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7 things beginners need to know about acrylic painting

Acrylic Painting: 7 Things Beginners Need To Know

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Acrylic paints are great for both beginners and experienced painters. But if you’re just starting out there are a few things you should bear in mind to make your experience as easy as possible. Read on for the 7 things beginners need to know when getting started with acrylic painting.

I LOVE painting with acrylic paint. It’s such a versatile medium, with gorgeous vibrant colours and a creamy texture.

You can apply the paint thickly with a palette knife (or an old credit card as in my step-by-step birch tree painting tutorial) like the impasto technique more traditionally associated with oil painting. And you can also paint washes with it, as you can with watercolour paint.

But as with any new hobby or creative skill, there’s a lot to learn when you’re getting started with acrylics.

Here are 7 things beginners need to know, to help you make the most of your painting time when you’re new to acrylics.

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1. There are different kinds of acrylics

Acrylic paint isn’t just acrylic paint. There are four main kinds of paint and they’re used in different situations.

The four types of paint are:

  1. Heavy body: This kind of paint is best used when you want to keep some texture and brush strokes in your painting. It often comes in tubes (or in tubs in larger quantities) and has a spreadable texture, like very soft butter. It can also be thinned with water (but not too much!). If you want to paint with a palette knife, you would use heavy body paint.
  2. Soft body: As the name suggests, this paint is softer than heavy body, more like yogurt.
  3. Fluid: This paint is more fluid again. Fluid acrylics tend to level out on the surface, meaning they don’t hold brush strokes or texture.
  4. Acrylic ink: Inks have the thinnest consistency, as you might expect. Acrylic inks are great for creating watercolour effects (although being acrylic, they’re permanent) and drips in paintings.

Bear in mind some manufacturers label their paints slightly differently. So while the above is generally true, you should double check what you’re getting when you buy paint from a different brand to usual!

And if you’re still a little confused, check out this handy graphic from Jackson’s Art showing acrylic paints on a ‘dairy scale’. Love it!

2. You get what you pay for

Sometimes it’s not worth paying more for a more expensive version of a product, but that’s not the case with acrylic paint.

The reason for this is some of the pigments used to colour acrylic paints can be pretty expensive. The cheaper a paint is, the less pigment it generally contains.

The more expensive paints have more pigment, which makes the colours more vibrant and generally gives better coverage.

This means you often need to use more of a cheaper paint and less of a more expensive paint to achieve a similar effect, so it can actually be a false economy.

There are three main grades of paints:

  1. Craft paint: This is the cheapest kind of acrylic paint and is available in a huge range of colours. It’s best to buy the exact colours you want, as it’s difficult to mix craft paints without muddying the colours.
  2. Student grade: These paints are ideal for experimenting with as a hobbyist. They’re often made by the same brands that make artist grade paints. Although they have less pigment than artist grade, you can still achieve good colour mixes and make great paintings.
  3. Artist/professional grade: This is the best quality paint with the highest amount of pigment, and consequently the most expensive.

Depending on how much painting you are planning on doing, you can always start with cheaper paints and upgrade your supplies as you go along. You could also buy better quality tubes of the colours you use the most of.

close up of abstract acrylic art showing lots of texture
A close up of texture in heavy body acrylic paint

3. Acrylic paints are great on a lot of surfaces

Acrylic paints can be used on most surfaces. They’re popular for use with paper (watercolour or acrylic paper, ideally), canvas, canvas board, and wood.

Basically, you can paint on any surface that isn’t too shiny or glossy, as the paint doesn’t stick to these types of surfaces properly. (Some acrylic artists paint what’s called a “skin” onto glass. Then they peel this off when it’s dry and use it in another painting.)

Gesso is used to prime (prepare for painting on) surfaces. Gesso is a gritty substance that helps the acrylic paint stick to the surface you’re painting on.

4. Acrylics dry fast…

Acrylic paints dry quickly, and possibly a little more quickly than you would like when you’re just starting out! You’ll also find acrylic paint dries faster in a warm room or on a hot summer’s day.

If you’re painting a sky, for example, and need to blend colours together, you need to work fast so that the colours mix before they get too dry. (You can also add a special medium to the paint to slow the drying time, but we’ll talk about that another day!)

The thicker the paint is applied, the slower it’ll dry. Don’t forget this if you’re applying paint really thickly for textural purposes.

5. …but you can dry them faster with a hairdryer

If you want to complete a painting in one sitting, without having to wait for the layers to dry in stages, you can actually use a hairdryer to speed things up. Use it on a warm setting rather than hot if you can, and don’t hold it too close.

One thing to be aware of is that drying craft paints with a hair dryer can cause colour shift. This means you can end up with darker colours than you had intended.

If you’re worried about this happening with your paints, try doing a couple of test swatches. Let one dry naturally and dry another with a hairdryer and see what happens.

6. Don’t let acrylic paint dry on your brushes!

As far as I’m aware, when acrylic paint has dried into fabric or paint brushes, it’s not coming out again. Of all the things beginners need to know about acrylics, I think this is one of the most important!

This means you should wear old clothes, or cover your clothes with an apron for protection when you’re painting.

You should also make sure you wash your brushes as soon as you can after using them. Try not to leave them soaking in a jar of water while you paint, as this can loosen the bristles.

Instead, give them a good swish in the water and put them aside, still damp, until you can wash them properly with soapy water.

(Oh and if by any chance you do know of a way to get dried paint out of brushes or clothes, please share in the comments!)

7. You can paint over mistakes easily

Although the fact that acrylic paint is permanent isn’t ideal for your clothes and paint brushes, it does mean mistakes are easy to deal with.

As long as you let the paint dry completely, you can paint over it. (If it’s not entirely dry, it will smudge and streak.)

Depending on the quality of your paint and how dark the colour is that you’re trying to cover, you may need to go over it with more than one coat to cover it fully.

It doesn’t even need to slow you down much, particularly if you have your hair dryer handy. Just give it a quick blast with the hair dryer and then paint right over the top.

There, it’s like it never happened!

Can you think of any other things beginners need to know when they’re getting started with acrylics? If so, share them in the comments below!

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About Stacey

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I’m Stacey and I’m a blogger, abstract artist and freelance writer. My aim is to help busy people feel inspired and get more creative with tutorials, hints and tips.

I live in Cardiff with my partner and dog, and in my free time you’ll find me hiking, reading, painting or sampling a craft beer or two.

7 thoughts on “Acrylic Painting: 7 Things Beginners Need To Know”

  1. Baby wipes gets acrylic out of clothes when the paint is still damp. Keep cheap brand on hand when you paint!

    I do not know if they will remove dry paint so, get after it right away!

  2. I used dawn dish soap to get dried paint out of my brushes. It took some time but eventually I got it all out. I took care not to get it on the ferrule too much and made sure to rinse them really well after.


    If I am going to use my painting in a bathroom does it need a protective coating and if yes what do I use?

  4. Thanks for the tips!! Beginner here with acrylics.

    I use acetone to get paint out of brushes…if the brush is expensive or I’m worried about how harsh the acetone might be on it, I heat white distilled vinegar in the michrowave for about a minute, add a little Dawn dish soap and work it out with a toothbrush or something more firm. ALSO! Soaking in fabric softener over night will help too!

  5. I have no idea how to help my son starting painting seriously he wants but I never painted before and now he is getting upset beacause he doesn’t know what to do and how to do. I am scared he will just give up

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