Follow Robert Dutton’s introduction to acrylic painting for a close look at types of acrylic paint, along with advice on choosing the best acrylic paint and brushes to achieve your desired finish.
What are acrylic paints?
Acrylic paints are a versatile, water-based medium. They require solvents and thinners with which to work the acrylic paint, as do oils, and it can be used transparently, semi transparently and opaquely.
The quick-drying properties of acrylic paints are advantageous, and I can work confidently knowing that the marks I put down won’t be disturbed by subsequent layers of paint. These quick-drying properties aren’t to everyone’s taste – particularly those who require a medium that allows them to take their time and to be able to blend wet-in-wet on the surface rather than on the palette.
How to slow acrylic drying time?
Most acrylic manufacturers include a retarder, which slows the drying time, to their ranges.
A welcome addition to acrylics is the development of heavy body paints; these are especially great for artists who want their paints to have a really dense viscosity – artists who use a palette knife, for example. As with any painting medium, experimentation and experience will help you to build up your own practical knowledge base and thus grow as a painter.
Acrylic pigments – what’s the difference between opaque and transparent paint?
Pigments vary in transparency – different paints have different levels of opacity depending on the chemical make-up of the pigment. So, a paint made from earth, such as an ochre, will be made from crushed rock which, of course, is hard to see through and will make a paint that has pretty good coverage.
Opaque colours cover other paints easily and are great for making solid, flat areas of colour and covering up any mistakes.
If the pigments come from a dye, or the paint is man-made, such as a quinacridone, (called synthetic organics) the thinner and more translucent the paint will be. Transparent colours are used for glazing and tinting.
Top Tip - The opacity of the paint is usually marked on the tube. For example, Winsor & Newton use the following abbreviations: ‘T’ for transparent colours; ‘ST’ for semi-transparent colours; ‘SO’ for semi-opaque colours; ‘O’ for opaque colours.
Example of acrylic painting on canvas
A Break in the Clouds, acrylic on a stretched boxed canvas, 30x30in (76x76cm)
Using heavy body acrylics over a metallic underpainting, I allowed many layers of paint to be scumbled one over the other to give broken colour effects. As the paint was worked in ever increasing layers, the first metallic underpainting really began to shine through like little jewels, glistening through the colour to give a really exciting dimension to this painting, which is quite abstract. I wanted to evoke the energy of wind and nature on the moors. I particularly discounted too much detail because I wanted to allow viewers to interpret their own connection with the painting.
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Types of acrylic paints
Most artists who use acrylic paints will have a preferred brand based on colour and the consistency of the paint, which ranges from extremely buttery (heavy body acrylics) to fluid acrylics. It’s better to buy a few colours of artist-quality acrylics than a whole range of cheap colours.
Top Tip - Remember, student acrylic paints are cheaper for a reason: they’ve usually more filler in them, or made from cheaper pigments.
Here are my personal favourite acrylic paints -
Winsor & Newton Artists’ Acrylic
Winsor & Newton launched this range of acrylics in January 2009 to replace their Finity series. It’s indeed a different product, having a longer working time (up to half an hour), minimal shift from wet to dry (because of a new binder), and a satin finish (rather than gloss). The colours are rich, intense and saturated, with a soft buttery consistency that holds brush-marks.
Winsor & Newton Galeria
Galeria is an affordable or student-grade paint that has good strength of colours and works easily, although you’ll have to add texture paste if you want thick paint as it’s quite soft. And it doesn’t put too huge a dent in your pocket. This is a good student-quality paint that enables you to feel free to experiment without worrying about wasting paint.
Liquitex Heavy Body Professional Artist Colours is one of my favourite acrylic paints. The consistency is quite buttery and sticky, so they're great for impasto work, they're vibrant, have no colour shift when dry and offer great colour radiance in their finish. They come in robust tubes, which helps with longevity and when travelling with them.
Daler-Rowney Cryla Artists’ Acrylic
Daler-Rowney Cryla Artists’ Acrylic was introduced in 1963. The consistency of this very heavy body colour is stiff to buttery, with a high loading of permanent, lightfast pigments. I use them if I’ve got a large area to cover, especially in an underpainting.
Daler-Rowney System 3
This is a student-quality range that offers versatility, light-fastness, permanence, insolubility and covering power in a medium-bodied paint. System 3 is fast-drying and has a greater pigment load than other student-quality ranges. I use their titanium white a lot for mixing with other acrylic brands to create tints and for highlights. The thickness of the paint is the attraction here as I want my highlights to be opaque and this paint delivers on that and at a reasonable price, too.
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Golden Artist Colours Heavy Body Acrylics
Golden is an American company created specifically to produce top-quality acrylic paints for artists. I love the range of vibrant colours, which includes an extremely useful set of neutral greys. The paint consistency is like smooth, soft butter, and it thins down easily for glazes and dries rapidly.
Golden Open Acrylics
These paints have an extended drying time, which among acrylic paints makes them the most comparable to oil paints.
Chroma Atelier Interactive Professional Artists’ Acrylics
I found I could work back into the paint with a wet brush, which makes blending colours easier and less of an urgency. If you do a lot of blending of colours rather than glazing, do consider this brand.
Sennelier are fast-drying acrylics with a consistency that’s on the soft side of buttery, which makes them easy to mix, and the colours are strong and saturated. The paint spreads smoothly and easily on a canvas so if you like glazing and blending more than textures, I think Sennelier would be an excellent choice.
Example of acrylic painting on canvas
Light over the Ocean, acrylic on stretched boxed canvas, 20x20in (51x51cm)
This multi-layered painting of rocky cliffs and moving sea was created using heavy body acrylics over a gesso and pumice ground. Although the gesso and pumice gave the initial texture, it was the consistency and thickness of the paint that did most of the work. The quick-drying nature of acrylic meant that the painting could be completed in days (rather than weeks as with oils) – perfect for my needs for speed and vigour.
Which brushes to use for acrylic painting
The brush you select will depend on the style and technique you use and whether you need to move full-bodied colour or control flowing colour.
The firmness of bristle is important as the ‘spring’ in the brush will affect the marks you make. The tip of the brush is important too – does it ‘point’ when loaded to allow you to paint detail? The bristle or hair will affect the blending capability of the brush. A synthetic brush is often softer than a hog and thus will give you a smoother effect when blending.
Over the years, synthetics have proved their worth to many acrylic painters who require a brush with a good blending capacity whilst being robust enough to last. They offer good flow control and a well-defined tip or edge for detail and blending work.
Brushes for acrylic painting
Hog, sable and other natural hair brushes
Hog, sable and other natural hair brushes are suitable for different styles of painting. I would never use a sable with heavy body or thick acrylic paint mixes, as the paints tend to clog and damage the delicate hairs. However, I do use a sable brush when working with acrylic that has been thinned with water. Make sure you wash brushes thoroughly in warm water immediately afterwards.
Most synthetic brushes are a blend of synthetic bristles and natural hair (mink, squirrel or pig and usually perfect for all sorts of acrylic painters). If you object to using animal hair, there are pure synthetic brushes available.
Rounds are used with acrylics as the fine point allows precision work whilst the main body of the brush holds enough pigment to paint quite large areas on any given surface.
Flats or chisel brushes
Flats or chisel brushes are good for blocking in large areas of colour, and for many other creative techniques.
Filberts are great for oils and acrylic. They have a feathered top so are great for blending and can be used to block in areas as well as detail work for portraits.
Robert Dutton exhibits widely and runs a wide range of art courses for all levels of ability. For further details of his art courses and workshops visit Robert's website.
Looking for a more in-depth look at the best brushes for acrylic painting and how to care for them? Check out this helpful guide by Jackie Garner.