Acrylic paints are a wonderful, versatile medium for creating impressive works of art. Artists big and small create pictures with acrylic paints that inspire with their luminosity and color effect. This guide contains everything you need to know about versatile paint, its uses, painting techniques, and a lot of tips and tricks for painting.
Everything you need to know about acrylic paints
Have you often wondered what exactly is behind terms like pigment, binder, and viscosity? Knowing the technical terms can be very helpful when choosing and buying acrylic paints, but especially when painting. Here you can find out what’s behind them.
Pigments are what give the painting medium its color. The type of pigments is the same for all types of paint, such as acrylic paints, oil paints, or watercolors.
However, paints differ in their pigment content: a high number of pigments stands for high color strength, while paints with a lower pigment content have correspondingly weaker color strength.
The binder of color ensures the “bonding” of the dry, powder-like pigments. This is what makes it possible to apply a coherent layer of color to the painting surface. Depending on which binder is used to produce a color, different types of color are created from the pigments. In acrylic paints, the binder is called acrylic polymer emulsion, in oil paints, it is oil (usually linseed oil), and in watercolor paints, it is gum arabic (a vegetable component). The binder also has an influence on the color fidelity of acrylic paints.
Solvents are used to turn the pigments bound in the binder into paint that can be spread. For acrylic paints, water or alcohol are used for this purpose. The solvent gives the paint its viscosity because otherwise, you would be dealing with a tough lump of paint.
Viscosity refers to the flow behavior, i.e. the spreadability of a paint. It determines the processing possibilities in painting and ranges from thin to pasty. Acrylic paints are available in different viscosities. This makes it possible to implement different painting techniques, such as flowing and gradient techniques and even spatula work.
Color fidelity is when a color retains its original brilliance after drying. In contrast to oil paints, which generally exhibit high color fidelity, acrylic paints in particular often change color as they dry. The change can go in both directions and result in acrylic paints becoming lighter or duller or, conversely, darker and more brilliant. Color fidelity should not be confused with colorfastness.
Color fastness characterizes the resistance of the color under external influences. While factors such as heat or friction (due to washing) play a role in the case of colors for textiles, acrylic colors for pictures are primarily subject to the influence of UV rays from sunlight. Here, light fastness as a part of colorfastness plays a major role.
Light fastness refers to the resistance of colors when exposed to light. Light, especially UV light from the sun, can cause changes such as fading of color over time. A color with high light fastness retains its hue even when exposed to stronger light. Artists’ paints are divided into four classes according to their lightfastness: low/sufficient / very good / the highest lightfastness.
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What are acrylic paints?
If you want to use acrylic paints, the question of which acrylic paints are the best will quickly arise. This is because their growing popularity has led to an unmanageable market in recent decades.
Basically, acrylic paints are divided into two quality levels:
- Acrylic paints in artist quality
are characterized by high pigment values, good color strength with expressive, brilliant colors, and very good lightfastness. Naturally, they have a correspondingly high price.
- Acrylic paints in study quality
have lower pigment values and often contain fillers to stretch the color. As a result, the colors appear less vibrant and brilliant. Lightfastness and durability also cannot be compared with artist-quality paints. The advantage is a comparatively low price.
In addition, “hobby paints” or “craft paints” are often offered, the quality of which is correspondingly low for their price. Often, however, the quality of the paints is not explicitly stated, and unfortunately you cannot easily see it. Especially higher-quality acrylic paints with a high color brilliance in the final result often look rather milky or cloudy when wet due to the high binder content, while poorer quality paints can look “nicer” when wet.
When assessing the color quality of acrylic paints, the price is thus a fairly good guide, because the simple formula almost always applies: high price = good to very good quality – low price = moderate to poor quality.
In addition, the intended use and the painting technique play a major role in the decision to buy acrylic paints. The properties of acrylic paints depend on the composition of their components. For example, more solid acrylic paints dry quickly, while more liquid paints dry more slowly. Depending on the painting technique you want to use or the effect you want to achieve, either one or the other can be advantageous. The question of which acrylic paints are the best and what properties they should have is therefore always linked to your project.
What do acrylic paints cost and how much acrylic paint do you need?
The price spectrum of acrylic paints is – according to the quality range-wide. Medium-sized tubes of paint are available for prices ranging from about $2.50 to $8. But even if some colors are at first glance significantly more expensive than others, you must not forget that these are highly pigmented and therefore also very productive.
While cheaper color tubes are already nearing the end, because you simply need more color for a comparable result, the more expensive tube still has a lot of “reserve”.
As a rule, it is not worthwhile to save on painting materials. The consumption of paint is low, so you will have something from your good acrylic paints for a long time. In addition, you can see the quality of the colors on the canvas, and nothing is more frustrating than having to worry about fading colors after a successful painting.
Cheaper paints may be suitable for first attempts, but painting with artist-quality acrylic paints you will simply enjoy more. Because even a beginner of acrylic painting is already an artist!
What do you need for painting with acrylic paints?
If you want to start painting with acrylic paints, this is possible without a lot of effort. Because acrylic paints are a material with which you can work easily and yet versatile. Therefore, painting with acrylic paint is also a great way for children to be creative and offers pure painting fun.
For starters, you don’t need much in the way of equipment. The most important utensils are:
- painting surface (e.g. painting board, canvas, stretcher, or wood);
- a small selection of acrylic paints;
- a few brushes of different sizes (synthetic hair brushes are best);
- a painting palette, an old plate, or a plate made of glass, wood, or plastic for mixing the colors;
- a container with water;
- old clothes or a painting smock.
For what material is acrylic paint suitable?
The popularity of acrylic paint is due not only to its good processing properties but also its versatility. This is because the use of the paint goes far beyond painting pictures on paper, painting board, stretcher frames, canvas, and similar surfaces: it can be used on almost any surface that lends itself to painting so that a wide variety of objects can be decorated with individual works of art: Whether wood, glass, metal, fabric or concrete, clay, and ceramics. Even Styrofoam and plastic can be painted with acrylic paint.
Depending on the material, however, a few special features must be taken into account. You can find some recommendations and processing instructions here:
Acrylic paints on wood
Acrylic paints on wood beautify decorative objects, practical everyday objects, furniture, and much more. Make sure that the wood is completely dry before you start. Since wood is very absorbent, you should prime it at least once first and then let it dry thoroughly again.
Without a primer, the colors will be paler, as the moisture will soak into the wood along with the color pigments.
Since acrylic paint dries to be waterproof, the primer forms a “separating layer” that prevents the new color from being absorbed by the wood in turn after drying. As a result, subsequent coats of paint are stronger and less paint is needed overall. A subsequent finish with matte or glossy varnish makes the wood particularly resistant.
Acrylic paints on metal
If you want to paint metal objects with acrylic paint, you should first clean the metal thoroughly, because the surface must be clean and free of grease, oil, and dust. If the metal already has an old coating, it must be removed with sandpaper.
After everything is clean, prepare the item with a metal primer.
Before you start painting, the primer should be thoroughly dry. When applying the acrylic paint, it’s best to go “back to front,” meaning you start with the background and then work your way forward, layer by layer, until you reach the last brushstroke. This makes the paint layer particularly durable and protects the metal from oxidation (rust).
Acrylic paints on plastic
Painting plastic or plastic substrates is often difficult due to the very smooth surface. This is because paints require a rough substrate that can absorb them and to which they can adhere. However, with the appropriate preparation, painting plastic with acrylic paints is also very possible. The first step is to clean the plastic with warm water and a mild dishwashing detergent. Be careful not to use harsh detergents, as they can damage the plastic surface.
After careful drying, the plastic surface must be lightly roughened. To do this, you can use fine sandpaper, e.g. from the hardware store (250 to 330 grit).
To ensure that no dust particles remain, the surface should now be cleaned again, preferably with rubbing alcohol.
Now you can apply the primer and, after it has dried completely, start painting. After completion, you should seal your work. Note that it can still happen that paint flakes off on objects made of plastic. This is due to the fact that plastic is a more or less flexible material – unlike acrylic paint, which has a lower mechanical resilience and cannot fully adapt to the “movements” of the plastic.
Acrylic paints on glass
Since glass has a very smooth surface, only a few colors are suitable for painting. In addition to special glass paints, acrylic paint is also used here. Its advantage is that it dries very quickly and then forms a solid, waterproof film on the glass.
This is how you proceed when painting on glass with acrylic paint:
As always, it is important that the glass surface is free of dust, dirt, and grease before painting with acrylic paint. Clean the glass surface thoroughly with rubbing alcohol and a paper towel. It’s best to wear disposable gloves, so fingerprints don’t stand a chance.
After cleaning, you can apply the primer. A universal primer for spraying on is ideal for this purpose. With the help of a spray can, the primer is applied thinly and evenly in no time at all and dries particularly quickly.
Now you can paint the glass object to your heart’s content. Small mistakes can be corrected with rubbing alcohol as long as the acrylic paint has not yet dried.
Since glass, unlike plastic, is an absolutely rigid material, the paint does not tend to flake off even with intensive use. However, it can be damaged by external impact during use – e.g. scratches. Therefore, it is advisable to seal the acrylic paint at the end. This way, your glass object is protected all around and you will enjoy it for a long time.
Acrylic paints on fabric
Painting on fabric represents a special feature. The paint must be particularly durable and should also survive the one or other wash. Special textile or fabric paints seem to offer themselves here. But when you consider that acrylic paint, once it has dried, is virtually impossible to remove from a garment, it seems only logical that it is also very suitable for fabric painting. And in fact, using good acrylic paints on fabric actually has some advantages over textile paints:
- Acrylic paints are more resistant to washout than textile paints due to their high color intensity and durability.
- Because acrylic paints have a high lightfastness, they fade less due to UV radiation.
- Textile paints run quickly and can look spongy, while acrylic paint’s more even gradient allows for careful, detailed painting.
- Acrylic paints have a short drying time compared to fabric paints.
- Acrylic paint is environmentally friendly and harmless to health because the only solvent is water or alcohol. Fabric painted with acrylic paint can therefore be used without hesitation, even for allergy sufferers.
Tips for painting on fabric:
Make sure that the fabric lies smoothly for painting. The best way to do this is to clamp the fabric to the substrate (for example, on a wooden board) with thumbtacks or sturdy pins.
To prevent the fabric from becoming hard after drying, do not apply the paint too thickly, but rather dilute it with sufficient water.
Bristle brushes with nylon, polyester, or natural bristles are particularly suitable.
Note that mistakes made while painting are difficult to correct because the fabric absorbs the paint immediately. Correcting with rubbing alcohol will also remove or blur the correct and desired brush strokes, provided they are not yet completely dry.
Acrylic paints on concrete, clay, and ceramics
Acrylic paints and the rough surfaces of concrete, clay, or ceramics go together perfectly.
Concrete in particular is still in vogue. Whether self-poured or purchased concrete objects: acrylic paints can be used to set colorful accents on bowls, candleholders, or flower pots.
Shiny metallic colors look particularly pretty on the rough material, providing a great contrast to the rough concrete look.
The same applies to the processing as to the wood. However, coarse-pored concrete and ceramics often absorb even more than wood, so you should make sure that you apply a sufficient primer.
Tips & tricks for painting with acrylic paints
When painting with acrylics, little tricks can be helpful or provide a saving solution in difficult situations.
Here are some tips for you that make a painting with acrylic paints even easier:
- Fixing or sealing acrylic paints
Your acrylic painting is finished, and you want to preserve the luminosity and brilliance of your artwork for the future? Then you should seal or fix your painting in a final and important step.
Acrylic paints are relatively insensitive and durable compared to oil paints. Nevertheless, it is recommended to protect the painting from harmful environmental influences. In addition, a varnish can ensure that the surface of the painting becomes more uniform.
What is the correct procedure for sealing acrylic paints?
It is important to let the painting dry really well before sealing it. The painting technique used should be taken into account: While thinner layers of paint are often dry after 72 hours, it can take 1-2 weeks with thickly applied, pasty paints before the time to seal has come.
A final varnish or lacquer is usually used as an aid for sealing acrylic paintings. These are applied to the well-dried surface of the picture in several thin layers.
With a final varnish, you can make the surface of the painting look glossy, satin, or matte. It protects the picture from dust, dirt, moisture, and fingerprints. Final varnishes can be dissolved again with organic solvents, which means that the seal is not permanent. In contrast to final varnishes, topcoats dry permanently and cannot be dissolved again. Acrylic paintings treated with varnish are also more scratch and impact resistant.
Wide, soft varnish brushes serve as tools for sealing acrylic paints. Spray cans or pump sprays can also be used to apply fixatives or varnishes quickly and evenly. Foam paint rollers also perform well when applying protective varnishes.
Tips for sealing acrylic paint
- Make sure the painting is free of dust and dirt particles.
- The varnish or lacquer should be at room temperature when applied, as should the painting.
- Cover the area around the painting generously with newspaper or similar.
- Shake the sealing product thoroughly before spraying or varnishing.
- Spray varnishes should be sprayed crosswise from a distance of 12-16″, i.e. first from left to right, then from top to bottom. The image should be vertical or slightly inclined.
- Always change the spraying direction outside the image area. In this way, you avoid visible transitions and obtain a beautiful, homogeneous surface.
- Since varnishes contain volatile organic solvents, they should only be used in well-ventilated rooms or outdoors.
Making acrylic paints liquid
If you want to make your acrylic paint more liquid, you can use various means to do so:
- Thin acrylic paint with water
This is the simplest and cheapest option. When using water, pigments and binders in the acrylic paint are diluted and the color intensity decreases. So if you want to achieve a transparent, translucent color effect, you can paint with the diluted color mixture in a very targeted glazing manner. This procedure is ideal for backgrounds with soft color gradients. By using distilled water, you can even store the diluted paint longer without it growing mold.
As a rule of thumb, don’t add more than about 30-40% of water and mix well to prevent cracking as it dries.
- Thinning acrylic paint with acrylic binder
If you want to maintain the color intensity and other properties of the acrylic paint despite thinning it, you can use a commercially available acrylic binder. This binder is already a component of the acrylic paint and can therefore be mixed with all colors without any problems. In this case, only the viscosity of the paint changes to a more liquid consistency, but the color pigments are not broken down.
In total, you should not add more than 50% acrylic binder to the paint to achieve a balanced ratio of paint to the binder.
- Thinning acrylic paint with Pouring Medium
The third way to thin acrylic paint is with the help of a so-called pouring medium. This medium improves the flowability of acrylic paint and was actually developed for Acrylic Pouring, a special painting technique that is very trendy. You can achieve a similar effect as with an acrylic binder. The advantage is that the drying time is much longer, which gives you more time to paint your picture before the paint dries.
For acrylic painting, it is sufficient to dilute the paint with 10-20% Pouring Medium.
Why don’t my acrylic paints cover?
Here you can find out why acrylic paint does not cover well and how you can improve the opacity of acrylic paint:
- The quality finish of acrylic paint
Every acrylic paint contains a proportion of water as a thinner. If you add water when painting yourself, the opacity decreases. There are also different types of acrylic paint, ranging from opaque to semi-opaque to transparent, depending on the desired painting effect. The opacity is usually indicated on the paint can or tube.
However, most acrylic paints do not cover 100% in the first painting pass. To achieve a higher degree of coverage, you can easily apply the paint in layers. If you let the first layer dry well, you will achieve better coverage with each additional layer. The binder contained in the acrylic paint ensures that no cracks occur during drying.
- Priming the surface
Preparing the substrate with a primer can also improve the coverage. A special priming paint or an acrylic binder (an acrylic paint without color pigments) can be used for this purpose. For smooth or highly absorbent substrates such as plastic, glass, or metal or wood, concrete, and ceramics, you can apply an adhesive primer. On the one hand, the primer ensures that the acrylic paint adheres better to smooth material, and on the other hand, it prevents it from being absorbed deeply into an absorbent substrate and losing opacity in the process.
Acrylic paint dried up – what to do?
Is there any way to restore acrylic paint that has dried in or dried up?
The answer is: it depends …
If, while painting, you notice that color has dried on your painting palette before you have finished working with it, you may still be able to save it: just add a little water and acrylic binder and mix everything thoroughly. In most cases, you will be able to use it again. To prevent the paint from drying too quickly, you can spray it with a little water or simply place a damp piece of household paper over it.
However, if the paint is already completely dry, there is no way to bring it back to life: only dispose of it.
How do I dispose of acrylic paint correctly?
Dried-up residues of acrylic paints can usually be disposed of in the household waste. The same applies to dried brushes or other painting tools and accessories such as rags, sponges, etc.
It should go without saying that leftovers should never simply be disposed of down the drain or in the toilet.
After all, acrylic paints are plastic and the fact that the paints are water-soluble does not mean that they are also harmless to water.
Therefore, brushes should not be constantly washed out under running water, but rather rinsed out in a container and then dried. If you use only a little water for this and wait patiently until even that evaporates at some point, you will find that a lot of “microplastic” has collected at the bottom, which would have ended up in the sewage system if it had been cleaned under running water.