Acrylic painting for absolute beginners. Everything you need to know ☺️
If you missed Parts 1 and 2 of my Absolute Beginners painting series, you can check them out here and here.
So, you’ve chosen to paint with acrylics! Excellent choice! Or maybe you’re just reading this post for the heck of it – also excellent! Thank you so much. If you’ve never painted with acrylics before, please, let me be your guide.
Today we are going to paint this (if you want to):
First up, let me explain the basic of acrylic paints in this video below:
What exactly are acrylic paints. Well, as we covered in Part 1, all paint is made up of a binder or vehicle (the stuff that keeps the paint together, sticks to your painting surface, and holds the colour in place once the paint is dry). The pigment is mixed with the binder – this is what gives your paint its colour. Acrylic paint has a similar consistency to oil paint – both are generally pretty-heavy bodied and thick. The binder in acrylic paint is acrylic polymer emulsion. Straight out of the tube acrylic paint is water soluble. So all you really need to thin your paint and work with them is basic water. If you like you can buy a product called retarder which is an additive for increasing the working (drying) time of your acrylic paint. Once acrylic paint dries it is water impermeable and permanent. It is a great paint for beginners.
Basic acrylic painting shopping list
Yay, you get to go shopping! Here’s what you’ll need to get started with acrylics:
Acrylic paint, 60 ml tubes (I recommend TriArt or Golden paints): Alizarin crimson, cadmium red medium, cadmium yellow medium, ultramarine blue, burnt umber, raw umber, burnt sienna, raw sienna, chrome oxide green (optional), Payne’s grey, titanium white
Brushes: Round #6, flat 1/2″ thick, filbert #2 or #4 – short handle if you’ll be working at a table, long handle if working at an easel (I prefer synthetic soft bristles, other option is hog hair, see what you like) – inexpensive is ok, but I don’t recommend dollar store paintbrushes – you would regret it
Pre-stretched canvases – you can buy a bulk pack for a volume discount (12 x 12″ is a good size to go with) and/or pad of inexpensive canvas sheets for practice
Retarder (optional) – Golden makes a good one
Palette: Disposable palette sheets (optional, looks like a pad of paper) – or a piece of plywood or Masonite board – it is up to you
Paint-Along: Still Life With Apple
Here’s what you’ll need for our paint-along:
Cadmium yellow medium
Naphthol red medium (or cadmium red medium from basic palette0
Chrome oxide green (optional)
Click below to watch me paint. You can paint along with me! I recommend you get all your supplies assembled, a nice cozy tea, and then press play! You can follow me, skip around to the parts you need. You’ll have your first painted masterpiece in no time. I’m no Bob Ross but I really try to break it down for viewers. And I apologize for the length! This is my first kind of “paint-with-me” video and there’s definitely a learning curve. But I thought, ah, I’ve got to start somewhere so here we are.
I hope you all enjoyed this little how-to and tutorial. The best way to learn how to paint, is to paint – as much as possible. If you painted along, please please please share your work in the comments below! Any comments? Questions? I love to hear from you!
Today I wanted to tell you the story of this painting, Viszla and the Sun in an Empty Room. It’s from the spring of 2018 and while I like the actual painting just fine, it’s the title that makes it one of my favourites. I posted this on Instagram back when I finished it, but I’m not sure that everyone (anyone???) picked up on the reference so I thought I would explain. Did you get it? It’s a big time nod to Edward Hopper, my favourite artist, and his painting, Sun in an Empty Room. Actually, it’s entirely inspired by that painting (and of course Riggs who loves to stretch so gracefully).
I love Edward Hopper’s art. Everything. Not just Nighthawks – I know you know this painting, everyone knows it. Corner view of three people sitting in the nearly empty diner, scene from outside looking in? So famous it’s been parodied in multiple episodes of The Simpson’s? It’s a good one. I like it so much I did my own little parody last year, featuring Clicquot (this was during my Clicquot-as-a-muse phase last winter):
I like all Edward Hopper paintings. Chop Suey, Pensive Lady in Red, Summer Evening. For my birthday one year, my husband surprised me with a print of Summer Evening printed on a gallery-wrapped canvas. I see it everyday and I always think, What on earth is going on here? How can something so simple be so narrative? It’s awesome! (yes, that’s my technical art critique :)).
My interest in Edward Hopper goes way back to high school. I discovered his work when I was doing research for my OAC art thesis which focused on realism and architecture (and considering my subject matter it’s not really a surprise that I discovered him). Along with favourites like Lawren Harris and Andrew Wyeth, there stood out the work of Edward Hopper – quiet scenes of post-WWII American suburbanism, people lost in thought or just not talking on purpose (what were they thinking? what??), the contrast of lightest lights and darkest darks, the play of colours, and shadows cast with absolute geometrical precision. He had me at geometric precision.
My Grade 13 art journal:
So as I said, MY painting is inspired by Sun in an Empty Room, another classic Hopper work. This is one of his later paintings and he totally forgoes any lonely-looking people in favour of just a totally empty, lonely room. Note the shadows – so, so, so great. And note the view outside the window – anyone else think that those trees look totally foreboding in spite of the sunshine? This is a great one – really begs the question, What is going on here?
Back to my painting – The vizsla is not any old vizsla – it’s sweet Baby Riggs and if you knew him you would know this is Riggs, because THAT is a Baby Riggs classic stretch pose and he is always stretching :). The house is our house, I took a ton of reference photos, and the shadows and highlights are all done in the style of Hopper.
The painting is on a 16 x 20″ gallery-wrapped canvas. I completed it in May 2018. It was painted with acrylics – a mix of TriArt and Golden paints.
Some progress pictures (always my favourite!):
This painting took me forever to finish. I think I started it in March and I finished it in mid-May. Yikes. That doesn’t happen too often anymore. I swear I listened to The Weakerthans song, Sun in an Empty Room(so cool!) the entire time. If there was a way to infuse this blog post with that song – oh who am I kidding, there probably is, but I’m so technically-challenged I feel lucky that I was even able to create this website in the first place. Anyway, if I could embed that beautiful song to play over this post, it would really set the tone of this painting for you. I’ve given you the link instead ;).
I went through a real Edward Hopper phase from March 2018 onwards. I painted Vizsla and the Sun in an Empty Room, and then I painted sweet Clicquot in Pensive Vizsla in Red (yet another cheeky Hopper reference):
And some more Hopper-esque sketches from the same time period:
My intention for this post was just to discuss the one painting. But in so doing I have summarized a nice little period in my personal art history – the time represented by these drawings and paintings has a really positive feeling around it. When I think back to it, it’s kind of cast in a warm and sunshine-y glow of late spring-early summer (as seen through the rose-coloured glasses of my mid-January perspective :)).
These paintings and sketches were completed at a time when I had just started painting again after the longest dry spell ever. For these months I felt super inspired to just study my favourite Edward Hopper paintings and allowed myself to kind of learn from him. It was a really freeing little art experiment. It seems kind of counter-intuitive because it was the opposite of easy-going, laissez-faire, let’s just see what happens! kind of painting. I learned a lot and that was really motivating.
I made some significant changes to my style and brushwork that have really stayed with me. Specifically, I simplified the forms in my sketches and paintings, and I tried as much as possible to keep.it.simple. Nothing fussy. I learned restraint. I learned to plan more in advance – especially my treatment of my light source. And that has kind of followed me through up to now, where I’m in a place where I’m becoming happier and happier with my painting.
I always loved the sketch shown above. It was inspired by a photo of my husband and Teelo and Riggs barbecuing in late winter. On the one hand it unfortunately led to my largest unfinished painting ever. I could never get it right. In fact, I’m looking at all 30 x 40″ of its unfinished glory leaning against the wall by my desk as I write this. But on the other hand, this sketch led to this portrait of Teelo, which was a real game-changer for me in terms of how I approach acrylic painting, and marked the start of my most prolific and productive period of 2018.
I once read that Edward Hopper spent a really long time working out each painting. I think it’s important to practice your craft a lot. But I also think it’s important to take a step back and really think about what you’re doing. I always see my productivity as kind of a wave function (yes, I’m referring to math :)). It goes up, it goes down. I feel inspired and invincible, then I’ll have a week (or two, or more) when I wonder if I’ve forgotten how to “do art.” But every time there’s a down, there seems to be an up that is better than ever before. And it’s neat to look back and link everything together in a post like this. It’s important for me to follow the process, take the time to work everything out in my brain, and think about what inspires me most 🙂
So you want to paint? Awesome! Let me help you get started!
Part 1: Pick a Paint
Hi everyone! I’m putting on my teacher hat today **adjusting teacher hat** and speaking to anyone and everyone who wants to get into painting. Maybe you’re a beginner, maybe you’ve always painted in one medium and you’re looking to branch out, or maybe you just like reading my blog posts and you’re going with it because this is today’s topic (and for that I thank you very much!!)
I discussed my own “artistic journey” (which has been more like a marathon complete with side cramps and blisters) in this post. Now I’m turning it over to you. I’m not an expert artist by any means, and I feel like I am always learning and getting better myself. At the same time, I have a lot of experience working with paint (and selling it at Curry’s Art Store in high school and undergrad!) so I think I have something valuable to offer in terms of a starting point. Whenever I get an idea for a painting, I quickly know what the medium will be. Nowadays that choice is usually oil versus watercolour paint for my personal work. Allow me to enlighten you 🙂
Maybe you’ve never painted before and you’re wondering, What’s the BEST paint to paint with? Well, there’s no right answer to this. A lot of it has to do with what you want to achieve. Who are your favourite artists? How do you want your art to look? What is your budget?
Different paints have different characteristics. You know a watercolour painting when you see it. The colours in watercolour paintings often have a fluidity to them, and even though they can be colourful these paintings often retain a softness of sorts. Oil paintings on the other hand can be sharper, there is a deep richness and vibrancy to the paint colours, and the paints can be layered and blended to achieve effects that are unique to oil paints.
I would say that watercolours have a tell-tale appearance and so do oils and acrylics are somewhere in-between. You can achieve watercolour-like and oil-like effects with acrylics, but really acrylics are their own medium. One thing that makes acrylics unique is the enormous array of mediums that are available to acrylic painters. These can be used to modify the appearance of the paints in a million different ways and are especially attractive to abstract or non-figurative painters.
Disclaimer: Of course the same paint in a hundred different artists hands can be used and presented in a hundred different ways but I’m trying to provide some basic comparisons and advice here for the beginner.
Alright, buckle-up because I’m going to get a little artist-nerd now:
ALL paint works the same way: A pigment (the stuff that gives paint colour) is ground up really fine and suspended in a binder (the thing that keeps it all together, the thing that makes it what you know as paint). The binder can be lots of things. Watercolour paint binder is water-soluble gum arabic – literally the sap from an acacia tree. For acrylic paints the binder is acrylic polymer (a semi-liquidy plastic-y material). For oil paints the binder is, you guessed it, oil. In oil paints there are lots of different oils used – linseed oil, safflower oil, walnut oil. For master paint-makers the choice of oil often has to do with which oil is best with which pigment but this choice can also affect the finish when the paint is dry (matte, glossy), drying time, and so on. Usually when we paint, we dilute or thin the paint a little bit, to make it more workable on our painting surface, which is commonly paper, or canvas, or board. When the diluent evaporates and the painting is dry, the binder is what is left behind and that sticks to your painting surface and holds the pigment there.
Other interesting paints? Encaustic painting uses heated beeswax mixed with coloured pigments. Once in a blue moon when I worked at Curry’s Art Store someone would want to know, “What is Casein painting?”. The answer? Painting with pigment mixed with a binder derived from MILK casein (aka milk protein). The paint has a glue-y, sticky consistency and while the idea makes me shudder – it’s an ancient paint that’s been used throughout history. Even Andy Warhol used it back in the day.
So really, the world is your oyster when you’re picking a paint but I would say the big three remain watercolour, acrylic, and oil paints. And usually (usually!!! but not always!) you paint with watercolours on paper, and oil and acrylic on canvas (or paper, or board, or whatever…)
Ok, up first – oil versus acrylic.
Oil paints have been around for hundreds of years. All the Old Master’s painted with oil (think Leonardo and the other three ninja turtles :)). Acrylics were invented in the 20th century – around the same time as polyester and silicone – it was a good few decades for synthetic materials :).
For my big, high-contrast, intentionally high-impact portraits I always choose oil paints. And I painted with acrylic paints for a long time before this. It’s been a quick transition from acrylic paints but I don’t see myself ever going back. And if I could go back in time and repaint some of my acrylic portraits in oil – I definitely would. The oil paint is just so much nicer to paint with in my opinion and I can achieve such realistic results.
I have found oil paints to be superior for everything I want to achieve visually in comparison with acrylics. A lot of this has to do with drying time. Because oil paints take so much longer to dry (days to weeks to months depending on painting thickness vs minutes with acrylics) you can blend, soften, and change colours on your canvas relatively easily – this makes subtle changes and gradations in colour and shading possible which really lends itself to realism. Acrylics dry so quickly that the workability is really compromised.
I have also found that in direct comparison, oil paints appear to be waaaaaay more highly pigmented than acrylics. My Old Holland oil paints pack a powerful punch – I actually avoid using highly pigmented greens, blues, and reds until absolutely necessary or when I’m sure that they will stay concentrated to their intended area to avoid the whole canvas getting accidently infiltrated with unwanted pigment. A little really goes a long way. David Langevin wrote this excellent article comparing oils versus acrylics where he discusses pigment load and a multitude of other factors for anyone who would like more information.
Acrylics do seem to be a bit more accessible and forgiving for beginners – there is less to think about and there isn’t much overhead compared to oils. You need paint, a brush, something to paint on (canvas, paper, canvas paper), and water for thinning the paint and clean up. You can definitely use other mediums if you like but that’s the basic setup. For oil paints, you will need the paints, brushes, something to paint on, but you will also need to consider what you will thin your paints with – straight solvent, medium, linseed oil? As well, clean-up is a little more tricky – generally you need a solvent of some sort and brush cleaner doesn’t hurt either. There are also some “rules” for painting with oil paints – like fat over lean – while acrylic paints are a little more rule-free if you will.
The last thing I would note about oil versus acrylics is the cost. For professional artist quality paint you will pay a lot more per unit volume of oil paint versus the exact same colour in acrylic. A little goes a long way with oils so that’s definitely a pro, especially if you paint in thin layers. For oil paints, you need at least solvent to thin and work with the paint (like Gamsol). You might also want to mix your solvent with something like Galkyd or linseed oil. All of this adds to the cost. With acrylics you’re ready to go with the paints and some water to dilute. You can use one of the various acrylic mediums as well, but that’s only if you choose to. Water and paint, you’re ready to go. Of course, if you’re using acrylics you’ll inevitably ruin a few brushes with those fast-drying paints and that does add to cost.
So then, what about oil (or acrylic) versus watercolour? How do you choose between those? A lot of it has to do with how you want your painting to look and I discussed some of those differences earlier in this post.
There are also some other things to consider. For one thing I think watercolour techniques are a little bit difficult to master. My mom told me once about a friend of hers whose doctor recommended he take up painting for stress – he took up watercolour and he told my parents that it caused him even more stress! I actually think watercolour painting is really enjoyable but you kind of have to give in to the properties of the paint. Watercolour painting is kind of fragile for a few reasons – the paper itself needs to be treated carefully, and can’t be overworked, and the paints themselves (once applied to the paper) can be ruined by one erroneous drop of water. Of the three major types of paint I’ve discussed in this post – artist quality watercolour paints are definitely the least expensive milliliter for milliliter.
Of course, my words about paint are all generalities, but for anyone out there trying to decide which paint they are going to paint with (or start painting with!) I hope really hope it helps!
No matter what paint you pick – make sure you buy the best you can afford. Some people will buy inexpensive or student quality paints when they are starting out but these can make artists feel frustrated – inferior quality paints often contain less pigment to filler resulting in inferior colours and mixes. As well, you may see the word “hue” on the paint tube or jar – for example, “cadmium red hue”. Instead of containing cadmium pigment (which is $$$) it contains other, inferior pigments that look like cadmium red – but the properties and mixing characteristics will be compromised. Trust me – artist or professional quality is a good thing.
If you’re still undecided on which paint to paint with – you can seek out some artists famous in each medium and see what appeals to you most. My favourite oil painter? Edward Hopper. Notable other oil painters you may have heard of? Vincent van Gogh, Picasso, Rembrandt. Notable acrylic painters? The paints were invented relatively recently so the artists are 20th Century and on – Lichtenstein, Warhol, Rothko. Check out Drowning Girl by Lichtenstein – it’s a personal favourite 🙂 Lastly, for watercolour painters check out William Blake (!) and Franklin Carmichael of the Group of Seven (another favourite).
For anyone out there hesitating to start because you can’t pick a paint – just pick up your brush and get started! There’s no better way to find out what you like than to start experimenting yourself 🙂
Any questions? Ask away below.
Thank you for reading! Stay tuned for Part 2 of my How to Paint series coming soon.