"Every Child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." Pablo Picasso

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Acrylic Techniques

Acrylic Painting Techniques. Discover, Explore, Experiment!

By Mark Waller and Frankie Sharman 

More information available at www.explore-acrylic-painting.com/acrylic-painting-techniques.html 

Your overview of some of the most popular
acrylic painting techniques. Dig in!

Acrylic paints have come a long way. In fact, they have come so far that in many ways they can outperform oils. They have improved such that many painting techniques that have been traditionally associated with oils, are now easily possible with acrylics.
I will say however, that it is important to keep your mind open. Don't discount other mediums - occasionally dive in and use them. It can vastly improve your arts practice, often in ways you won't see for a while.
Back to acrylic painting techniques. There are a pile of "O's" that have been developed ever since people started pushing coloured goop around. Impasto, Scraffito, Verdaccio, Chiaroscuro (which I have trouble pronouncing. I swear the spelling changes every time I look at it) and others.

Learn how glazes can add excitement & lifelike depth to your paintings.
Glazing - Master The Mystery
create some texture in your art with these simple tips!
Create Some Texture
master the basics!  Painting gradations well is one of the most beneficial skills in your painting arsenal.
Gradation - The Fundamentals

Learn how to set up your painting with your underpainting.
Underpainting - Why Bother?
Your brush technique - more important foundation skills for you
Brush Technique.  Need To Know!
Impasto technique - build, build, build your texture!
Impasto - Gloopy Fun

As well as that there are dozens of other acrylic painting techniques that appear in painting literature. You may never need to know some of them, and most may have been created for use with oils - however, many are wonderful techniques that will bring a new dimension to your work.
Experimenting with these techniques is a great excuse to chuck some paint around (as if you needed one).
Lets look at a couple of acrylic painting techniques.
Red blob of acrylic paint.  Blobs of fun!

I love glazing. Mixing thin glazes tinted with pigment is exciting in many ways. You can make small adjustments in colour and hue, AND it can bring life to something that is a little dead.

Better painters tend to have an ability to avoid and recover from mistakes. Glazing is one way to do that. It's fun and is much easier to do with acrylics.  Glazing is a must for your acrylic painting techniques repertoire.


Another technique perfect for acrylic paints is scumbling. This involves brushing broken and/or thin layers of paint over another so that some of the paint beneath it shows through.

You can remove the thin paint with a cloth, brush, piece of plastic or even a hammer should the mood take you! Faster drying times mean the sooner you get to scumble again. Also the word "scumble" just sounds really cool. Use it in a sentence today!

Alla Prima

Another fun acrylic painting technique. Roughly translated, it means "at once". If you have worked plein air (roughly translated as "outside") then you have probably worked this way.

"Chucking paint around" certainly fits here. It was a method developed by the impressionists who worked quickly to capture a fleeting "impression". Certainly a fun way of painting which leads nicely into...

Wet On/In Wet
This method of applying paint obviously refers to working over the surface while the paint beneath (and around) is still wet.

This goes hand in hand with impressionism and plein air painting. It can be a little harder to manage because of the faster drying times, although most quality acrylic paint companies have additives that extend the drying time. Atelier Slow Medium is a case in point.

Working wet on wet can often "build" some texture in your work.

Watercolor Effects

Generally this is mixing and laying watered down pigment and allowing it to blend, and do its own thing to a certain extent. This acrylic technique can create lovely, luminous effects. Good quality acrylics are OK for this as they have fine and strong pigments.
Working with water colours is not something that I know a lot about. It is a style of painting that is a little more "sudden death" than I am happy with. Having said that, I’m happy to borrow some ideas.


A technique using the contrast between a painting's light and dark parts for dramatic effect. This contrast can create a powerful illusion of depth.

I love painting the deep shadows under trees on a bright summers day. Lots of light, lots of strong shadow. Lots of depth. Caravaggio & Rembrandt often used this technique.

Great for acrylics. Fast drying time means you get to stipple sooner. This, from a painter's perspective, means using the end of the bristles on a brush to create many small "spots" of colour; a great way to create the illusion of "grain" or texture.

This acrylic technique done more broadly, can help you paint leaves, for example, easily.

Luscious bright, gloopy paint!
Creating Texture

A couple more "O"s here, and a whole stack of methods for creating texture. Old generation acrylics dried very flat. All the lovely lumps you went to the trouble of creating disappeared when the work dried. Bum. Some newer acrylic paints have more "body", which solves some of that problem.

As a bonus there are a range of mediums and additives which can solve any remaining issues. Lots of luverly piles of thick juicy paint. Yum. Impasto Gel is just one such product, available in many different brands and consistencies. Experiment to discover what you like to create "build" with.

Again, this acrylic technique is pretty self explanatory. It can be done with whatever takes your fancy, and involves scraping through layers of paint.

This will require some slightly different approaches than it would for oils. A faster drying time can cause problems if you are new to this. In other circumstances the faster time is an asset.

Dry Brush Technique
Dry brushing refers to "dry" paint being dragged across the surface so that flecks of colour are collected by the high spots on the canvas, or previous brush-marks. This is a great way of building up colour incrementally and of creating "grain".

This is particularly great for acrylics as the underpainting dries quickly allowing the impatient (me) to work over an area as soon as possible.

This acrylic technique involves a thick, luscious and juicy paint application. Need I say more? Trowel it on I say! Chuck it on with your hands. Lay it on with a spoon. You get the picture.

A sensational acrylic painting technique, and it doesn't take three and a half years to dry. Impasto gel is a great additive for this style of painting.

This acrylic painting technique involves scratching into the top layer of paint to reveal areas of the surface underneath. In some ways this is better suited for oil paint as the paint stays wet longer.

Although acrylic paint mixed with a retarder or slow medium can be used with the added benefit of allowing the surface to be reworked sooner.


This is fun. AND a really great way of creating the illusion of gravel or small shells (as examples) and texture or grain. Think tooth brushes, pressure packs, scrubbing brushes and air brushes. You get the picture. As I said, fun. You get to make a mess. I always end up with paint everywhere.

Faux Finishes
Faux painting are acrylic painting techniques which include creating the illusion of stone, wood, fabric and more.  There are some relatively simple techniques involved in creating marble and granite for example, and you get to have lots of fun and make a big mess (particularly with granite), which is always particularly gratifying.  Even if the finish doesn't work out, you'll have had fun creating in the meantime!

I'm a bit uncomfortable with this one. All sorts of teenage memories are coming up. Whoops, sorry. Its about paint isn't it. Rubbing refers to softening, or even taking layers of paint with a cloth or other abrasive (or caustic) material.

Generally I use it to get rid of minor indiscretions, but this acrylic technique can be used to adjust colour by revealing colour below or to create a "weathered" look. This kind of "shabby chic" look is all the rage right now (or so I've been told).

You have to admit that just reading all this stuff about acrylic painting techniques makes you want to paint. Scour my humour from your brain by jumping around like a fool with an arm full of loaded paintbrushes in front of a blank canvas (or canvases).

Painting Exercises: Limited Focus, Shape, Color and the Notan in Studio Landscape

Painting Exercises: Limited Focus, Shape, Color and the Notan in Studio Landscape

Each spring I teach a class at Gage Academy called Landscape: Essential Theory and Process. It is an unusual class in that we don’t work outdoors, only in the studio. The class is structured around exercises that build core skills like site selection, value, simplification and massing, composition, and color strategies. These are difficult ideas for the beginner, intermediate (and even advanced!) painters to grasp — especially when they are trying to learn it en plein air, where they must deal with so much visual complexity and logistical issues. The hope is that by learning these concepts through exercises in the controlled, slow-paced environment of the studio, developing artists will have a foundation with which to make better observations and choices when they are outside.
Students typically choose a different subject for each exercise, but in this class, one student, Maggie Sharkey, stayed with the same subject through much of the quarter, which made for a very cohesive demonstration of the progression. Maggie writes:
“Although the lessons on limited focus, shapes and 2- and 4-value studies were all excellent, the part of the class that really opened my eyes was color strategy. I have always relied strictly upon observation for color and wondered how I could possibly get out of that rut and be more expressive. By learning in detail about the effects of analogous, complementary, neutral and high-key expressive strategies I now realize that I can make color choices before I start a painting and unify them with shape, value and composition to create a complete expression of the scene.”
The first few weeks of class are spent learning the requirements for a good subject. We talk a lot about differentiation — the ability to distinguish values, shapes and colors from one another, and how that keeps the picture organized and helps build the suggestion of space.
plein air limited focus
Limited Focus. The first exercises are designed to force the student’s eye and hand toward simplification. The first act of simplification is a limited focus — imposing a “picture window” around the larger scene, which eliminates superfluous information and brings greater focus to the most important aspects of the composition. Here, Maggie eliminates more than 50 percent of her original photo, but in doing so, creates a composition that is less sprawling and more focused. Our eye  moves nicely into the picture window and down the river. Note that the image is black and white. At this stage, when we only want to assess shapes, values and composition, color can actually complicate matters.
four-value landscape painting by Maggie Sharkey
4-Value Exercise. The 4-value exercise is one of my favorites, because it is always such a revelation to students. It is as much about value relationships as it is about simplification and massing. The goal is to translate the subject using just four values. Shapes must be kept relatively flat without any blending in between the values. Of course, there are more than four values in the subject, so this exercise forces us to make choices. Which one of the few values available is the best choice for each area of the painting? It is quite amazing to see how much can be conveyed with such an economy of shapes and values — the very point of the exercise.
two-value landscape painting by Maggie Sharkey
2-Value Exercise. This exercise also works with a limited set of values, but only two — black and white. Such strict value limitations asks the painter to make even more choices about how to interpret intermediate values. Which values will fall into white and which ones will fall into dark? Like the 4-value painting, the results can be a revelation. The high-contrast, pattern-like image that is produced is the most elemental, basic description of the underlying compositional energies. Therefore, this exercise (even on a smaller scale in pencil) can be used as a study to evaluate the weight and distribution of shapes in a composition. This type of study is called the value plan or Notan. The strongest lessons in composition for the entire class were realized in this exercise.
Instructions for doing these exercises appear on pages 62–65 in my book, Landscape Painting.
analogous harmony landscape painting by Maggie Sharkey
Color Strategy. Once the values, simplified shapes, and composition are understood, then the class begins painting in color. In my approach to teaching landscape color,  the original photo is never the primary reference for color. In fact, we don’t reference the color photo at all, only the black and white. Color is approached from the perspective of color strategies. In The Harmony of Analogy [Artists & Illustrators, July 2011], I write: “When we look at nature we never say, That just doesn’t look harmonious! Because natural light is real, it never fails to be convincing. But for artists who paint not with sunlight, but pigments on canvas, harmony doesn’t happen by accident. It happens through the use of a structured color plan or strategy. A strategy is like a recipe for harmony — a set of color relationships that are proven to work well and can be used as a formula for building our color composition. Like the musician who composes in a particular key, in order to maintain certain types of harmonic relationships, the colorist relies on a strategy to maintain a cohesive relationship among the colors.”
The first color strategy we explore is analogous harmony. Analogous colors are those that are most closely allied on the color wheel. Because analogous colors have an innate ability to create deeply harmonious relationships, they can a particularly effective strategy for landscape painters. Later exercises explore the complementary and neutral strategy.
For her next painting Maggie first did a series of color studies (below) to determine which strategy would be best for that particular subject. Each study is about 3-1/2 inches and each one took no more than 15 minutes. She says, “I now realize that I can make color choices before I start a painting and unify them with shape, value and composition to create a complete expression of the scene.”
color strategy studies by Maggie Sharkey

Additional Resources
from Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice
›› Color Strategies, 104–105
›› Interpreting Shape and Mass,  62–65
›› Chapter 5: Simplification and Massing
from this blog:
Video Lesson: Color Strategies in Plein AirValue Divisions in LandscapeThe Harmony of NeutralsDemonstration: Exploring Composition Through a Limited FocusExcerpt from Chapter 5: Simplification and Massing

About Mitchell Albala

Mitchell Albala is the author of Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice (Watson-Guptill, 2009). A best-seller, the book has sold over 30,000 copies and is regarded as the "new classic of landscape." A respected teaching artist for more than 25 years, Mitchell currently teaches at Gage Academy of Art, Pacific Northwest Art School, artEast, and in 2015 Arte Umbria in Italy. He has also lectured at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines. He is represented by Lisa Harris Gallery. See his paintings at mitchalbala.com.