Getting Started in Acrylics

(Or, Watching Paint Dry)

Have you ever wanted to paint, but didn't know where to start? Or perhaps started, but soon became frustrated when you couldn't achieve the result you wanted? Local artist Nathan “Than Rawford” Crawford will teach a one day seminar on getting started with acrylic paints, covering the basics of painting, common pitfalls, and how to avoid them.

This class will touch briefly on the following topics:

  1. The difference between acrylics and other paints such as watercolor and oils.
  2. The different types of brushes, their uses, and care.
  3. Achieving smooth blends.
  4. Solving the drying time problem.
  5. Working around the color shift.
  6. The value of color charts and color wheels.
  7. Improving skill through experimentation and exercises.
  8. Painting on a budget.

Students will be provided with handouts giving detailed information on the points made in the seminar. Time permitting, Nathan will demonstrate points 3, 4, and 5. The course format is lecture/demonstration, with question and answer period afterward. Although anyone interested is welcome to attend, the content is aimed at adult and teen learners. Parents with small children are welcome, with the understanding that candy may be provided.

The instructor, Nathan Crawford, is a self-taught artist who resides in Thompson Station with his wife and children.


Acrylics are an easy medium to start, but difficult to master. Compared to oils, they are relatively inexpensive, dry quickly, and don't require toxic chemicals with special handling considerations. Compared to watercolors, they are relatively forgiving, and allow techniques impossible with watercolors.

However, acrylics are not without drawbacks. They change color as they dry, blend poorly, and their fast drying time can be both a blessing and a curse. Thus, there are some special techniques used to mitigate these qualities.


For anyone who has painted with oils, achieving smooth blends with acrylics seems like an exercise in frustration. Additionally, because acrylics darken as they dry, not only does the shape of a blended section change, but brush strokes invisible when wet often become visible as the paint dries! For this reason, achieving a smooth blend with acrylics is a rather disciplined and exacting process. In general, an artist needs to use the correct surface, the correct brush, control the paint consistency, and use the correct technique to achieve a smooth blend. Toward this end, blending exercises are essential to anyone wanting to learn how to create smooth blends in acrylics.

While space does not permit a complete explanation of blending, there are a few helpful tips which will expedite the learning process. In the first case, brushes typically blend perpendicular to their direction of travel. That is, to blend a gradient (say, a sky) from the top to the bottom of the canvas would involve horizontal rather than vertical strokes. The second most important thing to know is that blends should generally proceed in one direction only, rather than working back and forth from the first color to the second, and back to the first. Doing this will usually (but not always) leave brush strokes in the gradient. At times an artist may work in both directions to achieve a more gradual transition, but the final blend usually proceeds in only one direction. Bob Ross would use criss-cross, X-shaped strokes to blend the paint from the top of the canvas to the bottom, and later switch to horizontal strokes for the final blend out; it was probably easier than explaining the nuances of how the brush worked.

With any paint, the softest blend generally happens as the paint thickens up to the point where the brush can no longer lift it off the canvas, but can only shape it instead. Because acrylics dry so quickly, this can be achieved in many cases by working an area until the paint starts to dry. When the brush no longer leaves strokes in the paint, and instead has left a smooth blend, it's time to stop and let it dry completely. If the artist continues working, they may get a dry-brushed effect, where the weave of the canvas is visible as the paint no longer flows across the surface, but instead “catches” on the raised weave of the canvas. While is a bit of work to blend acrylics, their quick drying qualities can be quite an advantage when it comes to blending, because the artist who accidentally mixes the paint a little too thin for blending need not wait a day or more to blend out the brush strokes as they would with oils.

Color Shift

To address the color shift, artists will frequently prepare a wet/dry chart; they first paint squares of color on the left hand side, and after these have thoroughly dried, blend a new mix of paint matching the dried side. They apply this to the right hand side, and after having mixed the whole palette of colors this way, now have a wet/dry chart. That is, to achieve the dried color on the right, they mix paint to the color on the left. As the artist gains experience, they can usually predict about how much lighter they need to blend to achieve the color intended. Additionally, if they are unsure, they may work in several thin layers, from light to dark, which minimizes the amount of darkening each layer contributes.

Speaking of color charts, it is a very worthwhile exercise to prepare a color wheel when starting with with a new set of paints. This shows the color range possible, how the paints blend, and the relative strengths of the pigmentation in each color.

Drying Time

Frequently, it is easier to work in layers than to paint an entire painting in one layer. Doing things this way not only allows for a larger range of values (lights and darks), but also greater intensities of color than would be possible in a single layer. In this regard, the fast drying time can be quite an advantage, because layers can be dried in as little as a minute, allowing the painting to proceed at the same pace as the artist's creativity. However, when it is necessary to blend large areas, or keep the paint wet for an extended time, there are a few techniques used.

The first, most common technique is to mist water onto the paint before it dries. A common spray bottle can be used, but because the drops are not of uniform size, it can leave droplet marks on the layer. Some artists use an airbrush with water, as these usually create a more uniform mist.

Another technique is to use acrylic paints specifically formulated for extended drying time, or to use a drying time extender – a chemical, which when added to the paint, increases the amount of time the paint remains wet.

The technique used by the author most frequently is that of surface preparation. It differs depending on the substrate used, but the principle is that the substrate is saturated with water so that it cannot absorb water/solvent from the paint. In effect, this extends drying time by halving the surface area of the paint from which evaporation occurs, and provides a source of water to keep the paint wet. For working on canvas, a spray bottle is used to apply a layer of water to both sides of the canvas (if possible), which is then brushed out until the water film no longer visible. This process is then repeated two to three times to ensure the canvas has as much water as it will absorb. Then there is a waiting period until the surface of the canvas is no longer visibly wet, but will still show brush marks when brushed. The goal is to achieve a surface which is damp, but not wet. For paper, the same technique is generally used, but water is applied first to the backside, and then the front, and only once. In either case, the extension of drying time only applies to the first layer.

Once the first layer of paint has dried, the surface is now sealed, and subsequent layers take longer to dry. If additional drying time is needed after the first layer, a brush can be used to first wet the canvas, which extends the drying time only by a small degree, but allows the paint to spread more easily across the canvas. The combined effect is that the paint takes a little longer to dry, but less time to work, so that a longer drying time becomes unnecessary.


When it comes to brushes, natural hair brushes are generally used for covering large areas, painting landscapes, trees, etc... where fine detail is less important. For detailed work, synthetic brushes are generally used with a thinner paint. While synthetic brushes can be used for large areas, it is rather difficult to use natural hair brushes for intricate, detailed work. On the other hand, using synthetic brushes for covering large areas can quickly wear them out, especially when painting on rough canvas. Additionally, natural hair brushes are less susceptible to damage from rough painting techniques. A synthetic brush should never be “pushed” into the canvas, as doing so can permanently damage the bristles. Most artists use a combination of both types.

Painting with acrylics can be a very fun and rewarding experience, provided that one understands the limitations of the medium. An artist who takes the time to learn the qualities of acrylic paints soon finds that with proper technique and surface preparation, they are just as versatile as any other medium.

Painting on a Budget

Those on a budget are frequently bewildered by the array of brushes, paints, and surfaces stocked by the art store. In many cases, new painters start out with exorbitantly expensive starter kits, or choose materials which work poorly with each other. Poor selection of art supplies can be a never ending source of frustration. In general:

  1. Higher quality art supplies are more expensive than low quality supplies.
  2. Better quality supplies enable a wider variety of techniques.
  3. The highest quality art supplies are generally sold individually.
  4. The most expensive are supplies are usually of no greater quality than midrange, or even low end art supplies.

The unfortunate truth of the matter is that differentiating art supply quality is usually a matter of experience. In most cases, local artists will tell you what supplies they use, but even then, some artists still use exorbitantly expensive supplies because they paint with a particular technique that requires them. There are some general guidelines, though. There are several different markets in the art supply business:

  1. The student market, for inexpensive, low-quality supplies.
  2. The hobbyist market, for which the supplies are of medium to high quality, but overpriced by a large margin.
  3. The professional artist market, where the prices are midrange to expensive, but typically sold at substantial discounts for large quantities. These supplies can usually be identified by the fact that colors are specified by their pigments, have lightfastness ratings, and typically there is some differentiation in price between different pigments, as some pigments are more expensive than others. Rather than kits, brushes and canvases are sold individually, and at a large variety of sizes. Typically, artist grade brands make one type of supply - either paint, brushes, or canvas (surfaces), but not all three.
  4. The gift market, for those looking to spend a considerable sum of money on someone else, where the thought matters more than the quality.
  5. The "store" brand - which offers modest quality at modest prices. Some colors will be more highly pigmented than others, but not so weak as the student market, and the supplies are generally archival. These are a good compromise for learners, who can explore the more expensive supplies as they become more technically proficient.

Proper selection of art supplies is of crucial importance for the beginning painter. Supplies of poor quality will produce poor results, hindering the learning process. On the other hand, supplies so expensive they produce a fear of failure will likewise hinder progress. When choosing the quality of supplies, it is generally best to buy the highest quality brushes, followed by paint, followed by surfaces. While the quality of all three is important, when learning, those who experiment without fear of "ruining" a painting or "wasting" paint will generally progress the fastest. It is often necessary to produce a number of failed paintings to develop the practice of learning how to correct (i.e. overpaint) one's mistakes to develop the fearless approach to painting which produces truly beautiful paintings.

That said, here are some helpful tips to get the most from your art supply dollar:

If you can buy only one brush:
Round brush - the round brush is fairly universal in that it can produce any shape, and can be used to paint anything, even though other brush types are faster for particular shapes and applications. A round brush should come to a point when wet with paint, and the width of the line it paints is determined by the force applied. (Note: there are "round" shaped brushes often confused with round brushes because of their shape. The one you're most likely to encounter is the mop brush used for blending out large areas. These have shorter bristles, do not come to a point when wet, and are usually fairly large - an inch in diameter or more. The other "round" brush is one of Bob Ross's brushes - a square brush which has the bristles cut in a rounded shape.)
If you can afford only two colors:
  1. Titanium white - generally speaking, painters will use more white than all other colors combined. That's why it comes in such large tubes.
  2. Burnt umber
Three colors:
  1. Primary Red
  2. Primary Blue
  3. Primary Yellow
- or - for a (warm palette)
  1. Cadmium Red
  2. Cadmium Yellow
  3. Ultramarine Blue
(cool palette)
  1. Hansa Yellow
  2. Napthol Red
  3. Pthalo Blue (pronounced “Thaylow” - short for pthalocyanine)

If you can afford more than three colors, buy the secondary colors:

Secondary colors:
  1. Pthalo Green
  2. Cadmium Orange
  3. Dioxazine Violet
Earth tones:
  1. Yellow Ochre
  2. Burnt Umber

If you can afford more than one brush, consider the following:

Flat brush, filbert
Flat brushes are useful for filling in large areas and leave a sharp edge. Filbert brushes leave a soft edge and are useful for clouds, etc...
Fan brush
Fan brushes are useful for painting foliage, trees, grasses, loose and whispy clouds, and anything that has a large number of repeated streaks, or needs a "loose" blend.
Canvas Paper or Acrylic paper
These papers are specifically designed to handle acrylic paint, and provide a canvas textured surface. Because they are typically a tenth of the cost of the equivalent sized canvas, they provide an ideal surface for practice, color wheels, blending exercises, studies, and the like.
Canvasboard, or MDF (“tempered hardboard”) for larger works.
For large works, MDF provides a very smooth, inexpensive surface for painting. Canvasboard provides the texture of canvas but without the expense of stretched canvas, however, some inexpensive brands may warp over time.
Canvas blankets and stretchers (stretch your own)
For working on large, or oddly shaped works, or custom aspect ratios, it's hard to beat bulk canvas. While the initial expense is a bit steep, the cost per square inch for large works is much lower than prestretched canvases larger than 2 feet square.
Stretched Canvas
The most expensive of painting surfaces, stretched canvas is the most traditional, and easiest to sell. These days, the cost has come down for smaller stretched canvases, but the larger ones are still disproportionately expensive. For some, the time (typically an hour or more) to stretch and gesso their own canvas is worth more than the difference in cost. Stretched canvases are an easy way to spend more time painting.

Back Home