Zebralang, approx 3 x 4’ / .91 x 1.2m, Acrylic on Canvas, 2011
Acrylic, to me is kind of like, if you like birds and you like horses, chances are, you’d like a pegasus. Or, if you like a good-looking guy who can dance, you’d like Gene Kelly. Or, if you like Oreos and vanilla ice cream…you get the idea.
What attracts me most about acrylic, I guess, is its versatility. I always said that if, one day, I had absolutely no more money to buy paint (and that day, I’m afraid is all but upon me), I would just sink what little I had left into acrylic. (Then live on crackers and water, lol.) I can use it like oil, and I can paint with it like watercolour.
Come to think of it, I didn’t learn to use acrylic at art school—everything I know about it, I learned in art classes at the museum, and my fantastic teacher there taught me how to use it both ways. (We did use acrylic at art school, but more like a support medium / like for ground or underpainting and not as a medium in itself.)
I remember she said acrylic, basically, was a lot like liquid plastic, and it had only been in use really for art in the past 50 years. (That was some 20 years ago, so I guess I should say 70 years, now.) That said, people won’t really be sure of the archival value of works in acrylic until a few hundred years or so have passed.
Then again, given how people keep going on and on about how plastic isn’t biodegradable, I guess it’s fairly safe to say works in acrylic on canvas, at least, ought to be a good enough investment down the road. (That is, if you’re buying art for that purpose.)
Supercal, approx 45.72 x 30.48 / 18 x 12”, Acrylic on Canvas Paper, 2008
I guess, if you’re an artist like me, you might say acrylic is the Superman of mediums because of all the ‘superpowers’ it has—it doesn’t just have one, like how some superheroes just have speed or strength alone. (Sorry, Flash. Sorry, Mr Incredible.) But like Supes, it does have its weakness—but we’ll get into those, later.
For now, allow me to give you, not so much a quick-start guide but a primer, if you will, on how you can paint with acrylic—first, as though it were oil, and then, as though it were watercolour. Then we’ll wrap up with quick look at some other ways you can use acrylic (did I mention it was versatile?).
Make Like Acrylic Was Oil
If you’ve seen my Quick-start Beginner’s Guide to Oil Painting, you can pretty much use acrylic in the same way—just substitute plain ol’ water for oil or turpentine as a thinning medium. And like oil paint, you don’t even need to use medium if you want to use it straight out of the tube.
Some artists consider this water-solubility of acrylic as an advantage over oil because it smells a lot less and dries a lot faster. In fact, it’s the quick drying time that makes acrylic my go-to for shows because I’ve never been fortunate in the drying time department whenever I do oil on canvas.
Then again, you should know this quick-drying property is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you won’t have to wait so long for the paint to dry in between layers, but on the other, you’ll have a lot less time for blending and adjustment. Once it’s dry, it’s dry, and like oil, there’s only so many times you can paint over it.
Consummatum est, 20 x 16” / 50.8 x 40.64 cm, Acrylic on Canvas, 2020
If you’re used to painting in oil and you’re switching to acrylic for health or other reasons, it does take some getting used to, but it can be done. Personally, though, there’s nothing quite like painting in oil for flexibility (and for me, water-soluble oil or quick-drying oil isn’t quite the same, either).
But I think my favourite way, hands down to use acrylic ‘as oil’ would be with a palette knife. Again, I’ll admit, it’s just not the same as when you use oil? But for me there’s no denying that texturing acrylic paint is a pure pleasure in itself, mainly because of all the fun stuff you can mix with the paint that you probably wouldn’t be able to mix with oil.
Of course, you might want to know that mixing stuff with acrylic is likely to smell like a nail polish factory on steroids, so, if you were thinking of trying acrylic to escape the smell of oil paint, then…
But once more, acrylic’s water-solubility also makes it easier to clean up after, so it has that over oil paint, too. Now I don’t mean to compare acrylic to oil paint; Superman is not Spider-Man, after all (and heaven knows I love them both). As I’ve said, as awesome as acrylic is in the painting on canvas department, it’s just not the same as good ol’ fashioned oil paint.
Make Like Acrylic Was Watercolour
One of my favourites, Shiraz, in progress
I have yet to write my watercolour guide, but if you are familiar with watercolour painting, using acrylic instead of watercolours is pretty much the same, particularly if you use watercolour out of a tube instead of a pan. It’s just like substituting acrylic for oil, only obviously, you’re still just using water.
Because it dries so very quickly, you’re going to want to use small amounts at a time in a palette you can cover when not in use. Make sure it’s air-tight—it’s still going to dry up in there, but at least it might last a little while longer.
As regards brushes, I personally don’t like to use my watercolour brushes for acrylic, even if I’m using watercolour techniques. I may be silly for saying this (I think they did used to call me Silly Jilly in school), but I feel like acrylic is too, um, harsh for my delicate sable brushes (because it is plastic, after all). So as much as possible I stick to synthetic brushes when I use acrylic.
I also wouldn’t use acrylic on light paper (i.e. anything less than 300 gsm)—I mean, we’re really not *supposed* to, anyway, but what I mean is, you know. Once in a while I will use watercolours on less than ideal paper for certain things, but I’m a lot less inclined to do that with acrylic, especially since I’d have to use more water, or, the acrylic is just *too heavy*.
The nice thing about using acrylic as watercolour, though, is that once it dries, there’s no way it’s going to run if it should get wet again. I’ve definitely used this property to my advantage, although it can work against you if you’re into lifting, i.e. wetting or going over body colour and then blotting it.
Kelpie, approx 44 x 44”, 111.76 x 111.76 cm, Acrylic on Paper, 2011
In any case, this ‘sturdiness’ of acrylic has been a boon to my work. Not only have I not had to worry about ruining my work if I should accidentally, you know, wet it, in some way, but I’ve also never had to worry about bugs eating my paint as they have with certain of my watercolours.
If, for instance, I have work on paper that for some reason or another, I know I won’t be able to protect with glass or fixative, I’ll set my paranoid mind at ease by using acrylic.
A couple of things I have done with watercolour, though, that I haven’t been able to try out with acrylic is to use soap or rock salt. I know acrylic bubbles ‘naturally’ because of the plastic in it, though, although I’m not sure how its chemical composition would react to the salt or whether it would achieve the same effect.
If you have tried either of these techniques with acrylic, I’d be much obliged if you let me know how that went. In any case, as with oil, as much as I appreciate the convenience and the ‘advantages’ of using acrylic as watercolour, it’s just not the same as using watercolour, itself.
Make Like Acrylic Was Adventurous
28 Candles, approx 4 x 3’ / 1.2 x .91 m, Acrylic and Oil Pastel on Canvas, 2008
There are a few other ways I’ve used acrylic in my art that you might like to try out. Remember acrylic’s ‘sturdiness super power’? It’s that power that lends itself to all sorts of fun applications. I’m not a very experimental type of artist, myself; even so, I can appreciate all the fun things you can do with acrylic because it’s so sturdy. (Like a lobster!)
I mentioned at the beginning of this blog how acrylic is sometimes used as an underpainting for works in oils. You go in with grisaille and then glaze with stand oil a la Rembrandt. I like to use acrylic as a sort of underpainting, too, only I ‘wake it up’ with a second medium—usually oil pastels, but I’ve used watercolour pencils or just plain ol’ coloured pencils, too.
I gotta say, the texture that comes from the oil pastel on top of acrylic, which has its own texture, and then the texture of the canvas or cold-pressed paper? Gives me (if you’ll pardon the expression) a real joygasm, every time.
Hornblowers! detail that hopefully details the texture that makes me so very happy ^_^
Speaking of texture, you can also mix more heavy bodied mediums with acrylic to pretty much sculpt or create what amounts to bas reliefs on your support. This is something I wish I could do more of, honestly—it’s not just that stuff’s so expensive but also because it’s hard to come by in my neck of the woods.
There’s a place in the US called Guerra Paint which I discovered recently in art class and which I hope to visit someday. (And hopefully, maybe even be able to take some paint from there back with me.) Guerra has these special additives that make the thickest, awesomest ever paint I’ve ever seen and that I would give my left little toe(nail) to try out. //drools
Flying Sarao, approx 4 x 3’ / 1.2 x .91 m, Acrylic on Canvas, 2011
Also, because it’s pretty much waterproof after it dries (which is pretty ironic, if you think about it, it being water-soluble and all), I also like to use acrylic for painting things like papier-mache, particularly for taka and the odd mask.
The first in what I hope to be an entire stud farm of taka (that I painted in 2018) someday,
and a store-bought mask I painted as a Shokoy back in 2011
One last thing I know you can use acrylic for that I don’t (to be honest) actually do myself, is to take advantage of its adhesive properties. In other words, if you were going to stick something on your painting and you used acrylic, you’re not likely going to need glue.
Well, I remember doing this in art school, when we did collages on canvas with things cut out of magazines. I also remember putting glitter on a mask in sculpture class by letting it adhere to the wet acrylic, too. (No, my teacher was not happy about that—not because of the kitsch factor but because it might get into your eyes. Fair enough, though, I’m compelled to say.)
I’m not so much of a mixed media person, i.e. oil pastel and acrylic is about as mixed media as I usually get, but it is something fun you might want to experiment with. You might also try going as far as using actual, 3D objects, at least, those that are small enough to be borne or supported by the acrylic if acrylic was going to be your only adhesive.
I remember I did have a classmate or two that would stick objects into a wooden box frame and then paint over the entire piece with acrylic, to seal it, as much as to colour it. If I’m not mistaken, though, she might have used latex or acry-colour (i.e. tinting colour for latex paints).
Incidentally, latex and tinting colour are, if I’m not mistaken again, another kind of acrylic, and this post focuses on acrylic paints usually used for canvas or paper, so painting with latex would probably need its own post. (Think Jackson Pollock.) It’s just, I thought using acrylic that way might be something you might like to try.
Agnus Nidum freshly released from its plywood prison, Acrylic and Oil Pastel on Watercolour Paper
Thank you so much for sharing my love of working in acrylic and I hope you found this acrylic painting primer even a little bit helpful. You’ve seen some of my work in acrylic throughout this post, but I’d like to invite you to check out some of my other acrylic and acrylic+ works over on my Acrylic page or my Acrylic + Oil Pastel page.
If you’re interested in any of the pieces you’ve seen and you’d like to know whether they’re available, or you’d like a helpful hint or two for trying out acrylic painting, or just want to talk shop, just contact me.
I don't purport to know everything. Yet if the little I do know can be of any help, you are more than welcome to it.