An Introduction to Acrylics

I picked up acrylic paints for the first time in many years when I attended an acrylic painting class. Check out how I got on!

Table of Contents

Introduction

In February 2022 I was very fortunate to be in receipt of a micro-bursary provided by the Fellfoot Forward Landscape Partnership Scheme. This scheme is led by the North Pennines AONB Partnership and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. It is a major project to conserve, enhance, and celebrate the natural and cultural heritage of a special part of the North West of England, which stretches from the Cumbrian fellside of the North Pennines AONB and UNESCO Global Geopark to the River Eden, and runs north from Melmerby to Hallbankgate. As part of these efforts, the Fellfoot Forward scheme provided funding opportunities for local artists including commission work and micro-bursaries.

When applying for the micro-bursary, I explained that I would dedicate this money to expanding my skills and knowledge of art and drawing. In secondary school I dropped art as an academic subject during my first year of A-levels (I had chosen four subjects initially and, since I was getting a D grade in art, I decided to drop this one in favour of three subjects plus General Studies) and I hadn’t received any formal training or education in art since. So I planned to attend some classes, whether in-person or virtually, and after some research found some great introductory classes with a local artist at the Rheged Discovery Centre.

After my first experience with oil painting, I attended a 6-hour acrylic painting class with Catherine MacDiarmid. I have painted with acrylics before, but that was many years ago! My initial thoughts were that I would find it easier than the oil painting, but interestingly that wasn’t the case. Read on to find out how I got on; you can also watch it in a vlog on my YouTube channel here.

None of the links in this article are affiliated with any brand or company, they are simply for information purposes based on my own experience.

What are acryclic paints?

Acylic paints are pigments mixed with water and acrylic polymers act as the binding agent. Being a water-based medium, it can be diluted and cleaned with water, unlike oil paints which require solvents. They dry quickly too, so you cannot rework or reactivate them like oils, but it means you can work more easily in layers.

Depending on how much you dilute the paint, you can achieve thinner and thicker consistencies. If you want to create more of a watercolour effect, you’re better off using Gouache paint, which I’ll explain more about below. When applied in thick layers, you can create a texture on the surface, similar to oils. They also dry with a slight sheen like oils.

Acrylic paint vs Gouache

Gouache paints are water-based like acrylics, but have been made with Gum arabic as the binding agent as is used in watercolour paints. This means that they can be reactivated by water after they have dried, making it very blendable. Gouache is best used on paper with traditional paint brushes, whereas acrylic paint can be used on a variety of surfaces such as wood, plastic and glass and applied with a palette knife.

What do I need to start acrylic painting?

So in preparation for this class where I would be painting with acrylics for the first time in many years, I needed to stock up on supplies. I went to Cass Art online and bought the following tools:

Paints

I wanted a good quality set of paints but without going too crazy on the number of colours. Similar to the oil painting class, I wasn’t necessarily planning on continuing to paint regularly afterwards, so I didn’t want a big set of paints that was just going to waste. With that in mind I chose the Winsor & Newton Galeria set of 10 paints. This turned out to be a great beginner set as it had some of the key colours that our teacher had recommended: titanium white, raw umber, cadmium red, cadmium yellow and ultramarine. Now it is missing a black but, even if you’re just starting out, I would recommend you buy larger tubes of white and black separately anyway, as these get used up much more quickly due to their lightening and darkening properties.

Paint Brushes

I used the same brushes as I took to the oil painting class which were the old Crimson & Blake ‘hog bristle’ brushes and the Pro Arte Masterstroke brushes set of 5. With the time given to painting being limited, and Catherine’s aim to encourage us to paint big, the bigger brushes were used most and the Pro Arte brushes didn’t see much action. They are, however, a perfectly nice set of brushes that I would continue to use as a beginner painter.

Paper

As I did for the oil painting class, the paper I chose for this was an A4 pad by Winsor & Newton; specifically their 300gsm acrylic pad. Again, our teacher, Catherine, stressed that we should bring at least A3-sized paper and, again, I chose not to listen out of a lack of confidence! But this pad does come in A3 too, so you can heed that advice better than I did 😉.

The quality of the paper is, again, great for beginners to work on to ensure that your painting efforts are not wasted with paper that turns to mush or bleeds through.

Palettes

I took two different palettes with me to this class. One was a plastic tray with different sized container sections and the classic thumb-hole to enable you to hold the pallette while you work. This was in fact a watercolour palette as the little square container sections around the edge would fit in loose blocks of watercolour paint. So it wasn’t exactly designed for an acrylic painter, however, the larger size of it made it versatile and useful for dividing up different colours or mediums into different sections.

I also took the tear-off paper palette that I used in the oil painting class and Catherine advised I make the paper wet so that the paints would retain moisture for longer while I painted away.

Primer

I didn’t actually use primer on the day for my paper, but Gesso acrylic primer was recommended by our teacher depending on the surface you are working on. She was using simple card and so needed to prime it heavily to reduce the amount of absorption in the surface. The paper I used was fine without, however, it does have texture so if you only use a thin layer of paint you will see that come through. It is easy to build up the layers on top of this, though, and avoid that issue.

Transparent Medium

I didn’t purchase this for myself but was able to use a supply that Catharine had brough to the session. This thinning medium created a varnish effect with the paint by making it somewhat transparent while mainting the colour. I used this on the glass vase of my flower painting and it worked really well in making realistic looking glass.

How do I start acrylic painting?

So…you’ve got all the gear, but no idea where to start?

The aim of Catharine’s class was to show us different techniques you can use acrylic paints for to loosen-up our painting process. Her focus was on mark-making rather than delicate and fine brush work. She showed us how to introduce collage with different scraps of material like tissue paper and create print-effects with embossed paper like wallpaper offcuts. So, the first step would be to decide on the subject matter of your painting and something a vase of flowers, as we painted in the class, is ideal as they provide a variety of colours and textures to explore. Depending on those colours and textures, you can then choose other materials like tissue paper, scrap paper and shapes you can use as prints to incorporate into your piece.

As a beginner, painting a vase of flowers in a strictly realistic way would be very daunting; however, taking this ‘mark-making’ approach for a more abstract piece will help you explore the acrylic paints in a looser, more freeing way. I have found the biggest obstacle to my use of paint is confidence – I painted with acrylics in my youth because I had youthful confidence on my side, but with age I’ve shied away from it (and also moved to dry media out of enjoyment of it too!). So to take the pressure off painting your first acrylic piece as realistically as possible is a great way to get you into the swing of it.

The first stage of the painting was to make bold strokes of paint and add texture with collage and printing techniques.

Another good way to introduce yourself to acrylics is to start with a few value paintings. This is where you take one colour, like burnt umber, and apply it in varying levels of thickness and thinness to achieve diffierent values of light and dark. This will get you working with the paint in a way that focuses on its behaviour rather than worrying about mixing colours and creating realistic shades.

I would also recommend, as Catharine did, starting on a large piece of paper. Again, it can be tempting to stay small when you lack confidence, but actually a bigger canvas does encourage the looser approach. On the day of the class, I only had an A4 pad, so Catharine had me tear off four pages and stick them together (from the back) with masking tape. This worked surprisingly well and, once the painting dried, it folded up very easily so was great for transporting! So, if you only have an A4 pad, don’t let that hold you back and simply stick them together to give yourself a larger area to work with.

With further work I built-up the piece with more detail, while still keeping it loose and abstract.

My thoughts on acrylic painting

My main feelings toward painting from my experience of oil painting and acrylic painting, is that I am not a natural painter 😅. However, of the two types of painting I have tried, I was surprised to find I preferred oil painting, which I had never done before. I think this is because oil has a more muted quality, which is easier to create subtlety with. Acrylics, on the other hand, are more vibrant and so lend themselves to richer, more colourful subject matter. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with either medium but through using both I have learnt I have a natural tendency to lean towards subtlety and refinement over bold and beautiful!

Overall, I enjoyed my experience of acrylic painting and I do believe I benefited from spending a few hours being creative and thinking outside of the box in how I approach a piece of artwork. I was very happy with the supplies I purchased and will be happy to pick them up again when the urge to explore colour and creativity takes over in the future!

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