Learn How to Art: What is Acrylic Paint?
Ah, acrylic paint.
The most common paint.
Easy to use and easy to clean up. The amateur favorite.
But don’t let its reputation fool you. Plenty of professionals use acrylic too.
Acrylic paint has some strong benefits, but also has a few unique drawbacks that you might not have known.
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Acrylic paint is the most modern type of paint, developed in the late 1940s. It contains a synthetic polymer binder to keep color pigments together. The result is a shiny finish that some say has a plastic-like appearance.
An Incredibly Versatile Media
Acrylic paint lies somewhere between oil paint and watercolor, at least in thickness. With this paint, you can use a wide range of techniques. Just mix your acrylic as desired.
Acrylic paint can be as thin as tempera, as transparent as watercolor, or layered on thick like oil paint. It’s a modern convenience in the art world. But naturally, there are some drawbacks as well.
The Image Problem
Let’s get this one out of the way first.
Many in the art world – critics, collectors, and even artists – look down on acrylic paint. Not only does it lack the prestige of oil paint; acrylic is the very opposite.
Many acrylic paintings are labeled “mixed media” or “synthetic polymer paint” to avoid the negative stigma of acrylics.
Now we can get into the real pros and cons.
Color Changing Challenge
Precise color can be a little difficult to achieve with acrylic. You might leave a painting overnight only to come back the next day to find that the colors are…different. Are your eyes playing tricks on you?
Acrylic paint changes color ever so slightly when it dries. Most often the color darkens. With professional grade acrylics, this change is subtle, but in student-grade paint, the change is more noticeable. So be prepared for a little variation from your chosen colors.
If you want a medium that captures and keeps the complexity of your painstakingly mixed colors, oil paint has a clear advantage.
Speed Dry: a Blessing and a Curse
The biggest benefit of acrylic over oil is drying time. Acrylic paint dries very quickly, usually in 15 to 30 minutes. Of course, drying time varies based on how much paint you’ve applied, whether you’ve added any mediums to your paint, and to some extent, the humidity in your area.
I like to compare it to painting my nails in dry Colorado vs. super humid South Korea. You need a lot more patience in South Korea. But with acrylics you don’t need patience. You need speed.
Because acrylic paint dries quickly, you need to work quickly so the paint on your palette and brushes don’t dry out. Even if you’ve only dabbled in acrylic painting, you’ve probably had this experience:
You want a color like teal or pink.
So you squirt two colors out of their tubes, and begin the process of mixing, and adding, and mixing some more until finally, you have the color just right.
You apply some of that beautiful color to your canvas, and then move on.
Later you think, wouldn’t it be nice to add more of that teal I made earlier?
Well it’s too late. You dab your brush into the teal, only to find that it’s now rock solid.
What a waste!
It’s hard to spend much time mixing colors with acrylic paints – you need to be fast. But if you really need more time, you use an acrylic retarder or gel medium with your paint to slow the drying process. More on this later.
Although the quick dry can be frustrating, it also has benefits. Acrylic paint is easy to layer, since you don’t have to wait days before your paint has dried. You can also create crisp, clearly defined shapes with acrylic, while oil makes it easy to use soft blended edges.
Of course, there will always be artists who push boundaries and use acrylic and oils in surprising ways. Thanks to these mavericks, it’s not always easy to tell whether a painting is oil or acrylic.
Acrylics in particular make it easy to push the boundaries of paint. You can paint on just about any surface – no primer needed. Paper, canvas, wood and metal are all fair game for acrylic paint.
Acrylic paint is also ideal for any DIY projects like say, making cute pots to feed your succulent obsession. Not that you have one.
Unlike other paints, you can use both natural bristle and synthetic brushes with acrylic paint. Natural bristle brushes are best for oil paint and leave thick brush marks. Synthetic brushes produce a smooth, blended effect and are best for watercolors, as a thin paint.
Acrylic paints lie in between oil and watercolor, so both types of brush hair work fine. However, natural bristle brushes are more sensitive and need to be cleaned off quickly to preserve their quality.
Acrylic painting requires you to keep brushes in water longer (when change colors or cleaning) and this isn’t great for bristle brushes. However, synthetic brushes have a coating that makes them more water resistant.
Of course you never want to leave you brushes soaking in water too long because that can loosen the ferrule, or the metal part of a brush that connects the bristles to the handle.
Medium: Add a What Now?
Acrylic paint can come in ready-to-use tubes, condensed tubes that look similar to oil paints, or jars. While most people know about ready-to-use tubes, you might not have known that there are several additives for acrylic paint, just like oil.
By mixing in mediums, you can control thickness and glossiness of your paint, or try new techniques. Unlike oil, acrylic paint mediums aren’t necessary, but they can provide some nice perks.
You can thin your paint with water, but too much water can loosen the pigment binding in your paint. So for a more transparent paint, try mixing in a fluid additive or glazing medium. It’s best to test out these mediums before applying to your painting to see if they change color and dry completely clear.
Thicken your paint with a gel medium. These mediums can function the same way as thinning mediums to be mixed with your paint. However there are also texture mediums that you apply to a surface and paint over when dry.
An acrylic retarder slows down drying time. These mediums can give you more time to mix colors or even let you blend colors on the canvas as you could with oil paint.
Varnish is a related product that you paint over the surface of a completed painting. Using varnish gives your painting a glossy sheen (or matte cover) that protects it from outside elements.
Famous Acrylic Paintings
These are just a few well-known works of art that were done in acrylic paint.
- Any Warhol – Soup Cans
- Roy Lichtenstein – Drowning Girl (acrylic and oil)
- David Hockney – A Bigger Splash
- Shepard Fairey – Hope poster (collage with acrylic)
- Allows for wide range of techniques
- Dries quickly
- Great for layering
- Paint on any surface
- Great for crisp lines and sharp boundaries
- Several mediums available to tailor the paint
- Color doesn’t change with age
- Clean up easily with water
- Color changes when it dries
- Need to mix and apply color quickly before paint dries
- Mixing or blending on a canvas is difficult
- Quick paintings
- Layering colors
- Creative DIY projects
- Any space
- Both synthetic or natural bristle brushes
More in the Learn How to Art series: