:
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on December 07, 2017:
Hi Debbie, thanks for your kind words. For critique, I recommend joining a local group of painters, see if you find one near you. Often they have critique sessions, and paintings with others gives you the opportunity to ask for advice in any case. As far as website, there is the Daily PaintWorks site that has an ongoing critique session in their painting challenge page. Check it out. www(dot)dailypaintworks(dot)com/challenge/the-critique-me-challenge/14
Debbie on December 07, 2017:
Loved your advice - absolutely sound and makes sense to a beginner (like me). I have a couple of pictures that I have done and have no formal art training and just wondered if you know of a website who can look at your work and critique it. My work are absolute beginner's work and I suppose I just need reassurance to continue painting - I love it and I know there is no right or wrong way but........
Protiva. on October 24, 2017:
Oh! nice the paintings by acrylic colours! And have a holiday with them.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on March 07, 2017:
Hi Dale, it may seem like we forget sometimes, but painting is like riding a bike: skills comes back as soon as you try again. Get those brushes out in between grandchildren time, and start doodling. You'll see. :) Happy painting!
Dale Wilkinson on March 05, 2017:
I was asked why I don't paint, did I forget how. I think I did. Love those grand kids. Time to start.
Majka Wroblewska from Luton, UK on October 08, 2014:
Thank you for the helpful piece of advice. Apart from the technical obstacles to overcome, one might find themselves just burnt and stuggling to produce a unique piece of art, therefore personally I like to get inspired with other people's work that's been based on famous painter's paintings http://www.bimago.com/paintings/stylizations-inspi...
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on September 09, 2014:
Great tip ItayaLightbourne! In my studio I have linoleum floors and I thought the acrylic paint would peel off easily, but it does not. I learned that you can't prevent accidents, like a brush taking flight with no warning, a canvas falling face down, the water jar tipping over, so many chances for stained floors!
I don't mind my studio floor to be stained, but a floor covering is a very wise way to go. Thanks!
Itaya Lightbourne from Topeka, KS on September 02, 2014:
Also, make sure you put down protective covering for the floor or area on which you are painting. As you said, acrylic paint is pretty challenging to clean up once it is dried. :)
carol stanley from Arizona on August 27, 2012:
Just going through your art hubs..Always something new to learn..
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on May 26, 2012:
Hi MelChi, thanks for reading, and it's an honor for me to be of help. Happy painting! :)
Melanie Chisnall from Cape Town, South Africa on May 25, 2012:
Great advice, thanks! I'm just getting back into painting since I last painted at school 10 years ago. This was a great read to get me back into the mind frame of painting. Thanks for sharing :)
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on May 25, 2012:
Hi hollyshort, welcome to hubpages!
Georgina suggestion to prop up a drawing board with books would work. I also have a table-top easel that is very inexpensive, I think I paid about $9 for it, and serves the purpose well for small-medium canvases.
If you are handy, you can make your own easel with few pieces of wood and simple hardware. You can find dyi easel instructions on the web. Good luck and happy painting! :)
Georgina Crawford from Dartmoor on May 24, 2012:
I rest my drawing board on a pile of books placed on the table - it gives enough of an angle to work with, but I'll bet Robie has a few tricks too.
hollyshort on May 24, 2012:
I can't afford a painting easel at this point in time. What would be a good replacement?
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on April 13, 2012:
@ gamelover, Thank you much! :)
@ MelissaMelvin, that's a very good point, having fun is the soul of acrylic painting, I can't imagine having fun being all worried about preserving your clothes! Writing would be a much cleaner option then. lol
Thanks for commenting!
MelissaMelvin from Prattville, AL on April 13, 2012:
Great tips Robie! Especially the clothes. If you don't plan to get your clothes messy then you may should think up another career or hobby. Hmmm...like writing
Meskens Geert from Belgium on April 12, 2012:
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on April 04, 2012:
Hi Georgina, I see from your hubs it would have been quite an achievement to tempt you away from your pastels, so I'm very happy with the almost! :) Thank you for reading and your feedback. Ciao! :)
Georgina Crawford from Dartmoor on April 04, 2012:
I really enjoyed your step by step article. It almost tempted me away from my pastels......almost! Rating up.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on March 07, 2012:
How wonderful Longhunter, it's always exciting trying something new! I'm glad reading my hub gave you some extra motivation to try acrylics. Have fun and happy painting!
Longhunter on March 07, 2012:
Robie, I've been drawing in pencil and color pencil as well as painting in watercolors commercially for 35 years but never tried acrylic paints. After reading your hub, I'm going to try to illustrate my new children book using acrylics.
Excellent hub, Robie.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on February 05, 2012:
Hey Rachel, you made my day! I hope it's just the start of a wonderful long lasting passion for painting. Enjoy! :)
Rachel on February 05, 2012:
Thanks, i am just now getting into painting and this was very helpful!
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on January 22, 2012:
Thanks RTalloni for stopping by and leaving a positive comment, I'm really happy you liked the hub! :)
RTalloni on January 13, 2012:
Nice guideline to hold on to for my grandchildren--thanks!