Painting has proven to be one of the most marketable forms of art. While some of the oldest methods date back thousands of years, acrylic painting is a relatively recent innovation that originated within the last century. When it first emerged in the early 1900s, artists of all genres quickly adopted this new, fast-drying medium that showed versatility and potential beyond other paints. Employing different acrylic painting techniques has resulted in some of the most well-known and desirable works of art in the market.
In 1901, German chemist Dr. Otto Röhm first introduced acrylic resin to the world. Though resins were primarily intended for industrial use, it wasn’t long before artists began experimenting with the synthetic medium. Mexican muralists such as David Alfaro Siqueiros helped this new method of application gain traction, and soon the first commercially available water-based acrylic paints appeared in 1955. In the latter half of the 20th century, a new wave of artists looking to explore different art movements like Abstract Expressionism and Pop art emerged on the scene. Acrylic paints naturally attracted the likes of American Pop artist Andy Warhol, American painter Robert Motherwell, British Op artist, Bridget Riley, and other famous talents.
Artists of all disciplines are drawn to the versatility of acrylic paint. Not only is it durable, but it also has an immediacy in its finish that other types cannot offer. Today, collectors can find acrylic paintings from artists around the world. Whether you’re looking to understand more about painting as a medium or want to perfect your proficiency, we’ve compiled 14 of the most important acrylic painting techniques and tips to help.
Acrylic Painting Techniques
Acrylic painting is characterized by bright colors, sharp brushstrokes, and quality lines. One of the most desirable qualities of the medium is its ability to be used on a variety of surfaces and mixed with other media. Below are the most prominent techniques used to create a structurally rich painting that has both the soft- and hard-textured elements.
Dry brush is relatively simple to execute. Using a brush that has not been dipped in water, you can create a scratchy, textured, uneven movement of lines on your canvas. Make sure your brush is as dry as possible and loaded with paint for the optimal effect.
Though American realist painter Andrew Wyeth primarily painted in watercolor, his work presents a fine example of the dry brush technique which he used to create structure and layers. Wyeth once stated, “I work in drybrush when my emotion gets deep enough into a subject. So I paint with a smaller brush, dip it into color, splay the brush and bristles, squeeze out a good deal of the moisture and color with my fingers so there is only a very small amount of paint left. Then when I stroke the paper with the dried brush, it will make various distinct strokes at once, and I start to develop the forms of whatever object it is until they start to have real body…. Drybrush is layer upon layer.”
One of the most impressive qualities of acrylic paint is its ability to modify its consistency; it can be applied in thick layers, or be applied lightly to create a thin, translucent hue. Using a washing technique, you can elicit a softness that resembles watercolor. Dilute your paint with a sufficient amount of water to create a translucent wash. Be sure to note that acrylic paints dry fast and set permanently.
Stippling is the creation of a collection of tiny dots, often used in landscape painting. Though acrylic is a relatively new medium, this technique originated in the 1500s as a method of engraving. Today, artists construct varying degrees of shading based on the closeness and boldness of the assemblage of dots as well as utilize different colors to establish real dimension.
Stippling is closely related to Pointillism, an approach associated with the soft flickering surface of small dots. They method was popularized by French Post-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat, whose works rely on a separation of color through individual strokes of pigment believed to have a greater vibrancy of color in the observer’s eye. This is conceptualized in his most famous painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Though the early masters of this technique, like Seurat, used oil or gouache, this technique can easily be applied to acrylic as well.
Splattering is a lively, unpredictable technique that relies on applied energy to achieve its aesthetic. It was popularized by Jackson Pollock, who is widely regarded today as the leading force behind the Abstract Expressionist movement. Coined the “splatter artist,” Pollock worked mostly with gloss enamel rather than acrylic, applying the pigment to his canvases with a stick and creating his famous “drip paintings,” and ultimately revolutionizing the way art is defined.
To mimic Pollock’s texture with acrylics, use a wet brush, dip the bristles in paint, and direct your tool in the direction of the canvas. You can use a stencil to control where the paint lands if needed.
Much like the name suggests, dabbing is a technique used to “dab” accents of color onto the surface of a canvas. Using a stiff bristle brush or paper towel, simply apply the paint with quick, light pressure. For more depth, add multiple layers. Dabbing adds movement to your painting and is often used to illustrate bushes or greenery.
A great example of dabbing is realized in the works of French Impressionist painter Claude Monet. Though he mostly worked with oil paint, Impressionists like Monet explored the effects of light and color, often achieved through this technique.
Similar to dabbing, sponging requires a cellulose sponge to apply paint in a springing motion, creating an irregular, textured pattern. Sponging is a great painting technique for beginners, as it’s visually pleasing, great for foliage, and hard to mess up.
Like dabbing, this technique first emerged during the Impressionist movement, where contrary to realism, artists aimed to capture momentary, fleeting effects achieved by a sponge’s irregular surface.
Though this technique is a bit more advanced, it is an easy way to add texture to the surface of a painting and can be beneficial in creating sweeping, flat layers. To achieve the effect, use a thick layer of paint and apply it to your canvas with the knife, much like frosting a cake. Palette knife can be applied to many different types of paints, offering texture and thickness to build up the surface of the canvas.
Often used when an artist is nearing the completion of a work, detailing should be done using much control and precision. Working with a small, fine brush, apply details and clean lines where needed. This is regularly performed to create particulars like the flowers within a landscape or other minute features that need careful attention.
A glaze is a thin, translucent film mixed with acrylic paint to create a rich, luminous hue and texture of the surface. By applying a transparent layer of glaze over another layer of opaque paint, you can create a unique, stained-glass effect.
Used since the emergence of oil paint, glazing is not a new technique to painters. Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer used glazing in many of his paintings, most notably Girl with the Red Hat where the artist’s striking red hue was achieved through glazing methods.
Acrylic Painting Tips for Beginners
Choose the Proper Brushes
While this may seem obvious, selecting the right tools can greatly affect the quality of your painting. For acrylic painting, you’ll want access to a variety of brushes from small to large to use with varying techniques. For applying thick layers of paint, make sure to have a stiff-bristled brush, and for the watercolor effects like washing, use a soft-bristled brush. A Filbert paint brush makes a dependable, versatile option that offers a straight or round shape depending on your needs.
Master Your Mixing
For seasoned painters, mixing might seem rather straightforward, but there are ways to get creative with mixing techniques that can greatly improve your work. First, make sure you know and understand the color wheel so you can mix with precision and confidence. As seen in the diagram below, there are various groups of colors. Analogous colors are groups of three colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. They usually match well and share a common color. Monochromatic color schemes are derived from a single base hue. Triadic color schemes use colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel. Complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel and are usually highly contrasted, creating a vibrant look.
For best results, blend colors using a palette knife, plastic knife, or an extra brush if you have one handy. Additionally, it can be beneficial to create a family of mixed hues to lend diversity to your painting.
Learn to Layer
Layering can refer to many different techniques beyond painting, but for the purpose of acrylic painting, layering is a widely used practice that can greatly enhance the perception of three-dimensionality. Unlike watercolor, acrylics dry into insoluble films, so you can layer without pulling any color underneath. Start with your bottom, background layer and build from there.
Have a Mister Close By
Given that acrylic paints dry quickly, you can keep them moist by using a mister. By simply watering them down a bit with a mister, you’ll create a watercolor-esque type of paint to use when emulating the washing technique.
Protect with a Varnish
When finished with a painting, use a varnish to create a protective film that safeguards against dust and other harmful determinants like ultraviolet rays. You can use a non-acrylic material if you wish to remove the layer in the future.
Brush Up On Your Acrylic Painting Skills
Whether you’re a novice or seasoned acrylic painter, practicing your skill will help in perfecting the technique. We’ve highlighted some of the most prominent acrylic painting techniques and tips below.
Incorporating these techniques into your work will help produce more developed, textured finished products. Celebrated artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein often used acrylics to create some of their most iconic paintings, utilizing different approaches to elevate their style and distinguish them from other greats.