Sir Isaac Newton was the first person to develop the colour wheel as we know it. He created the first circular diagram in 1666. Since then, artists and scientists have studied and designed many variations on the traditional ‘colour wheel’ as we know it today. There is a surprising amount of debate about the validity of one variation over another but honestly, any circle of colour that presents a logically arranged sequence of colours and hues has merit.
There are also categories of colour based on the basic colour wheel, basically divided into three parts.
Primary Colours: The primary colours are easily the most common and make up the foundation of the world around us in terms of colour. The primary colours are red, yellow and blue and cannot be mixed using any other colours. The primary colours, however, make up the rest of all the colours we see and use.
Secondary Colours: At its most basic form, colour theory tells us that if we mix equal parts of two primary colours then we will create green, orange and purple. These are your secondary colours and are thus made using the primary colours as a base. However, depending on the paint you use and the quality of the pigment, it may take a higher ratio of certain colours to create a true middle tone. For example, in many brands of paint, yellow is a weaker pigment. Therefore, an equal ratio of yellow and red or yellow and blue is more likely to be influenced by the stronger pigment of red and blue so you would need more yellow to balance it out.
Tertiary Colours: A tertiary colour is an intermediate colour and is a step between a primary colour and a secondary colour. It’s made mixing a higher ratio of one colour over the other. Another easy way to look at it is by mixing an adjacent primary and secondary colour together, you will end up with the tertiary colour. By adjusting the proportions of the primary and secondary colours you can create a wide range of subtle colours. Essentially you can further versions for the tertiary colours by repeatedly mixing each neighbouring pair until you have a seamless, continuous transition.
Something else to consider is that the particular hue of your colour is important. There isn’t only one option in terms of a shade of yellow, for example. For example, The colour blue has many many variations even as a primary colour. We obviously have primary blue but ultramarine blue, prussian blue or pthalo blue are all different iterations of the same colour. So the particular hue of your primary colour will influence the outcome of your mixed colours, whether they’re secondary or tertiary colours. These differences may be subtle but it’s important to know that they will happen and how to predict the outcome. The best way to learn this is to practice and experiment but make colour charts for yourself in a small notebook or make colour swatches as you’re painting and take notes of the colours mixed and the ratios that you’ve used to get there.
So with these primary factors taken into consideration, what we are going to look at now is how to apply these colours to your artwork and everything you can do with colour theory as an artist. First, we need to look at colour harmony and what that means. Harmony itself is an arrangement of pleasing parts, whether it be music, poetry, colour or even a platter of cheese and dried fruit. In a visual sense, harmony is something that is then pleasing to the eye. It creates a sense of order, a balanced visual experience and is pleasing to the eye. If something is not harmonious it’s either boring or just chaotic. Harmony has to be something that is not extremely overworked, otherwise, it isn’t stimulating but extreme complexity leads to over-stimulation. Harmony should be dynamic.
Colour Formulas for Visual Harmony
Complementary Colours: Diving even deeper into colour theory, we come across one of the most important parts of colour mixing. Complementary colours are opposite each other on the colour wheel. In their most basic form, they are a primary colour and a secondary colour that is made by mixing the two-remaining primary colours. This is a small formula to remember if you tend to forget what the complementary colours are. So let’s look at red as an example. Because red is a primary colour, its complementary must be a secondary colour. Both orange and purple can be made using red, therefore green must be complementary to red. Therefore, blue is also opposite orange and yellow is opposite purple. These are the core complimentary colours but in essence, you could take any subtle variation of a colour and find its complementary but locating it on a colour wheel.
So now that we have covered the basics of mixing to create every colour under the sun, we have to think about how to make these colours lighter and darker. In colour theory, this is called making a tint or a shade. A tint is a colour that appears lighter so we would add various levels of white to create a spectrum of true colour to white, true colour being a primary, secondary or colour. A shade is a colour that appears darker, so we have to add black to get those darker tones. A tone is a colour that has grey added into it to create a more subtle variation of a shade or a tint. Toning a colour neutralizes some of the brightness of a colour without taking it too far down the shade or tint scale.
How to use the power of colour in your art
The power of colour is both emotional and practical. On an emotional level, colour can affect how someone feels when they look at your art, whereas on a practical level it can help a painting or artwork stand out from a crowd. Certain colours can evoke certain emotions and the colour tone of a painting can determine the mood that your painting sets. For example, red can symbolize many different things. It can represent fire, danger, passion or blood and is a bold, energetic and powerful colour. Green. on the other hand. has very different connotations, Green can represent nature and the environment and thus, in turn, the idea of growth and organic, natural senses. However, it is also the colour of envy, which has entirely different connotations. A mood of the painting can be cool, warm or neutral, In essence, warm colours are reds, some browns, yellow, orange, or earthy greens. Cool colours are blues, greens, non-red browns, blue-toned purples, amongst many others. The tone of your painting can determine how someone feels when they look at your work. The www.arttherapyblog.com/ has a really great post with a more in-depth break down of each colour. Check it out here!
The world of colour is massive and you could dedicate your whole life to studying colour and still be amazed by what you learn. The real fun part is just experimenting and learning as you go. Make colour swatches as you paint, take photos of things that you like the colour of and just see what works for you. Remember that the colours you choose affect the overall feel and mood of your paintings and it can be hard to choose a theme or colours for your artwork. So, check online for some ideas but here are a few websites to start with!
We have looked at all the materials you are going to need for your acrylic painting journey. But that isn’t the be all and end all of painting the acrylics. One of the more important aspects, and it doesn’t matter what you’re using or how expensive your supplies are, is how to actually use them. So with your basic materials, including a brush, canvas and acrylic paint and these techniques; you will be well equipped to create some incredible paintings. We will be looking at some of the more universally used techniques to start and then even going into further depth with some lesser known techniques like dabbing and splattering. The more you practice these techniques the more comfortable you will feel with pushing them further and experimenting with your medium and paintings.
DRY BRUSHING: The dry brushing technique is great for a more diffused effect. The effect will be quite uneven and you could soften the edges using water but if you are looking for texture and direction, then dry brushing is the best option. It is particularly good for blending together two areas of textured colour.
GLAZING: When you add enough water to acrylic paint, it behaves in a similar way to watercolour. The paint becomes translucent and very runny. You can use this technique to add transparent layers of colour over each other, add variations of hue to areas of colour or even to do small areas of blending. Some sources, however, advise that you shouldn’t add more than 50% water to your paint as this may cause the polymer in the paint to break down and lose its adhesive qualities, resulting in the possibility of your paint lifting of flaking off when you paint subsequent layers over it. It’s best to just experiment for yourself and see what your own paints are capable of doing. Make a colour chart for yourself and label the wash swatches with the various ratios of water used. You’ll notice that after being watered down to a certain point the paint will start beading and breaking up into little speck of pigment as it dries. This shows you clearly how much over-dilution your paint can handle. Obviously, higher grade paints will hold a lot more water than lower grade quality.
STIPPLING: The technique of stippling consists of applying layers of varying sizes and thicknesses of dots. To create variations of depth and texture. This can be done with a brush to achieve a much looser, more expressive feeling or it can be achieved using more precise tools like earbuds, toothpicks and even the backs of paint brushes.
WET ON DRY: This refers to the technique of applying wet paint to a dried section of painted canvas. It is easily the most common and user-friendly way of painting, though you will need to master the art of blending out solid areas of colour. This can be achieved by dry brushing or simply spreading the paint onto the surface without lifting your brush too much or gathering more paint onto the bristles. Glazing techniques can be used on top of dry paint as well to blend.
WET ON WET: Aside from the Wet on Dry technique, wet on wet is probably the second most commonly used painting technique, particularly for Acrylic. Wet paint is pliable and easy to manipulate and thus gives you smoother effects overall. When a wet layer is applied over a wet area of paint, both layers blend together and can produce more irregular patterns, as it is particularly tricky to predict exactly how the colours will spread together.
PALETTE KNIFE: Palette knives are most often used to produce and apply thick layers of paint to achieve texture and create volume. It is used often hand in hand with the impasto technique, which we will explore in a moment. It is a relatively simple technique, though the variety of palette knives out there means your choices may feel overwhelming. The best way to learn is to just buy a few of the key shapes or a small pack and go from there. The difficulty in palette knives doesn’t lie in techniques but rather allowing layers to dry to avoid creating mush. Knowing when to stop is tricky with art in general!
IMPASTO: Impasto is a technique used in painting where the paint is laid out on an area of the canvas in very thick layers, usually so thick that the brush strokes or palette knife marks are visible. The paint can be mixed right onto the canvas because the thicker layers of paint do tend to swirl together somewhat and the marbling effect that tends to happen creates an impression of a new colour with a really interesting depth of colour. The only downside to impasto is that it tends to use up a lot of paint so it is advisable to add something like an impasto medium, which is designed to thicken up the paint without losing its colour and vitality.
SGRAFFITO: Sgraffito is a form of decoration typically used in ceramics, although it is a technique that can very successfully be incorporated into a painting. It involves scratching through a surface, usually a layer of wet paint, to reveal a lower layer of a different or contrasting colour. This can be done using any tool, though very sharp tools are not advisable on surfaces like a canvas. So things like toothpicks, the ends of paint brushes, palette knives or even your fingernails will all work in wonderful and unique ways. This technique is often good for adding texture to grass, foliage or hair.
SPLATTERING: Splattering is a really fun, quite carefree way to use paint. Using a fairly wet brush, you can flick or splatter paint onto a work surface for an uneven, splatter effect. Its fantastic for creating an abstract landscape or a starry night sky, or for just adding interesting texture to a piece. Famously, Jackson Pollock used this technique to create expressive abstract pieces.
DABBING: Dabbing is an interesting technique because it is not often thought of when it comes to painting techniques and adding texture but its a great way to apply large areas of rough paint. Using the corner of a sponge or even a piece of paper towel, dab onto the canvas with a little paint to add accents of colour. This does create a texture that can’t be replicated with any other applicator.
DETAILING: There often comes a point in the painting where you need to abandon your bigger brushes in favour of smaller, finer brushes to carefully paint in those finicky details. Detailing is a very important aspect of the artwork and will often involve shorter, sharper lines and fine edges that finish off and refine your overall forms.
The process of under-painting has three potential uses and can be applied in different ways depending on your specific needs.
– To create texture or build upon the canvas in preparation for further layers.
– To put tone or colour beneath the painting and allowing that to impact your final work in some way, either by leaving some areas exposed or using glazing methods to create translucent effects.
– A way of planning and laying out your painting to see whether all the elements you’re planning balance out compositionally and ‘fit’ together.
LEARN TO LAYER
Learning to layer your paint doesn’t just apply to acrylic paint and its an important part of the painting process that feeds into every aspect of your creative practice. Layered paintings, drawings or even art journals always look more professional and more finished than a painting that just has one flat layer. Every subsequent layer just adds more depth and you can really play around with layering different techniques like stippling and dabbing underneath glazing and detail work. It will really enhance the perception of three-dimensionality in your painting and acrylics really lend themselves to this because they dry so quickly and aren’t water-soluble when dry so you don’t have to worry about disturbing lower layers. Start with a bottom, background layer and build it from there, growing it and enhancing it as you need.
While all of the above techniques are very useful and versatile on their own, the brush you use to create the effect is particularly important because it can determine the final effect and overall form. Different shaped brushes will obviously give very different effects so the best thing to do is experiment and even make swatches using a few different brushes to see what will work better for you.
So having touched now on the multitude of painting techniques available to you, it’s up to you to try them out, play around with them and experiment to find the techniques that work for you. Grab a small cheap canvas or repurpose something old to practice on before committing to an actual artwork. It makes the whole process much easier. In the next post, we’ll have a nice in-depth look at the intricacies of colour, colour mixing and how using colour can influence the overall look and feel of your artworks.
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.