Artist Matthew Evans painting with acrylics

Matthew Evans at work on The Gardens at Hill Top Farm, Cumbria

Follow this guide to acrylics by Matthew Evans to learn colour-mixing ideas, practise acrylic painting techniques and read a Q&A full of helpful tips for acrylic painting.  

In this beginner’s guide to acrylics, learn how to use this versatile medium to produce paintings of floral motifs full of detail, texture and interest.

This article was originally featured in the January 2019 issue of Leisure Painter. Access over 6 years' worth of digital issues of Leisure Painter (including this issue) and The Artist on your desktop, mobile and tablet with our Studio membership.

Why choose acrylics as a medium?

I was attracted to the versatility of acrylics, as I learned to use it on practically any surface, and with a wide range of texture gels and mediums. Acrylic can be used as a transparent glaze with the addition of a gloss or matt flow improver, as a semi-opaque medium, or fully opaque when applied straight from the tube. The faster drying times allow you to create an impasto (textured) effect similar to oils, but without the use of solvents, as acrylics mix and clean up with the addition of water. 

They’re also non-toxic and safe for children to use. You can now buy water-based oils, but they still take longer than acrylic to dry. You can also build a wide collection of painting tools, including brushes, palette knives, rollers and even sponges.

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Acrylic colours

My favourite colour palette has developed over the years, depending on the subject, although I have several favourite themes including florals, woodlands and sunsets so the range of bright colours in the acrylic range are really useful. 

  • Cerulean blue is great for skies. 
  • Cadmium yellow deep and cadmium yellow hue, Naples yellow, crimson, cadmium red and deep violet are all good choices for flowers. 
  • Cerulean blue and cadmium yellow deep (or in hue form) make a great green, which can be darkened with crimson.
  • Cobalt blue is good for bluebells.
  • Phthalo blue and Prussian blue with deep violet are good for vibrant darks and to give contrast to the floral highlights.
  • Earth colours include burnt umber, raw sienna and yellow ochre, which I use for the background soil in garden scenes.

I also keep a couple of colours that cannot be mixed easily, including magenta for bright pink flowers and cadmium orange (a beautifully vibrant colour) makes a good brown when mixed with phthalo blue and crimson.

I prefer to mix my own greens, but I’ve used a couple of premixed greens, including sap green and light green. My palette is complete with titanium white. 

Your palette will grow gradually, depending on your personal preference and your choice of subject. You can, of course, buy introductory sets with a pre-chosen range of colours, but be prepared to own a few colours that you’ll never use, such as black. As I usually begin with a pastel background, I also like to use pure dots of colours in a pointillist technique on the surface with a minimum of blending.

Surfaces for acrylic paint

I’m constantly experimenting with new surfaces, but I particularly like to use pre-primed stretched canvases, either standard or deep edge, which have become really popular over the last decade and are readily available. These canvases are popular with art buyers, as they have a contemporary feel, and with painters as they don’t need to be framed or put under glass. This is especially useful if you want to rework the painting in the future, as you don’t need to dismantle expensive frames.

Examples of acrylic paintings on different surfaces

Acrylic painting on plywood

Blossom Trees, acrylic paint on plywood, 17x27in. (43x68.5cm). This is a work on plywood, which, when primed with two coats of gesso, makes an excellent and firm support for acrylic. It also has a beautifully smooth surface, which suits detailed work. Here I enjoyed building up the layers of colour on the leaves and blossoms in patches of pure colour, contrasting with the bright blue sky. The colours are also reflected in the greens of the grass and I like the way the path leads the viewer through the picture.

Acrylic painting on stretched canvas

Wellholme Park Flowers, acrylic paint on stretched canvas, 16x20in. (40.5x51cm). The canvas was covered with a roller and acrylic paint to give a fast and lively start. Texture paste was then applied both on its own and mixed with colour. When dry this gave a great surface to build up layers of trees and flowers. The bright floral colours were ideal for the foreground.

Acrylic painting on canvas

The Gardens at Hill Top Farm, Cumbria, acrylic paint on canvas, 20x30in. (50.5x76cm). I used a roller to apply the underpainting to this large canvas, which gave a particularly interesting effect to the sky. Building up a dark background helped to achieve contrast as the brighter floral areas were added. I can get lost in a subject such as this, as I dab away using ever-decreasing brush sizes to add as much or as few details as I wish.

Acrylic painting on paper

Bluebell Wood, acrylic paint on paper, 6x7in. (16x17cm). As a small work on paper this could be an ideal study for a larger painting for working out composition and colours. Although this was completed inside, you could quite easily work in the field on small sheets of paper or canvases. You can even buy pads of acrylic primed paper, which are ideal for outdoor work. As acrylic paint dries quickly, you don’t have to worry about transporting wet paintings home.

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Acrylic painting techniques  

Try these acrylic techniques to help you get started with acrylic painting.

Acrylic painting technique

1. A foam roller can be used for special effects and to cover large areas quickly.

Acrylic painting technique

2. A really interesting coloured background that’s ideal for florals can be built up by layering pure colour over the top.

Acrylic painting technique

3. Mixing colours with a roller on the palette creates an interesting effect in itself.

Acrylic painting technique

4. A roller is an ideal way of working acrylic colour to pick up the texture of a handmade surface. Here I used paint straight from the tube in a similar way to inking up a printing block.

Acrylic painting technique

5. A stipple effect with a small brush is ideal to build up multiple flowers when you use paint straight from the tube or with texture paste.

Acrylic painting technique

6. A textured underpainting works well as a base for more details to be added on top. Texture paste dries solid and won't be disturbed by painting over it. This is the base for Wellholme Park Flowers.

Acrylic painting technique

7. Acrylic is also good to use on natural paper that has been manufactured with flowers and leaves in it. Such paper adds to a floral composition.

Acrylic painting Q&A 

Where can I buy acrylic paints? 

Acrylic paint and equipment is readily available from your local art shop, which still needs your support, or online where there are many art suppliers. Ken Bromley Art Supplies stocks a good range of acrylic paints, mediums and brushes. Acrylic paint is very economical and comes in a variety of tube sizes up to 200ml or large pots, and either as pre-chosen sets or as individual tubes, to build up your own range of colours. For a detailed introduction to the types of acrylic paint, visit Robert Dutton’s guide here.

What surfaces can I paint on? 

You can paint on pretty much anything, including paper, cardboard, plastic, preprimed stretched canvas in a variety of sizes and depths, canvas boards and wooden panels. Plywood is also good. You can even create your own surface from handmade paper. Some surfaces, especially untreated wood or other porous surfaces, need several coats of gesso primer or a clear matt medium to prevent the colour from soaking in. Gesso can also be mixed with acrylic paint to give a coloured ground or sand to add texture.

Does acrylic dry too fast when working? 

For many who have been used to oils, the faster drying times are an advantage, however this can be an issue if your paint is drying too quickly when working. To stop this happening, you can mix your acrylic paints with either a flow improver or a slow-drying medium, which can be mixed with water. Slow-drying medium mixed to a ratio of 1:1 doubles the working and drying time. Flow improver mixed with water at a ratio of up to 10 per cent increases the flow and transparency of the colour, and slows drying whilst maintaining stability. Flow improver also helps you blend colours. Adding texture paste to your colours also increases the working time. It’s a good idea to put small amounts of colour out at a time. Some companies also make heavy-bodied acrylics, which are ideal for impasto work.

You can use a stay-wet palette, which can either be bought readymade and comprises a plastic tray and lid with an absorbent base sheet soaked in water and a top membrane. The colours stay workable for longer and, with the lid on the paint, will stay active for several days. Alternatively, you can make your own with an airtight box, a piece of absorbent paper and tracing paper for the membrane.

What type of brushes should I use for acrylic paint? 

A firm, springy brush is best and most are now synthetic made of either nylon or polyester, as they need to be quite hard wearing. These are available in a range of shapes and sizes. Hog hair brushes are useful and can also be used for oils. Natural hair brushes are unsuitable for acrylic so keep your sable brushes for watercolour. You can even use home decorating brushes for larger works and rollers either from art shops or your local DIY store. For more advice on the types of paint brushes for acrylic, visit Jackie Garner’s guide here

Top Tip - An important point to remember is to wash your brushes regularly and not let the paint dry on them.

Is acrylic paint permanent when dry? 

When dry acrylic paint is permanent and waterproof, and it can’t be reactivated either on the painting or on the palette, this means that it can’t be lifted out as you can with watercolour. A benefit of this, however, is that you can add several layers without disturbing the layer beneath, which is useful for adding highlights or adding bright colours on top of darks for contrast. Acrylic is also flexible when dry and will not crack even with impasto layers. As acrylic is waterproof and lightfast it can also be used outside on murals. It’s a good idea to use a treated wood, such as marine plywood, and protect the painting with a good varnish. Acrylic paint is one of the most stable for colourfastness, but it’s a good idea to avoid direct sunlight.

How large can I paint with acrylics? 

As you don’t have to worry about framing acrylic paintings you can paint at any size, as you aren’t concerned with size of glass or mounting board. You can even paint directly onto a wall.

Do you need to varnish acrylic paintings? 

This is purely personal preference, as varnish does protect the surface and can enhance the colours. Unlike oil, where you have to wait up to 12 months for a final varnish, acrylics can be varnished straightaway. Varnish can be gloss or matt, permanent or removable. Winsor & Newton and Liquitex both do good ranges.

Can I paint over acrylic? 

Yes, acrylic paintings can be enhanced with pastel for highlights if painted on paper. The final image would need to be framed and glazed to protect the pastel. Acrylic is also used as a fast-drying underpainting for oil. If a painting goes wrong you can also re-gesso over the surface and try again.

Matthew David Evans Based in Brighouse, west Yorkshire, Matthew finds inspiration in subjects rich in colour, light and texture. Favourite themes include atmospheric sunsets to bright floral scenes. Visit Matthew's website here.

Now you've learnt some acrylic painting techniques, try this article by Jackie Garner to learn how to use blocking in techniques to paint a landscape or visit our ultimate guide to acrylics for more advice and demonstrations on getting started with acrylic painting.