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!
I was writing what I thought was the second post of my Painting for Absolute Beginners series (you can check out the first post, How to Paint for Absolute Beginners Part 1, here) when I digressed into colour theory, and I realized – this really deserves its own post. So, may I present to you Painting for Absolute Beginners – Part 2. Colour Theory.
To begin with, regardless of which type of paint you choose to paint with, the “rules” of colour mixing are pretty universal. Whether you’re working with watercolour or acrylic or oil – red plus yellow generally makes some sort of orange. And blue plus red makes some sort of purple. There are just a few finer details you might want to consider and that’s what I’m going to discuss here.
Colour theory – so boring right? Wrong! Unless you’re just planning on throwing some paint, any old paint, at a canvas – this is the stuff that all painting is made of. Realists and abstract expressionists can finally find common ground here. Colour is everything (well, design, technical ability, narrative quality are good too – but for today’s post – let’s agree that colour is everything). Colour theory is very intuitive, and heavily studied, but there’s a little information that can help you out if you are starting from scratch.
Side note: For any scientists (mainly physicists) out there – this is strictly a bit of artist’s colour theory, ,and a little bit of advice from what works well for me. We’re certainly not talking about how your eyes perceive different wavelengths of light and the physics of optics. That was way too out there in Grade 12 and we’re not going back there now. Just had to get that out there…
Traditional colour theory: Red + Blue = ?
Traditional colour theory dates to around the 18th century when there was a push to kind of formalize the painting process and the canon of art instruction. A good first step in this colour theory is that there are three primary pigment colours – red, yellow, and blue. These colours are special because they can’t be mixed from any other colours.
In theory, the primary colours can’t be mixed from any other colours. If you take even one physics course that covers the science of optics, your mind will be blown because that’s not technically how it works in the science world, but it IS essentially how it works on your paint palette. When you mix two primary colours together, you get… a secondary colour. There are three basic secondary colours made from the three possible pairs above. These are orange (red + yellow), green (yellow + blue), and purple (blue + red):
When you mix two primary colours together, the resulting secondary colour lacks a little… oomph. In general these mixed colours are a little less bright, a little less intense – they are less colourful. Sometimes you will have to adjust for this in your mixtures to get just the right amount of colour and tone and hue. In fact, these less colourful mixes make sense as they’re one step closer to neutral grey which we will discuss later.
You will often see colours arranged in a colour wheel. Here are the primary colours, and the shared secondary colours appear between them.
When paint-makers make paint, they usually try to find a natural or “pure” source for a pigment, versus relying on a mixture. As we discussed, mixtures tend to be a little less brilliant, a little more muddy. So if there is a pure or primary pigment they will tend to pick that for their paint. Some pigments are naturally occurring – like a lot of the earth tones. The pigment in raw umber is natural raw umber. Alizarin lake contains naturally- occurring quinacridone pigment. Ultramarine blue was very expensive because it originally used ground lapis lazuli powder mined in Afghanistan. Today, synthetic ultramarine pigment is used which costs a lot less. Many synthetic pigments are used in modern paint which is often more economical and also safer in some cases (historical colours see to have an abundance of lead, cadmium, and other toxins and carcinogens). For some colours, like green, there are very few pigments that are found naturally. In these cases, paint-makers will turn to mixtures or chemically-derived compounds.
I want to point out something about colour permanence. When you shop for paint colours, you may notice that, in addition to other info, the tubes may be labelled with the word “permanence” or “lightfastness”. Lightfastness is a property of colourants like paint. It describes how resistant a specific colour (pigment) is to fading when exposed to light. You may have noticed that old paintings look light and faded. This is because exposure to sunlight breaks down the chemical bonds in pigments. You can see this in an old watercolour chart (above) that’s been hanging on my bulletin board by the window since 2015. The burnt sienna isn’t looking too great these days but the ultramarine blue is holding on nicely. Lightfastness doesn’t necessarily have to do with paint quality. There are some colours that contain volatile pigments. In general you want paints with a lightfastness of ASTM I. Oil paints tend to be more lightfast than watercolour – the oil binder encapsulates the pigment better and has a bit of a protective quality. Just wanted to point that out. 😉
You’re hot then you’re cold: Warm versus cool colours.
Unfortunately it’s not as simple as looking at something orange, and mixing any old yellow plus any old red to paint it. Colours do in fact have a “temperature” – you may have heard of colours being described as warm or cool before. Think of a snowy, cold painting – probably lots of ultramarine blue in the shadows cast on the snow. Or a warm sunset painting – probably lots of reds, oranges, and yellows in the tropical sky. Part of this is psychological – how a colour or colour scheme makes you feel. A painting of a crackling orange camp fire will probably look warm, while a painting of a stormy, grey sea will probably appear cool. For the same colour, a warmer hue will tend towards being more red, while the cooler hue will tend towards more blue.
When you’re mixing colours, this can be an issue. There are cool yellows (think lemons) and warm blues (think turquoise beaches). If you are looking at an object, you need to determine if it is warm or cool or somewhere in between and mix colours accordingly. When you mix a warm colour with a cool colour and vice versa, that tends to produce a muddy mix. It’s best to stay within like “temperatures” when colour mixing. Here are some examples of warm AND cool primary colours:
This idea of warm and cool colours can also be illustrated with phone filters:
You… Complete me… Complementary colours.
Colours that are located directly across from each other in the colour wheel are called complementary colours. These are special pairs of colours that, when placed directly next to each other, create the strongest visual contrast. For any horoscope buffs out there, it’s like astrological signs – opposites attract! The shadow cast by an object often contains some of its complementary colour.
Not so boring neutrals
When you mix two complementary colours together, you get what is called neutral grey. This is an excellent way to mix shadows. I know people tend to think you can just use black in place of a cast shadow, but strictly-speaking that’s not necessarily true. The impressionists really celebrated the rainbow of colours present in all levels of light in their paintings. Shadows contain all sorts of colours and neutral grey in varying mixes is a great place to start.
Paint it black!
No don’t. Everyone should use black sparingly, but you may need it from time-to-time. On the opposite end, watercolourists will use the white of their paper, but acrylic and oil painters will arm themselves with their favourite white, and probably use a lot of it! As I mentioned, there is a tendency to darken colours with black, but that’s not always the best way for representational painting. You can mix colours with neutral grey to darken them. Whenever you mix colours, you may shift the hue – you may unexpectedly make the colour more warm or more cool which may require subsequent mixing and adjustments. For example, yellow plus black can result in a greenish-blue tint because of the interactions between the different pigments and how your eyes perceive them. In colour theory, a tint is a mixture with white, and a shade is a mixture with black as illustrated below:
Putting it all together – A basic painter’s palette for absolute beginners 😉
For a basic painter’s palette, I would recommend the following colours (and this list is tried and true, going way back to my very first watercolour palette – it still works well!)
**I’ve added Payne’s grey as a staple colour over the years because it is just so great for adding depth and shadows – it’s a mix of blue and black and incredibly useful. Payne’s grey and burnt umber are always my most used paints regardless of the type of paint I’m using.
I think it’s best to start with less in terms of colour. You can get a reasonable approximation of many observed colours with the list provided here and as you learn more you can add judiciously to your palette. Sometimes there may be a modern colour that you observe that you will not be able to mix no matter how hard you try (fluorescent orange would be an extreme example). In this case you would have to purchase.
Note – you don’t need black to start! Try to work around it. Use your complementary colours, neutral grey, even Payne’s grey. Acrylic and oil painters will also want to add titanium white to your shopping list (or your favourite white – there are a few with different properties, I personally like titanium for its strong tinting strength and opacity).
A note on green and black.
Green is not a primary colour and there are not a lot of naturally-occurring green pigments. The picture above shows some examples of green. You can always mix green yourself with the palette I suggested. Sap green is a dark, earthy green with beautiful yellow undertones that you can purchase. It’s a favourite of mine. Turquoise and permanent green are a little less natural looking for painting landscapes but have their uses – always use green carefully. Especially with oil painting it can kind of infiltrate and infect and tint your whole palette if you’re not careful, you can easily cast everything in a sickly glow.
Black was one of the first pigments used by prehistoric artists – charcoal was one of the first drawing tools after fire was invented. 😝 We’ve touched on black a few times but this is important so here we are again. If you don’t have black in your palette, one work-around mix is ultramarine blue plus burnt umber as shown above – it gives you a really rich, earthy black colour. Some examples of blacks you can purchase are lamp black and ivory lack. Every line of good quality paint will offer a few blacks and these all have different properties (much likes whites). You can see the lamp black above is more transparent than the ivory black which has better covering power. Ivory black is a good, all-purpose black. Note my personal favourite, Payne’s grey on the end which can be used as a kind of black-alternative. It’s a cool black, and is a mix of ultramarine blue and ivory black.
Putting it all together.
I created this very quick painting as an exercise to show a little colour theory in practice. I used gouache paints. I started with lemon yellow, which is both fitting name-wise and colour wise. It’s a coolish yellow. I went back in with a lemon yellow darkened with some purple. I started with a more yellow mixture that I progressively darkened with more purple until I achieved a neutral grey for the most shaded areas. I used a light purple background to make the yellow lemons pop, and amplified that effect with a bright purple tabletop. I darkened the shaded areas of the table with a little more purple toned with corresponding neutral grey. I highlighted the lemon with some opaque white. No black used but representational highlights and shading achieved. The colour scheme is pleasing because it makes use of complementary colours.
This was a long post to write, but in fact this has been a very, very quick discussion of colour theory in a really tiny nutshell. If you look up colour theory online there are so many useful resources and so much has been written about this topic. For beginner painters reading this: When you go to mix colours, try not to get too lost in the details. It really is something that is learned with time, it does become intuitive, and you will kind of memorize your go-tos. It is truly more of an art than a science. I’ve tried to give you some guiding principles to follow, but there aren’t a lot of hard and fast rules.
I do recommend that you try to take a more holistic approach when you’re trying to figure out how to paint something, and how to mix your colours. Really study what you are painting. Say you’re painting a portrait of a brunette. The brown in her hair – are there blonde (yellow) highlights? Is there a red undertone? Is it dark brown, veering more towards black and more towards cool undertones (like raw umber and Payne’s grey?).
When you study the world around you, when you really look at it, you’ll notice that there are all sorts of colours in someone’s hair, in the petals of a flower, in the dark of the shadows cast by a building on a sunny day. The more you can perceive those, and suggest these colours and transitions between colours in your work, the closer you will get to representing the world as you see it, through your painting.
And that’s it!
For those of you starting out, I hope this helps! For all of you who have taken the time to read this, I thank you! Any questions? Feel free to ask in the comments below.
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.