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Acrylic Paints - A Beginner's Guide

acrylic paint tubes in yellow, blue and green
Acrylic paint can be mixed and blended just like oils, but are safer to use and take half the time to dry.

Acrylics are wonderful.

These paints have many qualities that, though different from oils, make painting easy and fun. I have been playing with them for the past year, and love their ease of use, broad spectrum of colors and easy cleanup.

There are also many additives to give you many different effects, including: a matte finish, a glossy finish, a pearl finish, glitter, and an additive that will make the paint almost as thick as clay.

How Acrylics Differ from Oils

There are two main features of acrylics that differ from oils.

First, since they are water-based emulsion paints, they can be mixed, and thinned, with water. This means that you don't need to use thinners or mediums.

If fact, you can't even mix thinners with acrylics. This is good for people who don't like the pungent odor of thinner, or are allergic to it. I don't mind the smell of thinner, in fact I kind of like it, but if I'm working close to my paints I get a little light headed. I also worry about the possibility of fire and the chance of accidentally spilling thinner on your painting.

The second feature that sets acrylics apart from oil painting is their drying time. Since acrylics dry through the evaporation of water, they dry quickly.

This fast drying time is the main complaint that oil painters have against acrylics. If you need to lengthen the drying time of acrylics, you can add an extender. By mixing an extender with the paint you will lengthen the paints drying time.

How much you extend the drying time depends on the amount of extender used, the temperature and the humidity. You can also slow down the drying time by spraying the painting lightly with water. By giving you a longer drying time, you can more easily blend your colors.

You can keep the paints on your palette from drying out by using several techniques. The easiest is to spray water on your palette while painting. I use a palette that has a wet sponge under a wet piece of paper. It comes with a tight fitting lid for overnight storage. A friend of mine uses an enameled tray, which she lines with wet paper towels. Use whatever meets your needs.

Tough, Versatile Acrylics

Acrylic paints are very tough, even tougher than oils. Once dry, acrylics are permanent, flexible and water insoluble. If you wish, you can gently wash the surface of a dry acrylic painting with soap and water. Acrylics will not yellow with age, either.

Another great quality of acrylics is that they can be used for a variety of projects where durability and flexibility are needed. You can apply these paints straight from the tub or jar, or thin them with water for watercolor or airbrush. They are also excellent for decorative painting around the house, collage, airbrush, murals, silk screening, paper-mache, brush and pallet knife, fabric painting, silk screening, photo retouching and more. My girlfriend uses acrylics for fabric painting, and thinks they're great. She applies the paints with brushes, a little squirt bottle and rubber or sponge stamps. Acrylics are usually less expensive than oils, too.

Since acrylics are waterproof when dry, they are excellent for outdoor murals. However, dried acrylic paints are microscopically porous, so it's a good idea to use an acrylic varnish, especially if the painting will be exposed to the weather.

Cleanup is easy with acrylics. As long as your brushes are kept wet, you can wash them with soap and warm water. Instead of using a wood palette, one made of Plexiglas or glass allows you to easily peel off any excess paint that dries on the palette. You can also use a disposable paper palette for easy cleanup.

The Downside of Acrylics

There is a dark side to acrylics. If acrylics dry on a brush, you will probably need to replace the brush, as it will be almost impossible to remove the dried paint. It's best to use synthetic brushes with acrylics. Acrylics will adhere more strongly to natural fibers, making natural fiber brushes harder to clean.

Temperature can also be a problem. The colder it gets, the more brittle acrylics become, and you should never roll, unroll or bend an acrylic painting when it is below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, don't store tubes or jars of acrylics at temperatures below 35 degrees Fahrenheit.

So give acrylics a try. I'm sure you'll love their ease of use, versatility and broad palette of colors.

About the Author...
Jeff Colburn

More about acrylic painting lessons around the Web:


A Direct Approach to Acrylic Painting - Step-by-step guide to laying out a preliminary sketch, applying color and finishing techniques with a related multimedia tutorial.

Acrylic paintings - Wikimedia - Check out an extensive gallery of acrylic paintings by amateur and professional artists.


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