So if you’re new to painting and art, it can be pretty intimidating to figure out where to start, what to buy and how to go about it. We’ll be discussing a few of the more key elements to consider when approaching the concept of acrylic painting, but also in some ways, painting in general.
Acrylic paint is a fairly recent development for the art world, being introduced in a commercial capacity in the 1950’s. Acrylic paint is easily one of the most versatile mediums and one of the least toxic. It is water soluble yet when it dries, it forms to a plastic polymer which is flexible, water resistant and durable. It dries quickly so the artist can add multiple successive layers without mixing colours underneath. Acrylic paint is also known for its vibrant colour options because they are synthetically produced, any colour under the sun can be bottled.
So this brings us to the question of why should you choose acrylic? Acrylics are easy to use and clean. They’re a very forgiving medium in that they will dry quickly and you can cover mistakes if need be and they also come in a wide range of price and quality. Acrylics are easily more accessible than other painting mediums like oil or watercolour paints and don’t require a huge cost output to get started.
Acrylic paint is great for fine art, crafts, collage and mixed media because of its versatility, adhesive quality and low toxicity. For this reason, it is also great for kids! When it comes to painting, however, there are three key elements that you have to consider more seriously, while the rest is easier to adapt and figure out as you go on. You must consider your paints, your painting surface and lastly your brushes.
When it comes to materials it can be overwhelming to consider all the variables, but universally its said that you should buy the most expensive paint you can afford and the best working surface. Whether that means you’re buying entry level paints and canvases or investing in much higher end materials. It can be difficult, but as an artist, your worth is not defined by the cost of your materials, its what you do with them. However, the good quality paint will work more for you than cheaper brands. The same applies to your working surface. If the canvas is warped or dented because it’s of inferior quality, it is only going to negatively impact not only your final artwork but your painting experience.
So, with that in mind, let’s talk about the most important thing here, which is the paint. I have long said that you only really need a few colours to get started with your collection. With these, you can pretty much mix anything, though there are exceptions. These are your red, yellow and blue (your three primary colours), burnt sienna, ultramarine blue and white.
With these colours, you can make orange, purple, green and every shade in between as well as a lovely black colour using the ultramarine blue and burnt sienna. White will create a tint of all these colours and unless you’re needing colours like neon orange, you should be fine with these to start.
The paint itself can be purchased now in a variety of different forms, from tube, jars, squeeze bottles and even small ink bottles. They also come in a variety of thicknesses and consistencies. Because it is water soluble it can be thinned with water and other mediums, however, using too much water breaks down the paint and can result in undesirable conditions.
In terms of brands, there is a world of possibility to explore. Unfortunately here in South Africa, we’re a little limited in terms of brand variety, though Windsor and Newton and Liquitex are stocked in speciality art stores and are great to use. Liquitex provides quite a heavy body, opaque paint and Windsor and Newton is one of the oldest and most reputable art brands out there. More affordable paints range from Rolfes, Amsterdam, Reeves and Daler Rowney, amongst many others. The key is to find what works for you and go from there. And don’t ever be hesitant to ask for advice from in-store staff, read online reviews or even just buy one or two products on sale and try them out first before committing to full sets.
There are many options for acrylic painting surfaces. Acrylics can be used on paper, canvas, wood, masonite, cloth, concrete, brick or basically anything that isn’t too glossy or greasy. However, you do need to be aware that porous surfaces will need to be primed in order to apply the paint evenly as the surface will absorb water and paint. This also does provide your painting with more longevity. Even for nonporous surfaces like glass or metal, one would need to prime the surface first.
The most commonly used painting surfaces are canvases, though canvas boards are popular too. Canvas is typically made either out of cotton or linen, though linen is more expensive it is said to stay more flexible at it ages as it has a higher natural oil content than cotton. Canvases are made using stretched linen or cotton over a wooden frame. Canvases are more flexible and have more texture so are a good all-purpose painting surface. They vary widely in price and will come pre-primed for painting. The painting can be hung as is when finished and there is no need for framing, though that is still an option. A canvas board is a harder surface than canvas and is made by stretching and then stapling or glueing the cotton or linen to the board. Canvas boards are cheaper than canvases and easier to store, though they don’t have the same flexibility and have to be framed to put up on a wall. MDF board or medium density fiberboard can be bought from most hardware stores and is made by binding the wood fibres with glue under high pressure. Though it has to be primed before use, it is inexpensive and you can achieve very smooth surfaces with it when primed with thin layers. Canvas paper is essentially loose, pre-primed linen or cotton, often synthetic. Its cheap to buy, easy to use though it is recommended you tape it down while working. Canvas paper is particularly useful for practicing techniques and doing trial paintings without committing to a full canvas.
Brushes come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes and textures and qualities. There are a few key things to take into account when buying brushes. Namely, the size, shape and texture. Brush sizes are marked with a number on the handle. The higher the number, the larger the brush. There are three components to a brush: the handle,the ferrule (the small piece of metal around the top of the handle) and then the tuft or bristles itself. The tuft is the most important part of the brush and comes in a variety of shapes.
So because brushes come in all shapes and sizes, it can be tricky to learn all the names of them! The key is to remember the basic shapes and think about what kind of mark they would make when applying paint to a canvas. While certain brushes are designed for certain things, it really is about how you use them more than anything else. Its good to know the uses and names for them however and IncredibleArt.org has a wonderful and extensive description of all the brushes and what to use them for.
Mediums are used for adding texture and body to paints and surfaces and add to the quality of the paint without changing the properties of it. Some mediums will add texture and body while others may actually thin the paint down, without having to add water, which in large quantities, can break down the pigment in the paint. Some examples of these are acrylic retarder, texture pastes that can be both smooth and coarse as well as clear gel mediums that simply add to the bulk of the paint. Mediums are not necessary when you’re just starting out so find your footing first with the paints before diving into supplements for your paint and then when you’re comfortable, they make a great addition to your art supply collection.
Primers are used to create a surface that the paint can attach to. Gesso is often used as a primer for both acrylic and oil paints and is relatively inexpensive from most art stores. While storebought working surfaces will usually come pre-primed it can be useful to prime it a second or even third time, as subsequent layers of primer will only add to the texture of the board, or if you’re careful and precise, you can get beautifully smooth working layers. Gesso will come in white, clear or black and each suits a different purpose. Clear gesso can have colour added to it, while black gesso adds a depth to your colour that would take a few coats to achieve over white. However, a primed, white background can give your paint a certain luminosity that would otherwise be difficult to achieve.
Palette knives or painting knives are a really versatile tool for painting and we would definitely recommend getting a set. There are some very affordable options out there and you can buy them individually or in a pack. Various shaped palette knives will be better for certain things. A palette knife is a blunt tool that has a long straight blade and can be used to apply paint as well as scrape it off. Most palette knives are metal with a wooden handle but some are made from plastic. There is a plethora of tutorials and classes online dedicated to teaching the art of palette knife painting. Learning how to use a palette knife for painting is a great experience and you can really just experiment and play around until you find what works for you.
In conclusion, Acrylic painting is really dynamic, user-friendly and an accessible medium that is fun to learn and even more enjoyable to do. Hopefully, some of the things here have been able to guide you in the right direction. Most importantly, out of all of this, is that you should always enjoy what you’re doing. Yes, there are the technically correct ways of doing things and these are valid in their own way. However, it is important to not put yourself down or hold yourself to a level of expectation that is unachievable. Learn what you can and where you can but don’t let perfection bog you down. Art is about expressing yourself! So be free, have fun and just paint.