101 – Recipe for Successful Acrylic Paintings

The thing about acrylics is that they are so easy and hassle free to use and at the same time offer up so many possibilities! This seems paradoxical of course. How could it be that something so simple is also so complex?

The Simple Part

They are water soluble. They dry so fast! They dry to a sturdy almost indestructible finish. You can use almost any surface to paint on from stretched canvas to metal to paper to well, just about anything! You don’t need any chemicals to use them or clean them up. For a lot of people, this makes them a more practical choice than oils. 

Acrylics are water soluble and easy to clean up.

Use can use them as an opaque medium similar to oils or pastel or as a transparent one like watercolors. You can go back and forth between these kinds of application within a piece in the course of minutes, so they are very forgiving.

The Complicated Part

There are a dizzying array of mediums and additives to alter the viscosity and attributes of the paint. There are several kinds of paint to choose from that have different viscosities and qualities. Combining the mediums and additives with the different varieties of paint get you to a pretty complex web of materials choices!

There is a vast array of mediums and additives for use with acrylics.

Then there are the tools. Because of its properties and fast drying time, it’s possible to create a vast number of effects with different tools from traditional to innovative and unexpected. You can use brushes and palette knives, scrapers, sponges, brayers…the list goes on and on. You can quickly build transparent layers or create designs with stencils. You can add sprays and splatters or drips with paint in bottles or applied with a brush. All of which dries fast allowing you to move on to more and more transparent or opaque layers.

You can explore mark making with almost anything you can find!
Because they dry fast, you have to move fast. This means really understanding what is going to happen and having some knowledge of their properties. Blending and making smooth gradations can be challenging because unlike oils where you have plenty of time to rework an area, acrylics will dry to a permanent film before you know it! Drying fast also means you have to take some steps to keep the paint you’re working with moist and to save paint when you’re done painting for the day.
There are several DIY solutions to preserving your paint!
The possibilities for effects and mixed media techniques are pretty much endless!

Recipe for Success

Acrylics are really a wonderful medium for anyone to explore, whether you are brand new to painting or a seasoned pro looking to switch from oils or pastel. You might just be looking for another way to expand your painting vocabulary. I don’t think we need to pigeon hole ourselves into just one media! Why would we do that?

This is first and foremost a recipe, not a formula. Recipes are guides and what makes a dish special is that special spin a cook puts on the recipe. The same is true for painting. Certainty is the enemy of creativity, so this is not that…it is however a recipe that you can rely on and have faith in. Not every painting is going to be successful nor should they be! That would be boring and diminish the joy and wonder of the great ones.

Here is my very best advice for creating successful paintings on a consistent basis. Consistency is not the same as perfection, now is it? But I definitely am aiming for consistency. This I think I can do. Along with consistency, I aim to always improve. Improvement means pushing oneself forward, so that means hitting troubled waters every now and again, so yes there will be bad paintings along the way. These can be embraced too!

Here is my 10 step recipe for launching into acrylics and getting the most from this dynamic and flexible medium.

1. Gather the Right Materials

The “right” materials for you have to fit your budget and painting habits. If you know that you’re going to be prolific, then you’ll want to stock up so when you have time to paint you’re set to go. You’ll also want to have the right materials for the kind of work you intend to do. Think about the size you want to work and whether you’re willing to paint over unsuccessful pieces. I try to plan ahead for at least a month’s worth of painting. I try to gauge my energy and other time commitments. I’ll invest in enough materials to be able to meet my goals without breaking the bank.

2. Spend Time Planning – it’s time well invested

Choose what enchants you and hang onto that. I like to create bodies of work that have a thread that connects each piece. By doing this, I figure out a little bit about how to approach the next piece, so they get easier and easier as I progress. This is very, very empowering and exciting. That thread could be subject matter, technique or both.

Visualize your subject as abstract shapes rather than “things” like trees and flowers. Three to five shapes are better than seven to ten. Do preliminary sketches in several proportions to test out the best way to convey your idea. Scale up your thumbnail sketch correctly. Make sure to use the same proportion on your final surface as your thumbnail sketch.

3. Sketch it in

Quickly and loosely and, get a sense of where the large shapes are in relation to one another. Here is where the energy and the living breathing landscape is felt and revealed on canvas, so let that come through in the initial drawing. Let your own sensibilities for the scene drive where things are placed, not just a reference photo.

4. Block it in

Work the large masses to the small ones to quickly establish the overall value pattern. Keep it loose and thin at this point. Group similar values together as you work to establish the three to five masses. Everything is open to revision at this point. Think of staining color and value at this stage.

5. Adding on

Here’s where you get to pile on the paint! Go ahead and play with color within the value masses. As long as the values hang together, the color will work. You can push color by exaggerating what you see or even make it up entirely. Look for nuanced shifts in color temperature. Feel what your painting is hungry for!

6. Slow down and Make Adjustments

Now is the time to look a bit more calmly and carefully at what you are doing. Maybe the initial excitement is starting to wear off and you’re wondering if what you thought minutes ago was pretty good, might not be as great as you thought! So make sure that you’re on the right track. Maybe, take a photo and make sure nothing is glaring back at you. Adjust odd shapes, value and color.

7. Finish + Critique

Make those final moves. Decide if your painting works as a unified whole. Are there obvious areas or passages that simply don’t look finished? If so, resolve those. Try to sit back and look at your piece with no ego involved. It’s a lot easier to look at someone else’s work and see it’s mistakes. Get to the point you can do this for yourself.

8. Come Back Later

Even a short coffee break will often be revealing. You almost always need fresh eyes on a painting to declare it done.

9. Share it with Your Peers

We don’t make art to hide in our closets, so part of the process is to share it with the world, even if that world is small and protective. Be careful who you share your work with. Even well meaning family and friends can crush our fragile egos when we are new to the painting game. Wait until you’re really ready.

10. Repeat, repeat, repeat

Well, this is my very best advice. There is nothing that has served me more as a painter than being a prolific one!

For lots more information about acrylic painting, consider my latest online workshop Seasons in Acrylic.

Happy Painting,


Click Above To Learn More About Seasons In Acrylic

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