Acrylic Painting Tutorial for Beginners – A Step-by-Step Tutorial

Acrylic paint is one of the most versatile and easy to use mediums in the art world, perfect for both beginners and experienced artists. Its bright, vibrant colors, quick drying properties and water-based nature make acrylic paint a really forgiving medium, allowing you to build layers, make corrections, and complete a painting in one sitting. 

In this article, we’ll  guide you through the basics of acrylic painting, covering materials, fundamental techniques, and helpful tips to get you started, from selecting the right brushes and painting surfaces to learning about color mixing. And to put this knowledge into practice, we’ve included a step-by-step tutorial at the end of this article that will allow you to apply the techniques you’ve learned and create your very first acrylic project. Let’s get started!

Materials Needed

Before we dive into the techniques, let’s go over all the necessary supplies. Here’s a list of the materials you’ll need to get started:

  • Acrylic Paints: A basic set of acrylic paints will do. You can expand your collection as you become more comfortable. Primary colors (red, blue, yellow), black, and white are good starters.
  • Brushes: Different brushes are made with different purposes, but you don’t need all of them. A few flats, a round, and a detail brush will be more than enough, but you can always get a fan to try and experiment with texture.
  • A Canvas or a Painting Surface: Canvases come in various sizes and shapes, and while they’re great, they’re kind of expensive, so you can also use acrylic paper, wood panels, or even thick cardboard primed with gesso.
  • A Palette: A palette is essential to mix your colors, you can use disposable palettes, wooden palettes, or even a ceramic plate.
  • A Water Cup: You’ll need water to rinse your brushes, I recommend having two cups, one for your brushes and one with clean water to thin your paints.
  • A Palette Knife: Great for mixing paint without contaminating your colors and ruining your brushes, and also for applying thick layers of paint.
  • Paper Towels or Rags: For wiping brushes and cleaning up in general.
  • An Easel (optional): While not necessary, an easel can make painting more comfortable in the long run, as your posture will suffer from painting on a table.

Basic Concepts

Below are some basic concepts of acrylic painting you should know before starting on your acrylic painting journey.  Enjoy!

Brushes and Brushstrokes

There are many different brushes you can use for acrylic painting, however the most common brushes and their uses are:

  • Flat Brush: Great for broad strokes, filling in large areas, and creating sharp edges.
  • Round Brush: Made for detailed work, lines, and edges.
  • Filbert Brush: Ideal for blending and creating soft, rounded edges.
  • Fan Brush: Perfect for creating textures, such as foliage or clouds.

Different brushes produce different brushstrokes, and they change depending on how you hold the brush and how much pressure you apply to them, give your brushes a try and practice the following brushstrokes:

  • Flat Stroke: Hold your flat brush horizontally and make broad, even strokes.
  • Fine Line: Use the tip of a round brush to create thin, delicate lines.
  • Scumbling: Use a dry brush with little paint to create a textured, broken color effect.
  • Dabbing: Use the tip of a round or flat brush to dab paint onto the canvas, creating a stippled effect.
  • Splattering: Using a stiff brush, a toothbrush, or a fan brush, load some slightly diluted acrylic paint and then flick it to create small splatters in your canvas. This is great for starry skies, dust, and other textured effects.

Color Mixing

Acrylics offer vibrant colors straight from the tube, but it’s impossible to get every color that exists so you’ll need to mix your own colors to achieve different shades and subtle variations of a hue sooner or later. Here are some tips for color mixing:

Basic Color Theory

Understanding primary, secondary, and tertiary colors will help you mix the most of the shades you need. Remember, the primary colors (red, blue, yellow) can be mixed to create secondary colors (orange, green, purple).

Creating Shades and Tints:

  • Shades: Shades are made by adding a small amount of black to a color to create a darker shade.
  • Tints: Tints are made by adding white to a color to create a lighter tint.

Color Harmony

Experiment with complementary (opposite on the color wheel) and analogous (next to each other on the color wheel) colors to create harmonious and contrasting compositions.

Layering and Blending

Acrylics dry quickly, which makes them perfect for layering and blending techniques. Here’s how you can use these properties to your advantage:

  • Layering:
    • Apply paint in thin layers to build up color and texture gradually.
    • Allow each layer to dry before applying the next to prevent muddy colors.
  • Blending:
    • Work quickly while the paint is still wet to blend colors smoothly.
    • Use a clean, damp brush to blend edges and create soft transitions between colors.
  • Dry Brushing:
    • Load a small amount of paint on a dry brush and lightly drag it across the canvas to create texture and highlights.

Painting Surfaces

You can paint on most surfaces with acrylic paint, but some will need some amount of prepping. Paper surfaces like watercolor paper, kraft paper, cardstock or cardboard might need a base layer of gesso, so that the following layers of paint don’t sink into the paper but glide on top of it. Here’s a small tutorial on how to do it:

  1. Place your canvas on a protected surface or a surface you don’t mind staining.
  2. Pour a small amount of gesso onto your palette or directly onto your painting surface.
  3. Use a brush to apply a thin, even coat of gesso in one direction.
  4. Allow the first layer to dry completely (30 minutes to a few hours).
  5. Apply the second coat in the opposite direction.
  6. Lightly sand the dried gesso between coats for a smooth surface.
  7. Let the final coat dry thoroughly before painting.

Canvas will also need priming, even if it comes pre-primed, some artists prefer to give it a second layer of protection. You can use the technique shown above to prime canvas as well.

How to Paint a Acrylic for Beginners – A Step-by-Step Tutorial

Today we will be painting a tree using acrylic paints.  The tutorial is laid out with step-by-step instructions, enjoy!

Step 1: Sketching Your Design

Use a pencil to lightly outline the tree trunk in the center of your canvas. Draw a few main branches extending from the trunk, then sketch the general shape of the tree’s foliage, keeping it loose and organic.

Step 2: Applying the Background

Mix a gradient of blue for the sky, starting with dark blue and blending into a lighter blue or white.

Use a flat brush to apply the lightest color at the base of the horizon line. Gradually add the other colors and blend them as you move upwards to create a smooth transition.

Use a mix of Hansa Yellow, Yellow Ochre and White for the ground and fill it with a flat brush.

Step 3: Painting the Trunk and the Branches

Create a dark brown color by Burnt Sienna with a little bit of Phthalo Blue and create a light version by mixing it with a little bit of Hansa Yellow.

Use a medium flat or round brush to paint the base of the trunk, starting from the bottom of the canvas.

Continue painting upwards, following your sketch. Use the dark brown to add contrast to the tree and branches. Use the same brown color and a medium brush to paint the main branches extending from the trunk, and use a smaller round brush to add finer branches, varying the pressure to create different thicknesses.

Step 4: Adding the Base Layer of Foliage

Create a base green color by mixing Phthalo Green, a little bit of Titanium White, Yellow Ochre, and Cadmium Yellow. Use a round or filbert brush to dab the green paint onto the canvas, following the shape you sketched.

Step 5: Adding Depth to the Foliage

Add a small amount of blue to your green paint to create a darker shade, dab the darker green towards the inner parts of the foliage to create depth.

Add white and yellow to your green paint to create a lighter shade, then dab the lighter green on the outer edges of the foliage to simulate light hitting the leaves.

Step 6: Adding Shadows

Use a darker brown to add shadows where the tree meets the ground to give it a more realistic appearance.

Step 7: Final Review and Touches

Take a step back from your painting and look at it as a whole. Adjust any areas that need more detail or better blending.

And you’re done!

We hoped you enjoyed this beginners tutorial on acrylic painting and were able to use it to begin your journey into being an acrylic artist.  Below we’ve included some frequently asked questions about acrylic painting that you might find useful.

Frequently Asked Questions about Acrylic Painting

Below find a few of the frequently asked questions about acrylic painting

What is in Acrylic Paint (i.e. what is it composed of)?

Acrylic paint is made of pigment (finely ground powdered colors of natural or synthetic origins) suspended on a water-based acrylic polymer emulsion, it is also composed of some additives like thickeners, stabilizers, and preservatives, which impact how the paint behaves, its consistency and shelf like. It’s also composed of fillers like calcium carbonate or clay, which improve the paint’s opacity and texture and in most cases, reduce its cost. 

What Acrylic Paint Brands are Best for Artists?

There are several acrylic paint brands in the market, we consider that Golden, Winsor & Newton and Liquitex are the best paint brands for artists of all levels. They offer both professional and student grade versions of their paints which are very high-quality and also affordable for those who are just beginning.

You can find more brands on our complete guide: Best Acrylic Paint for Artists, and choose the brand that fits your needs and budget.

Do You Wet the Brush before using Acrylic Paint?

Yes and No. If it’s a new brush you definitely need to wet it first in order to remove the gum that hold the bristles together, and if you’re looking for a smooth aplication, then yes, do wet your brush and then dab the excess water on a paper towel. If you’re going for a more textured effect or a dry-brush technique, then don’t wet your brush.

Is Painting Acrylic Difficult for Beginners?

Painting with acrylics has its challenges, however it’s one of the easiest and most forgiving mediums for beginners as it dries quickly, it doesn’t need solvents or safety equipment and can be used in pretty much any surface.

Does Artchive have other Art Tutorials?

Yes! Artchive has a series of art tutorials on all different types of art mediums.  See the Artchive Art Tutorials page for a listing of them all!

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