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.
My FIRST niece also happens to be a dog. How I painted her, from start to finish.
Charlee, aka the cookie monster, is dog “cousin” to Teelo, Riggs, and Clicquot. Charlee is a Portuguese water dog. She was supposed to be a boy, but then my sister was handed a girl puppy on the day they went to pick “him” up from the breeder. True to form, my sister already had her mind made up that her dog would be named Charlee, so Charlee she stayed. Charlee and Teelo are both eight years old and a bit, born one month apart (Teelo is the older, more mature pup, obviously). They spent a lot of time together when they were little, especially before Riggs and then Miss Monkey Bananas Clicquot appeared on the scene. Nowadays, special planning has to take place to manage get-togethers of this four-dog gong show, but the cousins always remember each other (in one way or another).
Charlee is pretty quirky (aren’t all dogs weird in their own way?). She can’t be trusted around cats, Wiggis can attest to that. You can often catch her rocking a bandanna like a supermodel (or hot mess, depends when you catch her). Charlee also likes long walks with her grandpa, eating off of countertops, and being a big sister to my sweet nephew (although I’m quite sure she preferred being an only child, sorry sis).
I painted Charlee over a few days in August 2018. I always take a lot of pics to document my work as a reference for myself. Mainly I do this so that if things really go off the rails I have a breadcrumb trail to try to get back to when things were “good”. It’s also a great way to tell the story of a painting.
This work was done in artist quality acrylics (Tri-Art and Golden – if you asked me to choose I would say that I prefer Golden but they are hard to come by in-store where I live). The main palette was burnt umber, Payne’s grey, burnt sienna, cobalt blue (!), and titanium white. There was also some failed experimentation with naphthol red which I’ll get to. I painted on gallery stretched canvas, size 16×20″. As an alternative to black, mixing burnt umber and Payne’s grey will give you a beautiful nearly black colour that is so rich- I think it really captures the inky darkness of blue-black shadows and I used it extensively for C’s portrait.
I started with this print-out of a photo my sister took of Charlee. I’ll often fiddle with filters and lighting of a photo before printing it out to sketch. Especially for… hirsute… canines like Charlee it really helps me to identify the dominant lines for my drawing. I always create a sketch, sometimes more than one if the first doesn’t suffice. The goal is not to have a perfectly detailed, shaded drawing, but quite literally a map of the most important lines and placement of anatomy. The sketch needs to capture the essence of the subject or it won’t be useful as a reference for the painting. It has to be pretty perfect. The more accurate I am here, the better for the painting. The Charlee sketch was pretty easy – maybe because I know her so well, but also I was really looking forward to sketching from that photo, the angle of her nose struck me as being really cute. I should say I did have to add in a body for Charlee based on another photo for reference of her.
Once I was happy with the sketch I transferred it to the canvas. First using graphite transfer paper (my old standby) and then apparently I decided to go over those lines with a Sharpie? I am a huge Sharpie fan for watercolour and ink paintings, but I don’t normally use it for an under-drawing. I must have been feeling especially committed to this sketch?
Nowadays, I prefer to tint the entire canvas with a uniform, neutral colour, prior to beginning a painting – for oil and acrylic. I find it kind of jarring to paint directly on to bright white gesso. I also prefer to have a neutral first layer so that if there is any unpainted canvas showing through it’s complimentary to the final painting.
Evidently, I didn’t start Charlee that way. I started with Payne’s grey and burnt umber for the darkest areas and slowly built that up in layers, then started working my way up to the highlights. Charlee has black fur, but within the highlights there are blues, and browns, and earthy yellows. When you paint from life, it’s so important to look closely and consider what colours you can see – sort of like that forest for the trees expression. Always look closely. What do you see? 😉
I kept layering in the highlights on top of the dark base.. I had to be careful to paint quickly and not let it dry too much between layers. I used a round, soft #6 brush which really worked to give the illusion of individual hairs. I use soft round and filbert (sizes #6 and #8) synthetic watercolour brushes for all of my paintings, regardless of the medium, usually short handle even if working at my easel.
I also always like to paint the eyes and nose right away because as soon as those are done, I will have a better feeling for the painting and how it’s going to turn out. In this case I loved Charlee’s little nose and the highlight detail right away. It’s the focal point.
Once Charlee was good to go, this is where it got a little bit tricky. I thought since Charlee is so dark, that a light background would really help to contrast with that. I really prefer to paint the background as I’m painting my subject now, otherwise you risk having the two look disassociated somehow. Anyway, once I had this light background in place, the whole painting seemed really washed out to me. And too streaky. I hated it.
Then I felt like I had a stroke of genius and decided that RED, pure naphthol red, would be the most striking background. So off I went.
I was so sure of it, I signed the painting. Done. then I realized that actually I hated it too.
And so, that is the roundabout way I came to choose a dark background for Charlee. I decided to use the darkest shade in Charlee’s colouring, and the highlights of her fur provided the contrast. I decided I loved it. After all that.
Charlee took about three days to complete including the background fails. I would paint after work and after the gym and whenever I had time between dog walks. There are always many dog walks. Day one was for sketching, transferring the drawing to the canvas, and underpainting. Day two was when the bulk of the painting took place, adding in details and working out Charlee’s features (I feel like every portrait is a bit of a problem to solve). Day three was final details, choosing the background colour, and sending pics to my sister to approve.
I always use acrylics for commissions because of the fast drying time. And in Charlee’s case I was able to really exploit the fast drying to use a drybrush technique and add a lot of detail in her fur. In other paintings I have really struggled with acrylic paint drying too quickly regardless of using retarding medium. This has been a big motivation for me switching over to oils for my personal works recently where I can work all prima (and sound fancy doing so!). 😛
It’s always easiest to paint dogs that you love because you know their personalities and you can kind of weave that into the painting as you go.
Charlee, the painting, now hangs proudly in my sister’s main floor washroom, because (according to her logic) that room receives the most traffic in the house. Also, according to my sweet sister, the painting receives many compliments from all of the visitors who happen to cross paths with it in the course of their business there.
And that’s the story of Charlee and her portrait. Thanks for reading! 🙂