This entry is part of the series Medium Monday

What Is Acrylic Paint?

Art supplies get their color from pigment. That pigment can be mixed with a “medium,” which changes the way the pigment is handled. In the case of acrylic paint, pigment is mixed into a plasticky medium. Some acrylic paint is gel-like and comes in a tube, while other forms are closer to liquid and can easily pour out of a bottle. Despite these differences, you can expect most acrylic paint to be water resistant once dry, and to dry quickly. It permanently bonds to many common surfaces including paper, canvas, cloth, and rocks.

Visual Characteristics

The telltale signs of acrylic paint are in its opacity and brushstrokes. Acrylic paint is relatively opaque, which means you can’t see through it easily, though some colors like red tend to be more transparent. The quick-drying nature of acrylic paint, paired with its opacity, make layering very easy. Light colors, even plain white, can be painted right over darker colors without looking muddled or weak.

A lot depends upon technique as well. Before it dries, acrylic paint is water soluble and can easily be diluted. This makes it look more like watercolor or gouache. On the other hand, dry-brushing leaves the paint at full opacity but it is distributed thinly and irregularly.

Acrylic paint tends to hold its form—brushes with coarser bristles leave very visible tracks in the paint, and the paint doesn’t spread very far. This, coupled with its quick-drying nature, often result in brushstrokes that look sort of “frayed.” Smoother brushstrokes can be achieved by frequently reloading the brush with a generous amount of paint.

Detail of Bear Feels Scared by Karma Wilson

This is a detail from the cover of Bear Feels Scared, illustrated by Jane Chapman. Can you see how the back layer is the darkest, with tan and yellow layered on top? Do the brushstrokes look completely smooth, or do they seem ragged? Can you see tiny specks of the dark background showing through the yellow brushstrokes?

Frequent pairings

Acrylic paint is useful in mixed media art because of its layering capabilities and bold colors. It also can be used to supplement oil paintings, though the acrylic paint must be applied before the oils as a base. Acrylic paint is very cheap and easy to find in any craft store, so it’s a great medium to experiment with!

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