Step By Step Acrylic Painting Lessons & Techniques

Acrylic Painting

By Stephanie Pui-Mun Law (

Brushes ‘n Stuff

acrylic-paint-brushes picture

The essentials:

  • A large (2' or more) brush should be somewhere in your box of painting tools if you intend to paint on canvas. This is the gessoing brush, that you would use to just slap on your gesso to prepare the canvas (See below about gesso, and in Section 3 on Preparation). It can be of Cheap to Mid quality, since this brush is used only for preparation. Keep in mind however, that if you buy a brush that is too cheap, they tend to shed quite a bit. This leaves lots of little bristles trailing along in your painting and that is not a good thing. So if you go for a cheaper brush, be prepared to sit around and pull out the shed bristles from your wet painting, or else you'll have rather hairy pictures (I happen to do this quite a bit).
  • The rest of your brush selection is up to your own preference. If you do a lot of detail work, investing in a couple of fine round brushes would be recommended. You should get at least one flat square brush about ½ to 1 inch wide. This makes life much easier for laying in large areas of color.
  • Brushes tend to be expensive, but just remember that the investment is usually very much worth it. You’ll notice the difference if you buy cheap brushes. First, they don’t lay the paint in very smoothly. You don’t have as much control because the bristles sometimes splay apart instead of sticking together to a point or a sharp edge. And they shed. Shedding brushes are bad, as I said before, and for the actual paint (instead of just gesso) this becomes much more significant. You don’t want to have to ruin a fabulous smooth gradation by leaving fingerprints from picking out brush hairs.

Extra toys:

Palatte knives.

Acrylic Painting Tools & Techniques Palette Knife

These are not a necessary addition to your tools, but can be very useful. They can be used to mix large quantities of color, or for actually painting with. It is a much rougher way of painting, and if you’re more concerned with fine lines and photorealisim, you will not get that with palette knives. They are a more expressionistic way of painting, and can add some nice texturing to your piece.

Texturing TIP 1:

If you are really into having textures in your acrylic painting, I would suggest that you go to your local art store and enquire about texturing mediums. These are various types of goo that you can mix into your paints. Instead of thinning the paints, these mediums will thicken it, and allow the paint to dry in certain ways, like crinkly surfaces, rough sandy edges, stiff peaks....

Texturing TIP 2:

Another way of using textures is to paint the whole canvas with a single base coat of some neutral color mixed with the texturing medium. Play with the texture, modeling it randomly, or to your needs. Make visible strokes with your brush or palatte knife into the paint. When it dries, you can paint on top of that textured surface, using the movement of your visible strokes to enhance the painting.

Fan brushes.


(flat brushes shaped exactly as they are named, like fans) These are useful for many random things. Fur, hair, grass, foliage, lace....

Fan brush TIP:

One way of doing foliage with a fan brush is like this. Use a little bit of paint on the end and gently tap the canvas to create leaves, using lighter colors (with a fairly thick consistency) for highlighting.


Yes, toothbrushes can be used for painting as well. I keep an old brush in my box of paints and use it to kind of spray paint onto my canvases. This effect can be used for stars in the sky, for texturing stone, background, abstract splatterings, or any number of other uses you can think of. To do this, begin by diluting your paint so that it is slightly runny. You’ll have to experiment with this a bit to find the right consistency. Holding the handle of the brush with one hand (your left hand if you’re right handed), bring the bristles up close to the painting (the closer to the painting, the more concentrated the spots of paint will be), gently pull the bristles back with the thumb or forefinger of your other hand and then let the bristles kind of flick/roll off the finger by rotating the brush a little. This sprays the diluted paint off the bristles.

WARNING: Always keep your brushes wet during your painting session if you have used it!!!!! Acrylics dry relatively fast, and if you leave a brush out that has been painted with, you will have a hard, useless glob of gunk on your beautiful brush and that brush will essentially be useless and you’ll have to throw it out. So treat your brushes nicely. And be sure to clean them throughly with soap and water when you’re done with your painting session.

Painting Surface

What you paint on is as important as what you paint with. That being said, what can you paint acrylics on? Basically anything you want. Although more sturdy surfaces are preferred over lightweight papers. If you do use paper, choose a heavier weight paper, so that it doesn’t buckle and warp from the liquid (unless that is the desired effect, in which case, by all means go ahead!) Traditionally, paintings are done on wood, masonite, or canvas. Illustration board is also a very good alternative.


Wood has a nice grain texture that can add a something to your paintings. It is also one of the traditional surfaces for oil paintings. It can create a rather nice finished piece. At any rate, if you intend to paint on wood, seal it first with either acrylic medium or gesso (See below "What Else?" for more on acrylic medium and gesso). This just makes life easier for you, because if you do not seal it, the wood simply soaks up liquid and your efforts to paint will be rather frustrating.


The advantage of masonite is that it provides a very nice and smooth surface for you to paint on. This is great for illustration and fine work and saves you much of the headache of trying to get a canvas to a similar smooth state. If you buy plain masonite straight from a hardware store however, make sure that you prime the surface with gesso! Masonite contains tannins that eventually, over time will eat away at your painting if you don’t prepare it. If you buy it from an art store, they usually have a white layer painted over the surface already and you don’t have to worry about priming. Also, handle finished paintings done on masonite with care, as the paint can be scratched easily. Be warned as well that large pieces of masonite (over 3 feet) warp and bend with time. To prevent this, you will need to mount it onto heavy wooden crossbars or something similar.


Another advantage of using wood or masonite is that you can cut the boards to whatever shapes you desire, a rather difficult feat with a cloth canvas. Tired of rectangle and squares? Grab a saw!

Canvas: By far the most traditional surface to paint acrylics on. I won’t go into the details of how to construct your own canvas from scratch as that is learned best from physical demonstration, however you can buy canvases at art stores for fairly decent prices. These also come pre-gessoed in most cases, and saves you some trouble, although anal person that I am, I prefer to gesso several extra layers onto my store-bought canvases as well just to get an extra-smooth surface.

Of course, don't feel limited to these above listed surfaces. Experiment and try painting on different surfaces so you can see for yourself the effects and various results you can get.

What Else?

So what else do you need or might find useful to do acrylic painting?

Gesso is extremely important if you are painting in oils so that the canvas does not rot away from being soaked in oil paints. It’s not as essential in acrylic painting, but it still can be very useful. It prepares a canvas’s surface to take the paint more readily instead of having the paint just soak into the fabric, and if you’re patient with layers and sanding, you can get a very nice and smooth working surface (See Section 3, Preparation for the details of readying a canvas) that works amazingly well for glazing (See Section 4, Techniques).

Medium. Oils you dilute with linseed oil, Watercolors you dilute with water, and Acrylics are diluted using water and Acrylic Medium. There are both practical reasons for buying medium, and technical tricks that require medium (I’ll go into detail about the second in Section 4, Techniques) to work. The practical reason is that although water works rather well to dilute acrylic, for archival purposes (if you’re intent on keeping your paintings around for posterity) it’s not so great, as it occasionally causes cracking of the paints. The solution? Use medium as well as water to dilute.

A Jar of Water. Any old jar or cup will do for this. This will be for washing your brushes and for diluting paint.

Palette . I have just a big plastic palette that has served me faithfully for 8 years now. It’s colorful enough by now to be a painting in its own right! Anyway, you don’t need anything fancy for a palette. I used to use sheets from old magazines taped to a piece of cardboard! You just need something that is waterproof and sturdy enough to hold up under your paints. This will be where you do all your mixing of colors.


The Canvas

If you’re using masonite, wood, illustration board, paper, or store bought canvases you can skip this part. Although as I mentioned earlier, you can still prepare the canvas even if it is a store bought one. This step just creates a very smooth surface for you to paint on, which I prefer over the texture of a canvas. Some people like the unexpected effects that can result from a rough surface, in which case, you can also skip this section. The process I’m going to outline is simply the traditional method and is a bit lengthy. If you want you can do entirely without this canvas preparation.

Be prepared for a mess!

  • Begin by painting a layer of gesso onto the entlie canvas, painting all you strokes vertically.
  • Wait for this to dry, about 30 minutes.
  • Take some coarse sandpaper and sand the surface a little.
  • Paint a second layer, going horizontally this time. Wait for it to dry, then sand.
  • Paint and sand the 3rd (diagonally to the right) and 4th (diagonally to the left) layers in this fashion
  • If you want you can continue to layer and sand until you have a really smooth surface. Or, if you’re lazy, you could stop after the first layer. This entire process is very much your own preference, and how smooth you want your canvas to be. Smooth canvases are easier to paint on, because the paint doesn’t get caught and pool into the little crevices of the canvas cloth’s weave.

By Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

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