From preliminary sketches to finished painting, acrylics can be as versatile as you want them to be. Raymond Whitehouse describes his techniques.

Acrylics are one of the most versatile painting media. The paint can be applied in various ways, to create effects ranging from transparent watercolour techniques to those similar to oil painting. A variety of grounds can be used, but the most conventional ones are cartridge and watercolour papers, card, canvas, canvas panels, and prepared hardboard.

Acrylics can be used for sketching as well as for more considered paintings intended for framing. So you can see that there is considerable scope for experimentation. By doing so we will hopefully gain that all important confidence to develop our unique way of painting with acrylics.

I have been painting with acrylics for many years and still get a thrill of anticipation when the colours are squeezed out onto the palette. While the transparent watercolour style can be pleasing, I prefer to use pure watercolours for this technique. I use acrylic colours at full strength in a direct manner, brushing the paint on and leaving it undisturbed as much as possible to avoid overworking.

My students often tell me that they have chosen to paint in acrylics because, as an opaque medium, mistakes can be overpainted. Whilst this is true, I offer them a word of caution. Don’t rely on repeatedly overpainting mistakes too much as this can lead to muddy, tired paintings. Using the paint in a direct manner will lead to fresh, clean paintings. In this article I will describe one approach to painting with acrylics in this direct manner.


I paint with Winsor & Newton Artists’ quality Finity acrylics and use a minimum of colours. These are ultramarine blue, cadmium red medium, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow, and titanium white. I occasionally add permanent alizarin crimson and phthalo green to the palette.

Brushes play an important part in the way paint is applied and its appearance on the painting surface. I like to create a slight texture when using colours full strength, so I use long, flat bristle brushes in a variety of sizes. Small round nylon brushes are used for the initial lay-in of the painting.

When sketching with acrylics, I use either cartridge or watercolour paper, usually painting small development sketches directly into a Daler-Rowney A5 hard-backed cartridge pad. Other sketches are worked on 140lb NOT watercolour paper. If a painting is to be framed, I would use acid-free mount card coated with one coat of acrylic gesso. I find Winsor & Newton’s gesso is best for this as it dries with a slight texture, which can be enhanced further if applied with an old, worn brush.

My mixing palette is the tear-off paper type. I use a large plastic ice-cream tub as a water container to prevent brushes drying with paint in them. A table easel and plenty of kitchen tissue complete the list.

Applying paint

My acrylics are all painted in the studio, working from pencil and watercolour sketches, and occasionally oils, which have been carried out on location. Sometimes I take photographs for local detail.

I don’t use a stay wet palette as I find this softens the paint, and prefer to squeeze the colours out onto a sheet from a tear-off paper palette. Being water-based, acrylic starts to dry as soon as it is squeezed from the tube, which does promote a little urgency. However, it is surprising how long the paint can be kept workable and, with a little flick of water now and then, there is very little wasted paint at the end of a painting session.

The paint is mixed full strength on the palette with bristle brushes and creates a slight texture when applied to the painting surface. This texture helps break up the hard edges which can be a problem when acrylics are painted with soft haired brushes. The texture created by the bristle brushes when painting the sky, for example, helps break up the foliage of the trees when dry-brushed over the sky with full strength paint.

Do remember to keep your brushes immersed in the water container when not in use. If paint is allowed to dry, the brushes will be ruined.


The Shore, Southwold. Acrylic sketch in A5 cartridge pad

Small acrylic sketches will help you make decisions about the composition and tones of larger paintings. The Shore, Southwold is an example of this approach. The composition is sketched in loosely with a 2B pencil before acrylic paint is applied full strength with the bristle brushes. Since the paper is smooth, the bristle brushes help to create a looseness in the finished sketch. Note the colours which are mixtures of the three primaries; ultramarine blue, yellow ochre and cadmium red with titanium white. There are also a few touches of cadmium yellow in this Southwold scene.

Village Church, Daglingworth. Acrylic sketch on 140lb watercolour paper. 10” x 7”

Much of my work is carried out as projects. Village Church, Daglingworth is an acrylic sketch resulting from a recent project painting village churches around the country. Painted on 140lb NOT watercolour paper, I employed the same colours and technique used for the sketch painted in the cartridge pad.

The paintings

The four larger paintings illustrated were all painted on acid-free mount card coated with gesso. I paint directly onto the white surface rather than putting a tone over the gesso as I think this gives a luminosity to the finished painting.

Tonal lay-in for Boats at Wareham. Acrylic 10” x 14”

Boats at Wareham illustrates a splendid scene along the river in this pleasant Dorset town. For my larger paintings I start with a loose tonal lay-in of the composition. Ultramarine blue and cadmium red were squeezed on to the palette; the tones mixed with water and painted in with a small round nylon brush. After five minutes or so when the lay-in was dry, the two yellows and the white were squeezed on to the palette to join the red and the blue.

Boats at Wareham. Acrylic on acid-free mount card 10” x 14”

The rest of the painting was painted using undiluted acrylic paint applied with bristle brushes. The sky went in first using mixtures of yellow ochre, cadmium red and ultramarine blue with plenty of white added near the trees and the light area of the water. The trees were next, painted with various mixtures of yellow ochre, cadmium yellow and blue. The background trees were greyed slightly to show recession. The details of the boats were worked from the farthest to the nearest. I used phthalo green for the bright green cover over one of the boats. Finally, the reflections were painted – remembering to make the lights slightly darker and the darks a little lighter.

Changing light

Norfolk Farm near Acle. Acrylic on acid-free mount card. 10” x 14”

The special quality of light falling on the landscape often attracts us to a scene. This was the case with Norfolk Farm near Acle. Painted on a cloudy day, the light was constantly changing and I watched and waited for a while before eventually settling for this scene containing good contrasts of light and shadow. The painting also demonstrates how broken edges can be achieved with the gesso coated card and bristle brushes.

Choosing a Conifer. Acrylic on acid-free mount card 10” x 14”

Choosing a Conifer was inspired by a visit to our local garden centre on a bright, cold day. I felt that the wide range of warm and cool greys produced a pleasant colour harmony and the moving figures gave life to the composition. The necessary greys were created with just ultramarine blue, yellow ochre and cadmium red and white.

Scene at Gordes, Provence. Acrylic on acid-free mount card 10” x 14”

Painting in Provence for the first time, I found the hill villages offered a host of wonderful painting scenes. Scenes at Gordes, Provence was painted at the edge of the village and I tried to convey the contrast between the light pink buildings and dark trees, and the rolling countryside stretching far behind to the distant hills. Again the palette was limited to four colours plus white, to capture the warm, bright atmosphere of Provence in May.


A final word about framing. I frame my acrylic paintings in the same way as I do watercolours, i.e. under glass with a wide double mount.

If you haven’t tried acrylics before, do have a go. I’m sure you will be inspired.