Acrylic brush techniques

Practise making a variety of brush marks, acrylic colour mixing and painting an acrylic landscape in this guide to acrylic brush techniques by Jackie Garner.

In this guide, we’ll explore acrylic brush techniques and applying paint to the surface, as we paint an acrylic landscape.

Knowledge of how different paint brushes behave enables you to create different textures and liveliness in your work. First, we’re going to try an exercise in paint brush mark making then we’ll create a painting that uses a variety of brushes and brush marks. 

Paint brush strokes

You can imagine that, a plate of food where every mouthful had the same texture would be rather bland – no variety of crunch, creaminess or firmness. The same applies to a painting: we need a variety of textures to enliven the image and create interest for the viewer.

Even if you only use a single brush, you can vary the brushstrokes to give different effects. You might use long even strokes to produce flat colour, very little paint to give a broken effect, or dab the tip of the brush against the support, a process known as stippling. Stippling works best with a fairly stiff-bristled brush. Learn more about the types of paint brushes for acrylics in this helpful guide. 

Brush stroke exercises

A good understanding of brush marks is the foundation of painting so our first task is to take a brush and explore the different marks it’ll make. I like to use a whole page of my sketchbook for this, starting a new page for each different brush.

Acrylic brush strokes

Start with the very obvious marks – long or short strokes, dab, or use the brush on its side. Then try other ideas – twirl the brush, flick it, roll it from side to side. Increase or decrease the pressure or vary it throughout the stroke.

1. You’ll find that the appearance of the brush marks will change with the thickness of the paint and how lightly or heavily you use the brush. Try either holding the brush nearer the ferrule or at the end; again, this will affect the brush marks. 

2. Varying the brush mark size or the space between the marks will alter the tone. 

3. Either draw around the brush or write down the name and size so you’ll have a good reference sheet for the future. 

4. Repeat the exercise for other shapes of brushes. 

5. I use a specific sketchbook for this type of exercise so all my experiments are in the same place and they build into a really useful reference book. 

6. Now choose one of the brush marks and repeat it so you end up with a patch of texture. Then do the same for a different mark. 

7. Either use a new page of your sketchbook for each brush type or make a reference chart showing which brush made which textures. By now you’ll have several sheets of brush marks and textures. As you look at them you should see some that would be ideal for waves, foliage, fur or bark. You can always refer back to them in the future when you need to convey a particular subject.

Brush strokes

Create patches of texture by building up repeated brush marks, varying the pressure and amount of paint on the brush.

More brush mark exercises

If you’ve already explored brush marks in the past or you’d like to explore further try the following: 

1. Using additional layers of colour. 

2. Double loading your paint brush by dipping the brush in a colour then the tip in a contrasting colour. 

3. Repeating the brush marks to suggest a particular subject.

Now that we know the range of marks that our brushes will produce, let’s put this knowledge to use in a painting. 

Acrylic brush techniques

Using the right paint brush for a particular task makes painting so much easier and enjoyable, so these experiments lay the foundations for your future paintings. Another useful exercise is to choose a subject (grass, sea, tree bark or foliage) and see which of your brushes renders it most successfully.

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Acrylic landscape: demonstration

Our demonstration piece is an acrylic landscape of distant hills, rough grassland and foreground foliage. 

We’ll use a range of brush marks and practise the acrylic colour-mixing techniques we learned in the previous guide (if you haven’t read Jackie’s guide to acrylic colour mixing, you can read the full guide here). As this painting is just for practice and demonstration purposes, I’m using mountboard as a support. You could use a different surface, or a sketchbook page, if you prefer.