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 🙂
My dogs grew up running with a pack of labs on our annual trip to New Brunswick. Painting two of these boys, Guinness and Ronan, was a labor of love for me.
It’s been difficult but I’ve had to keep my Christmas commissions under wraps until now. Today I wanted to share with you a project that was especially close to my heart.
My sister-in-law asked me to paint two labs, Guinness and Ronan, for her husband’s family. They passed over the Rainbow Bridge earlier this year. Even though winter officially started on December 21st, thinking about these sweet boys reminds me of summer trips to New Brunswick with our own dogs.
Whenever we take the dogs on the crazy long drive out east, one of our first stops upon reaching Fredericton has always been to meet up in Rusagonis. Every time we pass through Woodstock on the last leg of our journey I can feel myself gripping the wheel a little tighter and speeding up towards Fredericton, trying to ignore the whines of the bored dogs about to lose their marbles on the backseat. Once in, “The Gornish” the vizslas would run through the woods and burn off all their pent-up energy with an enormous pack of labs owned and loved by my brother-in-law’s various family members. After navigating through big city traffic and driving for sixteen plus hours, arriving to the peace and solitude of the New Brunswick wilderness for this rejuvenating walk has always been such an amazing feeling. Freedom.
First it was just single child Teelo joining us on these hikes, then a few years later we were a two-dog family and we introduced Baby Riggs to the crew. Every year the same – once reacquainted with bums sniffed, growls exchanged, and alpha-status re-established, we would head out with this motley dog troop. We picked our way through a long field before entering the woods and zig-zagging down to the river’s edge than runs through the property. Teelo, being the kind-of jerk dog that he can be would always grab the biggest stick that he could find and taunt all of the other dogs with it, despite being the smallest dog there. You’d want to tell him, dude, read the room! What a guy. And Riggs, always scared to swim would bark at all the other dogs from the shore, all the while leaning precipitously close to the water, but never allowing himself to touch it. There would always be a ton of east coast mosquitoes and I’d complain and run around because they always attacked me – not the native New Brunswickers who seem to have some sort of genetic repellent against them in their blood. It was fun. It was funny. It was a relief. These memories are all wrapped up for me in the misty rose-coloured hue of nostalgia.
I knew these portraits of Guinness and Ronan had to be perfect to be a perfect tribute to their memories. But, the process was a bit of a challenge from the start because my sister-in-law only had one picture of Guinness and Ronan, shown below. She also asked that I create two separate portraits of them. As you can see, the dogs are fairly far away in this candid reference picture, and as a result their features aren’t very detailed. They are also a bit cut-off. Since the dogs have passed and this was meant to be a surprise for Christmas I had to make this work and I assured my SIL that I could. And then my work began.
I have developed a little bit of a trick for working with photos that do not have a lot of detail. Here’s my little method. I took the reference picture and cropped it separately around Guinness and Ronan because they were meant to be separate portraits. Then I edited both photos – I maximized the structure, and sharpening, and also increased the brightness while decreasing the shadows as much as possible. This results in edited pictures where the major lines are most predominant and it makes it easier to sketch the likeness and capture the most important qualities:
And the resulting sketches sent to my sister-in-law for her approval:
Another “trick” that I employed for these paintings – just like I’ve been doing for my oil paintings, I under-painted both canvases with the colour the was to be predominantly featured in each final portrait – burnt umber for Guinness, and Payne’s grey for Ronan.
With both drawings enlarged and sized about equally, I transferred the reference sketches with Saral white transfer paper to the prepared canvases. After finishing some larger commissions and working in larger sizes for my personal works, the 12 x 12″ canvases did seem a little cramped. Heck, my current 18 x 24″ streetcar painting has been challenging for this reason – I feel like I’m moving towards only working on gigantic canvases which is going to fill our walls at home up way too fast.
And the finished paintings (both completed with Tri-Art and Golden Acrylic paints):
I worked on these paintings over the course of about two weeks in November. I had to balance my time with finishing up some other Christmas commissions and my Beesa projects. I really like the minimalist quality of these paintings – no erroneous brushstrokes, everything is kind of pared down and is important to the final works.
Working on these paintings and knowing that Guinness and Ronan have passed on really made me reflect on my bond with my own dogs, all of our animals actually, and all of our happy memories.
When I look at these photos it feels like yesterday we were in the woods together, hiking with all.the.dogs. In some ways, these old pics remind me of simpler times. We were all on the cusp of being real adults with real jobs and real responsibilities.
Clicquot hasn’t hiked with the Rusagonis crew. Our own little family is a little less mobile now. It’s hard to road trip with three dogs but I hope we will be able to initiate her into this little group one day. It would be funny to watch our little queen push and shove her way to the top of the pack. She has no shame.
These beautiful animals come into our lives and enrich us a million-fold. They all have a piece of my heart. I wish I could freeze time, just like in these pictures, and keep them young forever. I wish they could stay with us longer. Forever. It will never be enough. In the very least, I hope my paintings can capture a moment that lets them live on in our hearts, always happy and healthy, and always here with us. xoxo.
Say you want to start painting but you have no idea where to begin. Let me help you.
I am thirty-seven and I started painting when I was twelve years old. Over the years I have worked my way through watercolours, acrylics, and now I am focusing primarily on oil painting for my personal work. But depending on my mood I will jump between mediums. Maybe my personal experiences can help you to decide what’s right for you.
Before I was introduced to painting I had mainly used pencil crayons for my “serious” artworks. I think because it’s so accessible for so many kids (hello, Crayola) pencil crayons get written off as being kind of a juvenile art form. There are artist quality pencil crayons that can be used to create beautiful drawings – same goes for pastels, charcoal, graphite. But ever since I was introduced to watercolours I have considered myself to be primarily a painter.
Oh and save for school-mandated projects I have never wanted to make a sculpture – I express myself through my brush.
I started out with watercolours and was taught by a real watercolour artist for a number of years. Over time I transitioned from primarily painting with watercolour to dabbling in acrylic, then primarily acrylic until quite recently (summer 2018) when I decided to take the plunge and take up oil painting for my personal paintings. Because I have a lot of experience, I’m comfortable moving between each medium depending on my mood or my vision for the finished work, but for many years now I have tended to gravitate towards heavier-bodied paints (acrylic, oils) for paintings that I think are important or significant.
I still paint with watercolours regularly, but I usually view these sessions as a warm up, or a break from the more serious work I might be focused on with my oils. With my art room set-up as it is, I can just swivel my chair around from my easel and push myself across the room to my watercolours waiting at my art table when I need to switch things up. If you’re open to how the paint behaves and flows, and if you are accepting of some lucky mistakes here and there, watercolour painting can feel very relaxing and just help to loosen you up.
So how do you choose what type of painter you want to be? There are definitely many, many artists who identify primarily with one type of paint and don’t really veer off course to dabble in any other mediums. There are definitely practical reasons for this – from a financial and storage perspective it is definitely easier to focus on one type of painting. And if you are new to painting and trying to learn you will probably be well-served to pick one and stick with it for awhile.
For me, I never felt totally comfortable with using watercolours. I have been able to achieve some level of personal success and sense of control over this type of paint, and I do go back to it regularly, but I just hate that you’re always kind of one wrong brush stroke away from ruining your entire painting. That’s a lot of risk and I’m pretty risk-averse. It’s a very clean type of painting. The paints are so beautiful and translucent and luminous and meant to show the beautiful paper underneath. If you do make a mistake, the work to fix it can ruin the delicate surface of the paper (drawing even more attention to your mistake) or any extra unnecessary layers of paint (to try to cover things up) can take away from the spontaneous properties that make it special to begin with.
So even though I have created some watercolours that I really love, and even have framed around our house, I find this to be the exception for me, rather than the rule. I also tend to prefer watercolour and ink paintings (like my east coast series) because using ink to create more detail within the painting is very attractive to me – it is pleasing in a way that I can’t achieve with watercolour alone. I guess that’s my rigid nature coming out but I like when things are defined and under control. It’s not just paint, it extends to the dogs, my hair… I like to be in charge 🙂
When I was in my teens I started getting into acrylic painting. Oils seemed like too much of a jump and I had to transport a lot of art projects back and forth between school and home so drying time was definitely a concern – acrylic (being water-based) was just the natural next step. I now feel that I like a heavier-bodied paint because I like the feeling that I am “sculpting” an image in two-dimensions on my canvas. Maybe I sound a bit weird but I know my brushes and what they can achieve with what pressure at what angle. One brushstroke can really be so powerful or central to the entire work.
For a long time now with acrylic (and more recently with oil paints), I have practiced painting with a very conservative number of brush strokes. The fewer the better I feel to convey the essence of the subject. When I get away from this, when it gets to be too fussy, too fiddly, something important is lost. All the planning and thought in the world should go into the painting beforehand so that the actual process of painting is very easy. My best paintings are also usually the ones that take the least time to paint.
Even though I feel very comfortable painting with acrylics now, for many, many years I struggled with acrylic paint because I didn’t know how to use it properly. I was trying to paint with acrylic on canvas like I did with watercolour on paper. As a result the paint just seemed too thick to me, it dried quickly, it seemed plastic-y. I couldn’t achieve the details that I wanted to.
If I can offer any advice, my top suggestion would be: for any type of paint you use, you should always buy the best that you can afford. As you go up in price point usually you’ll have a greater pigment load to binder ratio which means that your paintings will automatically look better. That alone will feel like an improvement.
In the past year or so I’ve really levelled up in a big way with my acrylic painting because I started to work with it rather than against it. My approach became more sculptural. I take more time now to consider every brush stroke before it happens. This has been a huge game changer for me.
Other breakthroughs: I started painting in layers and creating an under-painting. I spent a lot of time getting to know the nature of the paint and then one day it really was like a switch clicked for me. I look back on my old acrylic paintings and I just cringe, but I’ve included them in this post to (hopefully!!) show my progress.
Now I really love using acrylics and I continue to use it for all of my commission-based work.
I made the switch over to oil painting this year for my personal projects for a number of reasons. Even though I’ve made a lot of progress dealing with the properties of acrylic paints, I still felt limited by the super fast drying time. There’s a stage during painting when literally the entire painting surface is just tacky-sticky and no good can come of that. That’s the time when bad things happen to good paintings. The level of luminosity and realism I have been able to achieve with my oil painting so far has been so rewarding. I also feel like I can achieve more detail with oil than acrylic. It seems to work better for me when thinned down than acrylic paint – it doesn’t seem to lose its structure as quickly.
So, what do you do if you’re just starting out? What type of paint do you pick if you just want to try painting for the first time and you’re standing in the middle of the paint aisle at your local art store feeling intimidated by all the artsy looking people milling about? What do you do?
For ease of use, watercolour and acrylics are both water-based – water to thin, water for washes on paper and canvas respectively, water for clean-up. Soooooo easy. And actually, oil painting is only slightly less convenient in terms of having to use solvent and painting medium. Really, if I was advising someone on what type of paint to pick if they’d never painted before, I’d ask them to consider their favourite paintings and artists – what medium do they work in?
I put off oil painting for a really long time because I was intimidated. I told myself acrylic painting was basically the same (it’s not!!). The motivation I needed to change came this past summer when I saw the work of Canadian artist Heather Millar at Details Fine Art Gallery in Charlottetown. She is a phenomenal artist, one of my favourite contemporary artists, and such an inspiration to me. I am in awe of her talent and mastery of technique. When I experienced the impact of her beautiful oil paintings in person – I knew I had to try it for myself. I have so much to learn about oil painting, but I am grateful for the change and the opportunity to grow into a medium where I can really express my vision for painting.
No matter what you pick, the progress you make with painting technique and colour theory – it’s pretty transferable to some extent between mediums. If you want to paint, the most important thing to do is to just get started. Like today. Don’t wait. There’s no time like the present. If you want to paint give it a try! And if you do, let me know how it goes in the comments below. Thank you for reading and happy painting!