Acrylic Painting: Techniques, Artists & Examples

Instructor: Alessandra Sulpy
Learn what acrylic paint is, how it differs from others types of paints, and how artists use this versatile medium to achieve different effects. You'll also learn the names of a few popular artists who've produced work in acrylics.

What is Acrylic Paint?

Hold on, hold on… before we even get into 'what is acrylic paint', what exactly is paint, you ask? Paint is usually a mixture of two key ingredients: the first is a pigment, or color, which can be either natural or man-made, and is usually ground up into a fine, dry powder. The second key ingredient is a binder, also called a vehicle, which is what holds that pigment together or makes it wet enough to paint with.

If you were a painter living 100 years ago, you didn't have too many options available to you when you were choosing what type of paint would make your masterpiece. Among the most popular choices for artists to use were oil paints (a pigment mixed with an oil binder, such as linseed oil), watercolors (pigments mixed with something water soluble, such as gum arabic, sugar, or glue), and egg tempera (which are pigments mixed with, you guessed it, egg yolk!).

Skip ahead to today and artists have a dozen more choices of paint types at our fingertips (and I mean that sometimes literally!). The most popular type of paint created in the 20th century for artists was acrylic paint. This was big news in the art world; we now had a quick drying artist's paint that wasn't as watery as watercolor, didn't take as long to dry as oil, and didn't take the time that egg tempera took to make!

When acrylics were first invented in the 1930's, they didn't resemble the acrylics we use today - neither did the acrylics from the 40's, or even some from the 50's. Those paints all used different vehicles, or binders of the pigments, from what are used now. Acrylics today are pigments in an acrylic polymer emulsion… which is a way of saying they are in the plastics family. Once these dry, you can't re-wet them, and they have more flexibility than most other types of paint.

This formula was hit in the mid-1950's, and while there are still different types of acrylic paints (some thicker, some runny and thin, some with higher quality pigments, etc.), acrylics today share this in common: they are mixable, easily cleaned or thinned with water, and dry fairly quickly (typically between 5-20 minutes).

Techniques

In painting, the term medium means both what type of paint (acrylic, oil, watercolor, etc.) OR what you add to that paint to make it change its thickness, drying time, or texture. These mediums added to paint can be dry or wet, thick or thin, and in any texture to change the appearance of the paint. Water is the most common medium, which can thin acrylics so much they look like watercolor or just enough to become a little looser.

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Examples of different techniques and mediums include:

Glazing - Adding a lot of thinning medium to the paint to make the paint thin and/or transparent, and painting over other colors which you can see underneath the thinned out paint.

Palette Knife - Instead of using a paintbrush, the artist puts the paint directly on the surface with a palette knife (a small blade used to mix paints).

Dry Brush - Usually no medium is added to the paint, but a small amount of paint is applied to the surface for a soft, brushy effect that's ideal for painting hair/fur, grasses, etc.

Wet on Wet - Difficult to do with acrylic paints, given their fast drying times. Wet paint is applied on top of more wet paint to mix colors on the painting surface.

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