Acrylic painting supplies for beginners

Acrylic Painting Supplies: A Guide for Beginners

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You don’t need too many acrylic painting supplies to get started.

It’s a medium that can be quite cheap and easy to start with if you are a beginner painter.

There are some absolute essentials, however. I’ll walk you through the different options, so you can decide which acrylic painting supplies will be best for your painting practice. Plus, I’ll show you the materials that give you the best value for your money.

Acrylic paint

Acrylic paint brands review

The most essential item of all the acrylic painting supplies. There’s so much choice when it comes to picking your acrylic paint. First, you have to decide whether you want to use heavy body or soft body paint. Then you have to choose a brand. Finally you have to choose the paint colours. 

Heavy body vs soft body acrylic paint

‘Heavy’ and ‘soft’ are both marketing terms used to describe the viscosity of paint. Heavy is thick and viscous, soft body is more runny.

The type of paint you choose will depend upon the effects you want to create in your work. If you want to create fine details, with fluid paint that glides across the canvas, then soft body paint would be the better choice. To build thick textures, you’ll need heavy body acrylics.

You can alter the consistency of paint with a medium, so if you have bought soft body paint and want to make it runnier, then it is possible. More on that in the acrylic painting mediums section.

Acrylic paint brands

Not all acrylic paint is made the same. Brands and ranges of paint can vary in their pigment content, their viscosity, the contents of the binder and much more. Each of these attributes will affect your painting session and how the paint works for your style. 

Professional quality paint is more expensive, but it is worth the price. Firstly, the pigment content is higher, meaning the colours you will be able to mix will be much more vibrant and cleaner.

Also, professional quality ranges won’t contain fillers and additives that are sometimes used by the student quality ranges to bulk the paint out.

What I would recommend even as a beginner, is starting out with a quality brand of paint and getting fewer colours. Your skills as a painter will move forward much faster, as you learn to use paint that gives you better results when mixing colours together. With fewer colours, you will learn more about the relationship between colour and how to mix it.

Another thing to take into account when choosing a brand of acrylic paint, is that some paint ranges have been designed to dry slower than normal acrylic paint.

Average acrylic paint takes between 20 minutes and 40 minutes to dry, depending on how thickly it has been applied. The range Open Acrylics by Golden increases the working time of paint. This can potentially make the paint workable for up to a day, or even longer if you are prolonging the working time with an added medium and a stay wet palette.

If you want to read a more comprehensive comparison of each acrylic painting brand and their attributes, read our acrylic paint brand guide.

Best brands of acrylic paint

What colours do you need for acrylic painting?

As a beginner, it’s good practice to limit your palette somewhat, as this will encourage you to learn how to mix a range of colours from fewer tubes. 

As your skills grow as a painter, you will refine your colour palette, add colours and realise there are some that you just don’t use.

When you’re first starting out, however, you want base colours that you can mix to make a vibrant range of tones and colour contrasts.

To make the widest range of hues from the fewest colours, I recommend trying a primary palette which will give you the greatest chromatic range.

Colour is a complex topic, you can learn more about limited palettes here, although the guide was written with oil painting in mind, it applies to acrylic too. If you want to be a colour expert, read up on colour theory.

Primary palette

The primary palette in pigment form consists of specific types of blue, red and yellow. With the addition of white and a dark colour to make tints and shadows.

These types of red, blue and yellow are Primary Magenta (with pigment code PV19), Primary Cyan (PB15) and Primary Yellow (PY128).

This ‘Heavy Body Principal’ set by Golden includes all the basic primaries.

You can diversify this palette by adding cool or warm versions of each colour. By adding these colours, you will increase the range of hues and tones you can mix from your tubes:

Ultramarine, Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Red, Burnt Umber.

Brushes

Paintbrush types

Synthetic bristles work best with acrylic paint. This is because they are more resistant to the chemicals that are in acrylics that can harm brush fibres.

Brushes with synthetic bristles can range from stiff to soft, but unlike natural hair brushes, they all have a flexible quality. This means that despite the stiffness of the brush, the brush will be springy enough to move thicker acrylic paint. 

If you like your paint runny for detail work, softer brushes would be the better option.

You’ll need a stiffer brush if you like to use thick paint, to be able to move the colour across the surface. 

Other factors to decide are brush shape and size.

Some of the most commonly used brushes are large to medium sized flat brushes to create washes and fill in areas of your surface. These are brilliant for using on backgrounds—if you are painting the sky for example.

Get some smaller sized round brushes for details. As your painting skills develop, you will get to know what more you want from your brushes.

If you want to learn more about different brush types and what they do, read this guide on acrylic paint brushes

Product picks

Stiff brushes (for thick paint): Silver Bristlon Brush

Medium stiffness: Winsor & Newton Monarch, Escoda Modernista

Soft brushes (for fluid paint): Escoda Primera Teijin

Surfaces

Acrylic is a versatile medium, you can make it runny like watercolour or gouache, and paint on paper. Or, you can apply paint to a surface thickly, like oil.

Because of its versatility, there are many different types of surfaces that are compatible with acrylic paint. 

The general rule is, that the surface should have ‘tooth’ i.e. a surface texture for the paint to adhere to. Another requirement for the painting support is that in order for the paint to stick to the surface, it should have some level of absorbency. For example, if you were to paint onto glass, you would be able to peel the paint off after it dried.

Here are some of the most popular surfaces used with acrylic paint:

To learn more about surfaces for acrylic painting, refer to our acrylic painting surfaces guide.

Prepare your surface for acrylic painting

Most surfaces you can buy from art stores will come ‘primed’ already. This includes most canvases, acrylic paper, Gessobord and canvas panel. The information on the product label or packaging will tell you if your surface has been prepared already. 

If you have bought an unprimed wooden panel, or unprimed canvas, you will have to do the preparation yourself.

It’s very easy, all it entails is sealing, then applying three coats of gesso to your surface. Another instance that you may want to do some extra preparation to your surface, even if it has come pre-primed, is if you want a smoother surface to work on.

You can apply extra layers of gesso and sand a textured surface to give it an eggshell finish, which makes it much more suitable for detail work.

What do you need to prepare a surface for acrylic painting?

How to prepare a surface for acrylic painting

  1. Coat raw panel or canvas with 2 layers of Gac 1oo. Wait for the surface to dry before the second application.
  2. Ensure the surface is clean and lie it out flat on a table. You might want to cover your table with something to cover it.
  3. Pour some of the gesso into a jar, you’ll only need enough to cover your surface in one thin layer. 
  4. Cover the surface with gesso using your brush. Brush in one direction (i.e. top to bottom) slightly overlapping the brushstrokes to make sure that the whole surface is covered. 
  5. Wait for the layer of gesso to dry. The average drying time is 45 minutes.
  6. Gently sand the dried gesso layer in circular motions, until the brush marks in the gesso become less visible. 
  7. Wipe away the sand dust with a lint-free cloth that is a little damp.
  8. Repeat steps 3 to 6 twice more. With each layer of gesso alternate the direction you apply the liquid to the surface i.e. top to bottom or side to side.

Mediums

Mediums can be added to acrylic paint to alter the working properties. Attributes like the fluidity, transparency, finish, drying time and the volume of the paint can be changed with a medium.

By using the properties of a medium, you can harness their special effects and achieve unique results in your painting. 

You can of course thin paint with water, to make it runnier and more transparent. However, by adding too much water you can compromise the surface structure of the painting, as the paint film will be more brittle and more likely to crack. For this reason, it’s better to add a medium to paint for it to maintain a strong and flexible film.

Change the flow

For detail work, choose a medium to reduce the viscosity of paint and increase transparency:

If you want to build texture onto your surface, use a medium to thicken your paint:

Liquitex gel medium
Source: Liquitex

Change the finish

The finish of acrylic paint can vary between brands, but even within brands the surface finish of the paint layer can vary between pigments. Use a medium to make the paint film more glossy, give it a satin sheen, make it appear matte and unify the surface appearance.

To give your paint a matte appearance:

Liquitex acrylic matte medium
Source: Liquitex

Give your paint a glossy finish:

Liquitex gloss medium
Source: Liquitex

For a more detailed look at all the different mediums made for acrylic paintings, how they work and how they change the properties of paint, take a look at our acrylic mediums guide.

Palettes

First I’ll tell you what to avoid when getting an acrylic painting palette, then I’ll give some recommendations about what would work perfectly. 

The first thing to avoid is getting a palette made from wood. Acrylic paint dries so fast and a wooden surface would absorb the paint, making it impossible to remove. 

The next thing to avoid is choosing a palette with wells for colour mixing. These palettes are great for working with mediums like watercolour or gouache that are resoluble, but acrylic paint will settle into the wells and make it hard for you to remove.

Now we’ve established what not to get, let’s move on to the best palettes for acrylic painting.

Tempered glass: It’s super easy to clean and provides a large, smooth surface area to mix multiple colours on. Tempered glass is safety glass, so if you drop it, it won’t shatter. By choosing tempered glass, you won’t have to be precious about cleaning either, as applying pressure to the surface won’t make it crack. To clean a glass palette, scrape dried paint with a razor scraper. You can wipe away wet paint with a paper towel. 

Stay wet palette: With a lidded, stay-wet palette, you can keep colours wet for weeks at a time. You can buy one, or learn how to make one yourself in our acrylic palettes guide.

Easel

You don’t need an easel for acrylic painting, you can just paint flat on a surface like a table. This way of painting would be especially appealing if you like to paint small, or have limited space for an easel.

If you are working on a large surface, propping the canvas or panel up on an easel can bring some benefits. Firstly, it’s easier to see a larger painting as a whole when it’s on an easel. Secondly, dust will be less likely to stick to the surface if it’s propped upright rather than laid out flat.

There are several options when it comes to choosing an easel:

  • A frame: Sturdy but budget friendly studio easel that can accommodate larger canvases.
  • Radial: Radial easels suit a wide range of canvas sizes. They can be adjusted to various angles to suit your working style. They are easy to pack away.
  • Tabletop easel: A great budget option. These easels need a table to be brought to eye level.
  • H frame: The sturdiest and largest type of easel. They are more expensive and less easy to transport, but great if you like to work on extra large canvases.
  • Field Easel: French boxes or pochade boxes are easy to transport and set up if you like to paint outdoors.

Cleaning up

Acrylic paint is water soluble, so all you need to clean up is water and paper towels. Paper towels are useful as you’ll need the friction of wiping on the paper to fully remove paint.

To keep your brushes in perfect condition, I recommend getting a brush cleaning soap. The Master’s Brush Cleaner and Preserver conditions bristles, keeping them springier for longer.

As acrylic paint dries fast, I recommend cleaning up as soon as you’ve finished painting. If you forget to clean your brushes quickly, paint will harden the ends of the brushes making them unusable. Luckily there is a way to remove stiff paint from bristles, find out how in this guide.

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