Learn the basics and more in this Ultimate Guide of how to paint acrylics for beginners
Learning to paint with acrylics is a wonderful skill to learn, and one of the easiest paints to learn if you’re new to the world of painting.
You’ve chosen well!
This guide is here to take you through the most important topics a beginner in acrylics should know before starting. And after going through it, you’ll be more confident and ready to make your first painting.
So what will you learn in this guide?
This guide will take you through the following topics:
- basics of acrylic paints
- paint supplies you’ll need
- easy painting ideas for beginners
- how to finish/seal your painting
- paint clean up tips
- acrylic paint safety
- self-care as an artist
I’ll also cover slightly more advanced topics with an introduction to acrylic mediums, painting composition planning, and troubleshooting your painting.
Before we begin, if you want this whole blog post in a more convenient, time-saving format, this Acrylic For Beginners: an A-Z guide to move you forward downloadable PDF e-book will be your pal. It has everything in this post plus a few extra sections and bonus painting tutorials.
Which ever format you choose to get better acquainted with acrylics, I know you’re on your way to paint some pretty amazing things – and I’m excited for you to begin.
So sit back, grab your favorite drink(optional of course!) and get ready to step into the beautiful, joyful world of painting with acrylics.
First the basics…
What is Acrylic Paint?
Acrylic paint is a fast-drying paint that’s made out of pigment mixed into a polymer medium.
Below, are a few more common questions beginners in acrylic painting often ask. I’ll go over them in a Q & A style since its easier to understand and reference back to.
Q: What are acrylic paints made of?
A: Acrylic paints are a fast-drying paint that’s made with pigment that’s mixed in a polymer medium- the same stuff plastic is made from.
Q: Are acrylic paints water based?
A: Yes, acrylics are water-based and therefore water-soluble – I.e. can be thinned and cleaned with water. But once they are dry, they become water-resistant and the texture of soft pliable plastic. Acrylic paints can be used on canvas, wood, paper, boards, rocks, and other materials.
Q: How long does acrylic paint take to dry?
A: It depends on the thickness of the paint. A thin layer of acrylic dries in a matter of a minute or two, while thicker strokes of paint can take a few additional minutes.
But nothing like oil paintings were it can take 3-6 months to completely dry out.
Q: How do I paint over acrylic paint (I.e. an old painting you want to repurpose)?
A: If the painting doesn’t have a lot of texture to it, you can simply paint over it with a coat or two of white Gesso (acrylic primer).
If there’s lots of texture (the painting isn’t flat or smooth to the touch), you might want to sand it down a bit before applying the coats of Gesso.
Also, never paint acrylic over top oil paintings, otherwise, it will peel or flake off.
Acrylic paints are great for beginners. In fact, many artists have classified acrylics as the most “forgiving” of the paints because they are so easy to use.
Find out why next…
What type of paint is best for beginners?
Before answering this question (which I’ll do below), let’s compare Acrylics with the other main types of paints.
Watercolor vs Acrylic Paint
It’s a common misconception that watercolor paint is the easiest for beginners and that Acrylics are reserved for the skilled and seasoned artist. Actually the opposite is true!
Acrylics are much easier for beginners.
While watercolor and acrylic paints share similarities ( both water-soluble and easy cleanup), painting in watercolor can be very technical, with a steeper learning curve with both the pigment and the amounts of water being used.
Some watercolor teachers even recommend their students take a couple of classes on acrylics before jumping right into Watercolor!
Next, I’ll go over the differences between oil paint vs acrylic painting. It’s both useful to know if you’re transitioning over from oil or if your curious about which paint is easier to work with.
Oil painting vs Acrylic painting
While oil paints can make some gorgeous pieces of art, working with them is a bit higher maintenance compared to acrylic paints. Here’s a quick list of the differences between oil painting versus acrylics:
- Acrylic paints can be thinned/cleaned with water.
- Oil paints need solvents and thinners to dilute and clean paint.
- Acrylic paint dries within minutes
- Oil paints can take 3-6 months to fully dry
- Acrylic paint cleanup: water
- Oil paint cleanup: solvents
- Acrylic paint is cheaper than oil paints.
- Less odor with acrylic paint vs oil paints
- Acrylic Paints can be transformed into translucent (watercolor-like)by diluting it with water or used in a creamy opaque consistency like oil paints.
- Use synthetic brushes with acrylics, versus natural hair brushes for oil painting.
- Acrylic paints can be mixed together to create different colors/tints/shades, much like oil paints.
- You can use oil paint over (dried) acrylic paint, but you can’t paint acrylic over oil paints.
FOR FUN: Can you tell which painting below is painted with Oil paints and which one is painted with acrylic paints?
Scroll down for the answer…
Answer: It’s hard to tell isn’t it? Both paints share opaque qualities (the opposite of “see-through”) and can be used to paint similar subject matter.
You probably still want to know which is which, right?
The first picture (the winter scene with the cabin and winding road) is painting with oil paints. The second painting (the mountain scene ) is painted with acrylics.
VERDICT- Which Paint is the Best for Beginners?
And….. it’s acrylic paints for the win!
After personally working with all 3 paint mediums, I can personally agree that acrylics paints are the best choice for beginners.
That’s not to say watercolor and oils paints shouldn’t be attempted for beginners, they just have a slightly steeper learning curve for different reasons.
Now that you know the basics of acrylic paint, and why it’s ideal for beginners, let’s move on to what supplies you’ll need to start your first (or 10th) project…
How to Paint With Acrylics -Starting your First Painting
Before beginning your first acrylic painting project, you’ll need a couple of things.
- Basic acrylic painting supplies for beginners (see below), and
- Your Subject -basically an idea of what you want to paint (ideas below)
I’ll also give you some additional tips and techniques to help you get started painting in acrylics, like :
- the best lighting to paint in
- planning your painting’s layout (realistic and/or abstract painting)
- drawing your idea with pencil first
- start with darker colors first
- Tips to finding easy things to paint
- positioning and troubleshooting your painting
Let’s jump right in!
8 Basic Acrylic Painting Supplies
The beauty of acrylics is the simplicity of the supplies you need to get started. Here are some of the basics, along with some nice to have.
- Acrylic Paint Set
- Different size brushes
- Painting surface/support (Canvas, Gesso hardboard, watercolor paper, etc..)
- Water container with clean water
- Easel (optional)
- Paint mediums (optional)
- Palette Knife
1. Acrylic Paint Set
Acrylic paints come in two grades: professional (or artist) and student quality.
The professional quality paints are going to be the best to work with. There will be more colors to choose from, and the pigments will be more vibrant -which will look better once on the canvas.
The downfall is that they’re more expensive than the student grade ones.
When starting out painting in Acrylics, I would suggest buying a set of basic acrylic paints (student quality). That way you’ll get a variety of acrylic colors. But since their cheaper, you’ll save money while you learn the basics of acrylic painting.
You could buy cheap acrylic paints online, or you can even check out your local Dollarstore, Walmart or your local craft store for some cheap acrylic paints
If you already LOVE working with acrylics and and want to level up your paints then definitely go pro, you won’t regret it!
What are good acrylic paint brands?
Liquitex Heavy Body Acrylics is a great brand for beginners and professionals – the paints are creamy and pigments are vibrant. My favorite one to work with is Golden Heavy Body Acrylics, I find them a bit more pigmented, creamier and glide like butter across the canvas.
Having a variety of brushes is important to not only creating beautiful pieces but also learning different acrylic techniques across your surface.
It’s best to have a mix of big, medium and small detailing brushes so that you can practice brush strokes with each size.
Just like Acrylic paints come in different grades, brushes do too!
When starting out a cheap brush set will be fine.
But if your looking for a treat, then you’ll love working with higher quality brushes for acrylic paints, especially the smaller detailing ones that need to hold their shape for detailing work.
I really like the variety of brushes in this artist quality paintbrush set, it comes with large, medium and small detailing brushes, and even has a carrying case and its very reasonably priced too!
My personal brush collection has a variety of cheap brushes mixed in with some high-quality medium and small size brushes and this setup works well for me.
In terms of brush material, I would suggest using synthetic nylon brushes instead of brushes made out of animal hair.
Acrylics can be hard on brushes made out of animal hair especially when it’s soaked in water.
And as a bonus, synthetic brushes are cheaper anyways!
3. Paint Palette
You’ll need a surface to grab and mix your paint from. Plastic or other waterproof material works well- since you’ll need some water to clean them afterward. I use a plastic palette similar to this one so I can work with a variety of paints all at once.
If you want to minimize cleanup, these disposable paper paint palettes are great! I’ve used them, and makes cleanup happen in a jiffy!
4. Painting Surface
Choosing a surface for acrylic painting is a fun step since there are so many surfaces acrylics can work well on.
You can choose from a variety of surfaces like canvas, paper, wood/boards, even rocks, and other natural materials!
Here are some additional tips if choosing a canvas as your surface of choice,
TIP # 1: Choose a pre-primed canvas. It’s basically a canvas that’s been painted (or primed) with gesso and is ready for acrylic paints out of the package. Most of them in art stores are pre-primed but read the label just to make sure.
Gesso is a base for acrylic painting and allows for the paint to glide easier.
TIP #2: Make sure you don’t buy a canvas primed for oil painting – your acrylics won’t adhere properly to it.
If your learning with acrylics, I absolutely love these canvas boards. They’re cheaper than stretched canvas so you can practice your techniques and save some money! These canvas boards can even be framed for display later on!
You can use a big cup or container of water to clean your brushes when changing colors and also to dilute your paint and moisten brushes for easier application.
The water can become murky very fast though- which can affect the color of the paint on your brush. So an even better approach is to use 2 cups of water.
1 cup of water to rinse your brushes with once you’re done with color, and 1 cup to dilute the paint and moisten brushes when you need it
Once the water does become “murky” rinse out the cup and fill up with clean water.
6. Easel (Optional)
Although you don’t need an easel as a beginner, it can be very useful when you want to paint upright.
The benefit of an easel is that it props your canvas up as an angle which HUGELY helps with perspective, composition, and proportions.
When working with a painting I often walk far away from the easel to take a look at my painting to make sure I’m happy with the progress.
I also flip it upside down on the easel to get a different perspective. It’s harder to do this when your canvas in laying flat on a table.
Easels come in a variety of sizes and shapes. You can get a tabletop one (you often see these being used at Paint Nite events), or you can get floor easel.
I really like this convertible easel which converts from floor easel to tabletop easel, so you get the best of both worlds!
7. Palette Knife (optional)
Palette knives can be used to replace or compliment paintbrushes used in Abstract pieces of art. They create very distinct, creamy and modern looking strokes (compared to brush strokes).
Palette knives can really add some beautiful movement and textures to acrylic paintings (especially when paired with one of the thickening mediums below).
As a beginner, I would just stick to brushes at the beginning of your painting journey. But as your skills improve or you’re wanting to experiment with different techniques, I would definitely recommend trying to paint with a pallet knife.
It’s surprisingly satisfying! It’s a similar feel to icing a cupcake – without any darn calories and sugar!
8. Acrylic Mediums, Pastels, Gels and Additives
If you’re looking to make an abstract acrylic painting or mixed media painting, then you going to want to learn about Acrylic Mediums.
I’m going to go into a little bit of depth here because I think it’s important to learn. To understand what the main mediums are and what they’re used for can really help you down the road to elevate your paintings.
My philosophy with art is: it’s better to know than not to know. Something you learn today can help you out later on in your painting in acrylics journey!
Introduction to Acrylic Mediums
So what are acrylic mediums, you ask?
Simply put: mediums are gels, pastes and sometimes gooey substances mixed in with your acrylic paints for thinning, thickening, glazing, collaging and to used get a variety of beautiful textures.
If you’ve ever looked at a piece of art and ever wondered how the artist gets the funky “bumpy” or lifted textures in it, acrylic paint mediums are most likely the answer.
They can often help transform paintings from flat pieces to interesting textured pieces of art.
I am a bit acrylic medium obsessed, and always find something to add to my abstract art (even if its everyday household items- hacks I’ll share with you below too).
Here are the official main acrylic mediums and what they are used for:
- Matte medium: makes the acrylic paint dry flat without any gloss. It can also be used as glue or collage your canvas with for Mixed Media type paintings. Example: I have used matte medium to stick pages of an old phonebook to my canvas background in abstract pieces I’ve done.
- Gloss medium: makes the paint dry with a glossy sheen
- Blending medium /retarding medium: thins the paint and increases the time to dry. This works well especially if you need the paint to stay “wet” and workable for a longer duration (especially for blending work in portraits and scenery, real-life paintings)
- Pouring Medium: To makes those trendy Pour Acrylic paintings, you would use a pouring medium mixed with your paint before adding it (or pouring it) onto your canvas
Paste and gels
- Heavy or Extra Heavy gel: Adds texture, and lifts the paint off the canvas so that it can hold peaks even when dry. It really gives a 3-D texture
- Gel Medium: thickens the paint, for glazing and acts as a “glue” for mixed medium, dries transparent.
- Modeling pastes: Used to create heavy texture and is often used to create sculpture-like finishes. Dries opaquely.
The Mixed Media painting I did below used a variety of mediums mixed in with acrylic paints. Here are the ones that I used:
- Gold metallic paint
- Extra Heavy Gel
- Crackle medium
- matte medium
- Gloss medium
- Glass beads medium
Other Nifty Texturing Mediums
- Glass Bead gel
- Pumice gel
- Natural Sand
- String Gel
- Metallic acrylic paints
- Iridescent colors
- Cracking medium
What paint medium is best for beginners?
For beginners who want to try out paint mediums for the first time, I would highly recommend Golden’s beginner’s set of Acrylic mediums. I have personally bought this set and love it! It comes with 6 jars of popular mediums for you to try.
Acrylic Mediums – Cheap Household Hacks
If your looking to save some money but still want to create some beautiful texture with your paint, try mixing some these items below with your acrylic paints (which you probably have at home):
- Broken or crushed up eggshells that have been boiled and fully dried prior (it sounds weird but it gives a super cool texture).
- Salt (big or small granules)
Here’s a painting I did with the eggshell texture I was talking about. If you look closely you can see the bits of eggshell in the lighter colors. Nifty, eh?
How to Seal your Painting
Once you’re done your painting, an option is to seal it (especially if you are selling your paintings). Sealing it will protect your painting from the environment around it and protect the paints & pigments from UV light- which can yellow over time.
You can use an inexpensive varnish-like Liquitex Gloss Varnish.
Acrylic Paint Ideas: Easy Things to Paint
Now that we’ve covered the painting supplies you’ll need, you are going to need to pick an idea of what to paint.
It seems like an easy enough task, but I find its often the most challenging one, especially when your just beginning.
First off, you want to pick something that’s not too hard.
If it’s too challenging, you might get frustrated and not enjoy the process, which is not want I want for you!
Choosing the right difficulty level of painting is important so that you enjoy the process and feel empowered to learn and paint more!
For some easy beginner ideas on what to paint, I’ve curated a list just for you: 40+ Easy Painting Ideas.
There are step-by-step tutorials attached to most paintings, and some even have video tutorials (because we all learn differently). I think you will find something you like there 🙂
While many tutorials with acrylic paint usually use a canvas or thick paper as a surface to paint on- there is a whole world of other possibilities.
Paint on Water bottles
One project I did a few months back was to paint on reusable water bottles. I gave them away as Christmas gifts, but they would also make unique birthday and Mother day gifts too!
The tutorial shows you how to paint on Hydroflask specific water bottles, but the same steps can be used to paint on many other brands/types.
Paint on Rocks
Another on-trend/popular painting idea is rock painting! From kids, teens, and adults, rock painting is super easy, cheap, and fun!
All you need is a rock/pebble, some acrylic paint, and some inspiration! Check out my comprehensive guide: Rock Painting 101-Ultimate Guide. It will go over all you need to know about rock painting plus 10+ easy designs for adults and kids to get you started.
More Painting Ideas
If tutorials aren’t your thing, here are some more ideas. Using day-to day-life as inspiration:
- flower from your garden
- vase of flowers
- your favorite indoor plant
- a bowl of fruit (or individual fruits)
- simple landscape
- your favorite trinkets
- still life objects you have at home (cups, bowls, bottles, etc.)
- beach scene
- garden scene
- sunset scene
Planning your Paintings layout – Advanced
Once you’ve narrowed down some acrylic paint ideas, you might be tempted to jump right in and start adding paint onto your canvas.
But taking an extra step before beginning painting can help your painting look more beautiful and pleasing to the eye. It will also add to your confidence with acrylics and compositions in general!
It’s a simple enough trick or guideline but unfortunately is often forgotten about, and sometimes not even taught in art classes!
This trick can also be applied to photography, to capture more interesting pictures!
What’s the trick?
It’s called “the rule of the thirds”. I won’t go into too much detail here. But you can read up on it in detail in this blog post.
If your painting a subject matter (flowers, landscapes, a bowl of fruit, etc), using the “rule of the thirds” roughly sketch your layout with a pencil, before beginning painting.
This will guide you better as the painting progresses and everything will stay in proper proportion.
If you’re doing abstract art, just keep the rule of the third in mind, and use it at the end to add some focal areas in the right places.
Safety and Cleanup
Acrylics can be very safe to use, but some pigments (even in acrylics) can be toxic if not properly handled. Also, just to put things in perspective, pigments are more concentrated in professional-level paints and lesser in student quality ones.
The pigments to be aware of are:
- Cadmium pigments
- Cobalt color pigments
- Phthalo Blue and Green
- Umber pigments
Regardless of the pigment, here are some safe ways to handle any type of paint, so that you’re in the habit of using them properly:
- Wash hands thoroughly with water and soap after use
- Avoid eating/drink while painting
- Keep paint out of eyes, mouth, and lungs
- Use eye protection if your doing something like splatter painting
- As with all art material, keep paints away from small children. Young students should be monitored and taught safe handling techniques. If you’re looking for safe acrylics for kids, please check for the “Approved Product” seal on the paint bottles.
How to clean acrylic paint brushes
In terms of brush clean up after your done with your acrylic paints, wash your brushes with warm water and gentle soap. That’s it!
Also, as a word of caution: avoid letting acrylic paints dry on your brushes. If they do dry on, you’ll need solvents to take off the dried paint – take it from someone whose been there -it’s not fun!
You can also use soap and water to wash your painting pallet. If its already dried on, try peeling it off – or you can just leave it. If it doesn’t bug you, it won’t affect the colors once it’s dry since acrylics don’t reactivate.
Troubleshooting your Painting
There might be a time when you’re creating your acrylic painting when something doesn’t feel quite right. And many of the times, you just can’t pinpoint what’s bugging you because you have been looking at your painting with the same perspective.
Your eyes can’t “see” what is going amiss.
The best tip to overcome this: make it a habit to step away from your painting multiple times as your painting progresses.
TIP: Stand away from your painting and analyze it as you would looking at some art in a museum.
Seeing your painting from a distance gives your eyes and brain a different perspective and you end up seeing more, as strange as it sounds. It can often help you figure out what is bugging you about your art piece.
Another tip is to leave the room, do something else for 5 minutes or so and then come back. This will give you a “fresh set of eyes”.
Also flipping the painting upside down really helps.
It sounds weird, but trust me, it works!
My husband finds it amusing when I pace back and forth and flip my painting upside down, but its totally worth it! This technique has saved many of my paintings and my sanity!
More Tips on starting your first Acrylic Painting
Acrylic Paint Tips
- Paint in a well lit and ventilated room
- Cover your acrylic paints in an airtight container when not in use
- When layering, let each layer dry before the next is applied. This will avoid a mishmash of colors.
- Roughly sketch out your painting with a pencil before starting (especially for beginners in acrylic painting).
- Start with the darkest acrylic colors first, then work your wait up to the lightest values in your composition. This method works beautifully with abstract paintings, as the dark colors give an interesting depth with the consequent light colors layered over it.
- Have fun and don’t overthink it!
Finding the Joy in Acrylic Painting- a Self Care Approach
When you first learn painting in acrylics, as with learning any new skill, it can seem intimidating. And sometimes when things don’t turn out according to plan, it can get a bit disheartening.
Your paintings might not turn out the way you think they will the first few times.
This is to be expected!
My advice, from someone whose been there, DON’T GIVE UP! Keep practicing with different techniques, follow some free youtube acrylic painting tutorials, or invest in an online or in-person acrylics painting class (they are so worth it).
If I gave up years ago when I was first learning, I would have never found the joy that comes with painting with acrylics.
Learning how to paint has given me an incredible skill that I have applied in different ways and different times in life. It has been both my therapy as it has my creative outlet.
My wish for you is to find the same joy with painting.
Practice Self Compassion with your Inner Artist
Another lesson learned is: don’t be too hard on yourself and your work! We tend to be our own worst critics, I know I’ve been guilty of that, the good news is this can be changed!
All it takes is a perspective change (just like when troubleshooting your acrylic painting above). If you can do that, you’ll find the act of painting(or anything in life) much more enjoyable.
Here’s a trick…
Instead of beating yourself up because your art doesn’t look anything like you had hoped, shift your focus to the big picture instead:
You’re a brave soul to be learning and practicing a brand new skill, that a lot of people are scared, or don’t make time to learn. Pat yourself on the back and be proud of every second you spend exploring new enjoyments, experiences and taking the time to invest in yourself.
Keep rockin’ it my friend – you are doing AMAZING things!
And now its YOUR turn…
You’re now well-armed with what you need to know as a beginner in acrylics. I’m going to turn it over to you now.
Your blank canvas awaits…What will you fill it with?
(Just in case you have blank canvas fear, you can check out some of my easy acrylic tutorials here)
P.s. I would love to hear what type of painting you are going to make, feel free to drop a comment below and share your ideas, You might inspire another budding artist!
P.s.s If your dying to learn anything in particular with Acrylic paintings, let me know and I’ll make sure I cover it (either in this post or another).
And until next time, stay nifty and creative!