Acrylic Painting Tips

Acrylic Painting Tips

Okay, my first bit of advice is: don't use the cheapest materials! That definitely applies to acrylic paints. Of course, making any art is better than none, so what you can afford comes into it, but your art is worth the best (particularly as you don't know how well it may turn out). More on that later...

If you're reading this, I figure you're already an acrylic paint user. Some people are still being converted from either oils or watercolours, but acrylics have elements of both, being thinnable with water, or able to be built up in layers, and even retain a certain amount of texture like oils.

The accepted wisdom is that the biggest asset of acrylics is also the biggest problem: they dry really fast! In fact, they dry up so fast the paint is often nearly dry in the palette before you finish what you're painting. There are ways around this!

Please note:
  • Apologies for the lack of pictures so far (though the household objects hardly need illustrating).
  • If you find any of these tips useful, please feel free to drop me a line, or sign my guestbook. These are here to help, but not for reproduction without prior consent and acknowledgment

  • Tip no. 1: Retarder

    Bottles of acrylic retarding agents are readily available in all good art supply shops. Buy the one made by the manufacturer of your paint. Only use it if you really need to. I add a little to colours that I'm mixing and storing in sealed containers for later use. Adding water can make such stored paints go mouldy, or at least smell bad. I add a few drops of retarder so I have time to mix the paint, and I figure most of it has evaporated by the time I'm ready to put the lid on my new blended colour.

    One danger (though not one I have experienced due to my limited use of retarding agents), is that retarded paint can become wet again when overpainted with another colour. For that reason, I'd suggest trying to limit its use to the upper layers of detail, rather than underpainting. Overall, if you need to do blended work, I recommend the use of the wet palette (Tip no. 2).

    Tip no. 2: The Wet Palette

    The best way to solve the problem of paint drying quickly in the palette can be alleviated by using a wet palette. These are easy to make using a cheap, fairly flat plastic lunchbox, some paper-towel and a piece of greaseproof paper.

    The best sort of lunchbox to use is one that is shallow (no more than about an inch deep, but it doesn't matter if it is), with a fitted lid that creates an airtight seal. Even the seal isn't essential, if you're doing this all in one session.

    Layer paper-towel into the bottom of the lunchbox. Usually, I take about four connected sheets and fold them in half, which makes a thickness of about eight sheets. On top of this, I layer a piece of greaseproof paper (the non-waxed sort sold in rolls for use in the kitchen, called Baker's paper in the U.S.), cut to about the same size as the paper-towel, or slightly larger.

    Once this is done, remove the greaseproof paper and soak the paper-towel. Drain off the excess water until the paper-towel layers are damp only, then put back the greaseproof paper layer and gently press all over, so that it makes contact with the paper-towel layers beneath it.

    This surface is excellent for mixing paint on, and your paint will stay wet for a long time, even days, gradually drawing moisture through the greaseproof paper layer to replace what it loses. To take a break, simply replace the airtight lid of the lunchbox. Your paint won't dry out!

    The only caution is that the paint does gradually become watery, and pigments may also be drawn through to the paper-towel layer, but this takes considerable time, and the paint should be fine for a normal painting session.

    Tip no. 3: Blending

    With the above tips in mind, it is possible to mix your own shades of colours, and then store them in sealed containers or tubes, then use the wet palette for blending purposes.

    A major gripe I have often heard among acrylic painters is that it is impossible to gently blend shades of colours, mostly due to the quick drying nature of the paint. Some painters have used dots of various shades in overlap to achieve this, and others have carefully layered shades, rather than trying to blend while the paint is wet.

    My preferred method is to have a few premixed shades of the colour available (dark, middle, light), then create a wet palette, mostly with three shades (and maybe white), leaving spaces in between to mix intermediate shades between these major mixes. Using this method, subtle graduations and shadings are easily achievable!

    Tip no. 4: Using Watercolour Masking Fluid

    Watercolour purists can get very coy about the use of masking fluid, as though it's cheating to use something so effective. I don't recommend using it straight onto the paint surface (as you would with watercolour paper), as it could scar the surface of your board. However, it goes extremely well over a layer of acrylic paint and removes even better than from paper.

    If you have a painting where layers are already dry, or there is at least one layer of acrylic paint, using masking fluid can be an effective way of "saving" an area for later painting in another colour. This technique is particularly effective if you are putting down large swathes of colour diluted with water. If the overpainting is thick, you may have trouble removing all the masking fluid later.

    Simply paint over the area you want to keep clear with the masking fluid and allow it to dry. DON'T attempt to remove any spillages or mispaintings while it is drying as you mayl damage the surface your work. Wait for it to dry!

    Use a brush that you keep specifically for masking fluid, and wash it in warm water afterwards (though it will always retain a bit of the hardened rubber). Cheaper modelling brushes are fine for this purpose.

    When the masking fluid is dry, use your clean fingers to "roll" it up, by pushing at it hard and working across the connected areas, out to the tips of details. If any shiny areas of paint remain, there is probably still fluid under these, which must be removed carefully, with a razor blade or similar.

    Tip no. 5: A Cheap Source of Palettes

    The best source of disposable cheap plastic mixing trays I've found is free and readily available at most supermarkets. The packaging used for storing shampoos on and off the shelf is usually made as a tray, with about six to eight circular pools perfect for mixing paint. It doesn't matter if the paint does dry out in these (which makes cleaning proper palettes difficult), as you can throw them out at the end of your painting session. Or you could stick them in sunlight to see how badly that cheap paint you've been using fades!... nah, just kidding :-).

    These trays are also great for any parent or teacher with kids who like to paint.

    Tip no. 6: Transferring Your Sketch

    You will probably want to start with a line drawing of some sort, mostly in pencil. I use two main methods to use a sketch as the base of your painting:

  • Copy or trace the drawing onto the board or canvas, then paint a thin watery layer of acrylics over it to prime it, with the pencil-work still visible. I used this technique for some children's book pictures I was trying to do (still haven't finished), but I kept having to retrace as I added layers of background! If the paint is a bit too thick, you can lose your picture altogether.

  • Prime first with an overall colour or white, then transfer your sketch on top of this, using a hand-made carbon-paper technique. I did this for some bird paintings the way the old masters used to: by scribbling all over the back of my paper drawing in coloured pencil, then putting it on top of the primed background and drawing over my linework, either with a hard pencil or an ordinary ballpoint pen. It transfers on top of the base layer of paint, just like carbon paper. The heavier your line in the sketch, the more you will need to paint over it, if you want it to disappear, but it may not matter!

  • Okay, now A Lecture!

    Most important point:
    If you want your paintings to last, DON'T use cheap student-grade acrylics. A serious artist friend of mine (who shall remain nameless), once told me that there was no difference between these and artist-grade acrylics. For some colours, there definitely is!

    After working for a long time on a series of paintings for a picture book, I happened to leave some pink (mixed from magenta) paint I'd been using on a windowsill in direct light. When I came back a few weeks later, it had turned a washed out, dull colour. My experiments with the violet paint from the same manufacturer were even worse! Apparently, violet is a notoriously fugitive colour, but I hadn't expected that it could fade quite so drastically.

    Earth colours don't tend to suffer so much from this problem. Still, I'd suggest buying the best paint you can afford, if you're beginning works are likely to be good enough to keep, and maybe even hang somewhere. It's sad to find that some of my best work is now consigned to being filed away! I do remember how poor I was when I started this project, but trying to save on paint is really false economy, and a curatorial nightmare for anyone unlucky enough to buy original works using cheap pigments.


  • Creative Spotlite. Excellent acrylic painting information (including further tips, demonstrations and recommendations).

  • The Brothers Hildebrandt. If you think only students use acrylics and that serious artists paint in oils, or only work in Photoshop or Illustrator, then please have a look here, particularly at their Tolkien artwork, to see what's possible.
  • Thankyou to all the people who've written to me about this page. It is much appreciated! I only set it up in the hope that I could spare others some of the struggles I had initially, and help to increase enjoyment of painting with this wonderful medium!

    The above is Copyright, Ian C. Thomas, 2003 No reproduction without prior written consent and acknowledgment

    Return to Ian Thomas Graphics main page.