If you’re just starting out with acrylic painting and you’re confused by some of the words and phrases used when talking about it, let me help you out. Read on for my glossary of some common acrylic painting terms.

When I first started acrylic painting, I felt like I had just visited another country where I spoke very little of the language. There is a pretty steep learning curve at the beginning, and it can be overwhelming and bewildering to say the least!

With this in mind, I thought I’d put together a handy glossary of some terms commonly used in acrylic painting.

But if we’re going for the basics, there’s something we need to look at before we get into the glossary…

Firstly, what actually IS acrylic paint?

Acrylics are a kind of synthetic paint. In the same way that oil paints are made from pigments suspended in an oil (typically linseed), acrylic paints are made from pigments in a liquid acrylic resin.

Acrylic paints are water-soluble when wet, but dry to become water-resistant. They are very versatile in that they can actually be used like watercolours or oils, depending on the effect you are trying to achieve.

Acrylic Painting Glossary For Beginners

Artist grade paint: Also known as professional grade paint. This is the best quality paint with the highest amount of pigment, and consequently the most expensive.

Binder: Paint is made up of pigment and binder and the binder is what holds the paint together.

Complementary colours: Complementary colours are opposite each other on the colour wheel (see the image below). Examples of pairs of complementary colours include red and green, orange and blue, and yellow and purple.

If you’re just starting out with acrylic painting and you’re confused by some of the words and phrases used when talking about it, let me help you out. Click through to read my glossary of some common acrylic painting terms.
This colour wheel shows the primary, secondary and tertiary colours or hues. (To see the exact colour wheel that I own, click here.)

Craft paint: This is the cheapest kind of acrylic paint and contains the least pigment. It’s available in a huge range of colours.

Fluid paint: Also known as soft body paint. As the name suggests, this paint has a more fluid texture than heavy body. Fluid acrylics tend to level out on the painting surface, meaning they don’t hold brush strokes or texture.

Gesso: Gesso is a gritty substance that is painted onto canvases or other surfaces and helps the acrylic paint stick. White gesso is commonly used, but black and clear are also available.

Ground: Also known as the primer. The ground is used to prepare the surface for painting on. Gesso is a ground.

Heavy body paint: Heavy body paint has a thicker texture than fluid paint, and is spreadable like soft butter. It often comes in tubes (or in tubs in larger quantities).

Hue: A hue is a pure colour, like those you would find on a colour wheel. (See the colour wheel image above.)

Impasto: Impasto is a technique commonly associated with oil painting, and it involves applying paint thickly, often with a palette knife, so lots of texture remains.

Medium: This is something that is added to acrylic paint to achieve a certain outcome, such as making the paint dry more slowly or look glossier.

Opacity: If something is opaque, it isn’t see through. The higher the opacity of the paint, the less you will be able to see through it to what is behind (ie the canvas or another colour).

Open time: The open time is how long the paint remains wet on the canvas. This isn’t very long for acrylic paint. To blend colours together you need to either work quickly or use a medium to slow the drying time.

Palette: A flat surface used to hold your paint ready for painting. This might be plastic  or treated wood, or even a piece of wax paper! Stay-wet palettes are really useful when working with acrylics, as they hold a piece of damp paper that stops the paint drying so quickly.

Permanence: This is how well the paint holds up over time in terms of fading and colour-shift. The higher the permanence rating, the better a paint should last.

Pigment: This is the substance in paint that gives it its colour. Some paints are more expensive because the pigment is an expensive material. Better quality paints also tend to be more expensive because they contain more pigment.

Primary colour: There are three primary colours from which all other colours can be mixed. These are red, yellow, and blue. You can’t mix pure red, yellow, or blue from other colours.

Primer: Also known as the ground. The primer is used to prepare the surface for painting on. Gesso is a primer.

Professional grade paint: Also known as professional grade paint. This is the best quality paint with the highest amount of pigment, and consequently the most expensive.

Secondary colours: These are made by mixing the primary colours. They are as follows:

  • yellow + blue = green
  • red + yellow = orange
  • blue + red = purple

Soft body paint: Also known as fluid paint. As the name suggests, this paint has a softer texture than heavy body. Soft body acrylics tend to level out on the surface, meaning they don’t hold brush strokes or texture.

Shade: To make a shade, you add black to a colour.

Student grade paint: These paints are ideal for experimenting with as a hobbyist. Although they have less pigment than artist grade paints, you can still achieve good colour mixes and make great paintings.

Tertiary colours: These 6 colours are made when you mix a primary colour and its nearest secondary colour. They are as follows:

  • yellow + green = yellow-green
  • yellow + orange = yellow-orange
  • red + orange = red-orange
  • red + purple = red-purple
  • blue + purple = blue-purple
  • blue + green = blue-green

Tint: To make a tint, you add white to a colour.

Tone: To make a tone, you add grey to a colour (so you’re adding black and white).

Tooth: This is the texture of the painting surface. If you look closely at a canvas, you can see it has quite a rough texture. This helps the paint stick to the surface. You can give a smooth surface some tooth (teeth?!) by painting it with gesso.

Transparency: If something is transparent, it’s see through. The higher the transparency of the paint, the more you will be able to see through it to what is behind (ie the canvas or another colour).

Underpainting: Acrylic paintings are generally made up of layers. The underpainting is an initial layer of paint that is intended to be painted over. (Like underwear on a person, you can’t see the underpainting but it’s important nonetheless!)

Wash: This is thinned-down paint used to cover a large surface.

Leave a comment below if there’s anything here that doesn’t make sense to you. I’d also love to know if there are any other terms you think should be added to this glossary! 🙂

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