How to Paint with Acrylics on Canvas: 17 steps [Supplies included]

Acrylics are versatile and one of most popular medium for painting. It is easier than watercolor and oil, but still offers you incredible variety of techniques and paintings look amazing and are sold for hundreds of thousands.

To paint with acrylic on canvas you need essentials supplies (acrylic paint, canvas, brushes, palette) and some extra supplies (easel, palette knife, jars, etc). You also will need patience and knowledge how to prepare the surface, how to paint and how to protect the painting.

All of it is here. I will guide you through basic process that you will repeat again and again no matter what you’re painting. It is quite universal to start and it will be your base. After you will be more confident, you are free to break any rules and experiment!

In this article:


LIST OF SUPPLIES

What do you need for acrylic painting?

This is the list of essential supplies and extra materials for acrylic painting.

To buy at art store or online (Blick or Amazon, Blick is sometimes cheaper):

  • acrylic paint
  • pre-primed and pre-stretched canvas
  • easel
  • synthetic brushes
  • palette
  • palette knife

To find at home:

  • * jars for water
  • * trash bags and tape
  • * spray bottle
  • * towel or paper towel
  • * apron

There is any medium on that list as mediums, as for me, require a bit more knowledge in painting. This guide is for a complete beginner.

Just for a quick notice, mediums can help us make paint dry slower, make it more fluid, more heavy for different techniques, make it pourable for acrylic pouring, etc.


ACRYLIC PAINT

Acrylic paint is water-based paint which makes it water-soluble. It means, to make paint more fluid, we can easily add some water – this process is called thinning. It also means that acrylic is fast-drying, because the process of drying is a simple process of water evaporation. Normally, thin layer of acrylic dries in 5-20 minutes.

Acrylics are made of:

  • pigment that gives color
  • water + binder – drying water evaporates and leaves a film. A binder (polymer) that assure waterproofness, gloss, and fast and even drying
  • other agents that provide durability.
Acrylic paint composition

Most known for quality and long history paint brands are: Golden, Liquitex, Winsor & Newton and others.

Based on quality, paint is divided in 2 categories or grades: artist and student. You may guess, that student grade is cheaper, it contains less pigment, while artist grade is professional paint, with more pigment, and can be slightly or significantly more expensive.

I will always recommend to choose artist grade acrylic paint if you want to make from painting a serious hobby and enjoy the results more.

One more characteristics of paint is opacity / transparency – how much light the paint absorb and reflect, e,i. white and black are opaque. Basically, it is not about the brand but about specific pigments, some of them are more opaque than others. Sure, artist grade paint tends to be more opaque than student paint.

WHICH ACRYLIC PAINT IS THE BEST?

When you just start painting, you can simply purchase an acrylic paint set of 6-12-24 colors to make it easier for you. If you buy only 6 colors, you will be either very limited in what you can create, either you will learn how to mix paint by yourself (which is pro-level skill).

TOP-3 acrylic paint sets: 
1) Liquitex Basics Acrylic Paint - Best Sellers Set of 24 (for $29.92), 
2) Golden Heavy Body Artist Acrylic Set of 6 (for $43.53) and 
3) Winsor & Newton Professional Acrylic Set of 12 (for $38.99)

You can always purchase any color individually.


BEST CANVAS FOR ACRYLIC PAINTING

If you start researching canvases you’ll be overwhelmed in a minute, because there are so many alternatives! If you still want to dig in and learn as much as you can about weaves, stretching and all canvas brands, I have this big and comprehensible article for you. If no, keep reading and we will go through essentials.

What we need to know? 2 main fabrics for canvas are cotton and linen. 100% cotton is the most popular canvas, it is cheaper, has great quality, best for beginners, may be not suitable for large paintings. Linen is rough, higher quality, more expensive than cotton, best for larger scales and professional artists.

Choose size and shape you want, if you start painting, buy pre-primed and pre-stretched canvas.

What does it mean?

Priming is necessary to achieve needed paint adhesion to canvas, it smooths and “seals” the surface of raw canvas. Without priming canvas will soak too much water or paint. The most used primer is Gesso.

Stretching is a process to put canvas on the stretcher bars, to make sure the surface is evenly smooth and tight! Saggy canvas can ruin your whole masterpiece.

Stretching requires knowledge, time and patience. That’s why, for beginners, I recommend to start with pre-stretched canvas.

THE BEST CANVAS TO BUY for acrylic painting for a beginner – Blick Premiere Cotton Canvas – best quality with really unique properties and very appealing price. A 8″ x 10″ canvas will cost you only $4.95!

PROS:

  • very durable
  • handwoven
  • triple primed
  • sanded in between layers
  • affordable price
  • option to re-stretch: uncut corners, keys are included
  • Wide range of available sizes: from 4×4 to 36×48

WHICH BRUSH TO USE?

For acrylic painting we use synthetic brushes, because acrylics can damage natural bristels. Some professional artist can work with natural brushes, but I do not recommend to complicate things for beginners.

Brushes are your main tools to create a painting, there are about 8 essential shapes of brushes, but when you start painting, you main need only 2 of them: round and flat. Here are all shapes:

Each shape has size range for your needs, you will learn it with experience, but, in general, the smaller brush is the more detailed work you can do with it.

Full buyer’s guide about brushes for acrylics is here.

If you want to buy all brushes individually, the Best brushes are Princeton Acrylic Paint Brush – comfortable to use, high-quality, affordable and offer all kind of shapes and sizes.

If you’re looking for a brush set, to buy all shapes at once and experiment, try Mont Marte Art Paint Brushes Set of 15 – 15 brushes will cost you $17 and you will be cover for many upcoming paintings!


BEST PALETTE FOR ACRYLIC PAINTING

If you have issues with fast-drying acrylic paint and you want to make it dry slower, you definitely can use stay wet palette by Masterson Sta-Wet Premier Palette. You can always use normal palettes: plastic palettes are most popular and cheap.

I don’t really like palettes with wells, because it is so uncomfortable to use! I prefer flat surface as a palette, where I can easily mix paint and there will be not much paint left, as it often happens with wells.

However, you should make your own choice, try the standard palette, e.i. Plastic 10-Well Paint Tray, on Blick this palette with cover (to keep paint from drying) costs only $1.80.

10 Well Plastic Tray 6¾'' Diameter
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Another option is to make you own palette with piece of cardboard, empty plastic container or tray. I also know some artists who use a piece of tile as a palette or make their palette from clay. For me, personally, these types of palettes are too heavy.


PALETTE KNIFE FOR ACRYLICS

A palette knife is a multipurpose tool when you’re painting. First of all, it helps you mix paint on the palette better than a brush will do, because a brush will soak unmixed paint too and you will have multicolor strokes.

A palette knife is also a tool for abstract painting or for creating effects. With a palette knife the paint application will be thicker, or you can use the blade or the belly of the knife to create textures.

There are several shapes of palette knives, but the most used are these ones (I use the simplest and cheapest knives by Conda):

They are easy and cheap to buy, at every art shop you will find a set of 5 knives. CONDA Palette Knife set of 5 will cost you around $6.98 on Amazon.


WATER

Water is important in the painting process – it is a part of acrylic, it helps thinning the paint, it helps keep paint from drying.

But. There is a “but”. Water also dissolve paint composition, making it weaker. It means you should avoid, by any means, to use a lot of water, and, if you can, use distilled water instead of tap water as distilled water contains less impurities. But still, both can damage the paint if you will used too much!

You will also need water to keep brushes clean during the painting process, make sure you have 2 jars / containers: one where you clean brushes in between colors and one with completely clean water.


SUPPLIES TO FIND AT HOME

TRASH BAGS AND TAPE

These are cheap and easy way to protect all surfaces from paint, as acrylics are quite hard to wash off from almost everything porous (wood, fabric).

Cut a big trash bag and fix it on the floor / table and other surrounding furniture with tape. After painting, remove it and save it, you will reuse this protective system next time.

This is me working on a protected surface 😉

SPRAY BOTTLE

As we already discovered, acrylics are fast-drying. It means, when you a beginner, sometimes you don’t have enough work time within one layer of paint. There are multiple ways to slow down drying process (here are at least 15 methods listed), but one of the easiest one is just to spray the back of the canvas, or palette.

And it is also the cheapest one – you just re-use a spray bottle from any beauty (or other) product, fill it with water and that’s it!

TOWELS

I use a piece of old towel to dry my brushes or to clean the excess of paint from a dry brush, if I’m not using water.

The easiest way is to use simple kitchen paper towels in case you need to clean you hands, handlers, brushes or for any other purpose.

Another interesting way I was using a small piece of a towel was to create a new texture effect. It was my first painting of waves and I just cut a piece of towel, dipped it in the white paint and created foam for waves, here is the result of that experiment:


IS ACRYLIC PAINTING EXPENSIVE? BUDGET

I will calculate 2 options, when you buy only essential and when you buy all extras too. The basic set will cost you $63.08 to do acrylic painting on canvas.

SuppliesBasic setMaximum
Acrylic paint
Liquitex Basics Acrylic Paint – Best Sellers Set of 24 (for $29.92)Winsor & Newton Professional Acrylic Set of 12 (for $38.99)
CanvasBlick Premiere Cotton Canvas 8×10 $4.95Blick Premiere Cotton Canvas 8×10 $4.95
easelI don’t recommend to skip it, but it is absolutely possibleBlick tabletop easel ($28.34)
synthetic brushesMont Marte Art Paint Brushes Set of 15 for $16.95Mont Marte Art Paint Brushes Set of 15 for $16.95
palettePlastic 10-Well Paint Tray for $1.80Masterson Sta-Wet Premier Palette for $17.08
palette knifeyou have set of 24 paint, you probably will not need it, or replace it with a stickCONDA Palette Knife set of 5 $6.98
watertap water, everyone still use itdistilled 1L for $1.40
jarsget a jar or a container for water from homeget a jar or a container for water from home
towelsuse an old one, or paper towelsBounty towels 8 rolls for $21.99
apronnone! just dress up in appropriate way50 disposable aprons for $6.38
protective finishMinwax 1/2 pint for $9.46Golden Acrylic Varnish for $13.57 (8oz) + Golden Isolation coat for $8.67 (8 0z)
TOTAL$63.08 for acrylic painting on canvas essential supplies$165.30 for acrylic painting on canvas max supplies

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17 STEPS TO PAINT WITH ACRYLICS ON CANVAS

Painting is fun, it’s a sort of meditation, but it is also a skill and creative process. You can always neglect all the rules, but for few first times, get to know acrylics as it is and try to follow the process step-by-step, this way you will understand better how and where you can ignore the “school” and do it your way.

I have 17 steps, but it seems too much, right? That’s why, I split it in stages: first stage is preparation of the surface, supplies and yourself, second stage is actual painting, and third one – protection of the painting. Many beginners never think about protection and stop when the painting is finished. It is not a professional approach and we will learn it today.

Finally, I added a bonus for you, step number 18 😉


PREPARATION: 7 steps

  1. Prepare the surface
  2. Dress up / apron
  3. Prepare water
  4. Get a canvas and easel
  5. Get paint
  6. Prepare brushes
  7. Get a printed reference

PAINTING: 6 steps

  1. * Gesso
  2. Sketch
  3. Mix paint
  4. Dark to light: start from medium or dark areas + sides
  5. Paint in layers + dry
  6. Light and details
  7. Dry

PROTECTION: 3 steps

  1. Protective finish / varnish
  2. Protection / framing
  3. Maintenance

MONETIZATION

  1. *Potential sale

PAINTING WITH ACRYLICS STEP-BY-STEP

PREPARATION

  1. Prepare the surface

Acrylic paint stick to every absorbent surface, wood, fabric, paper. If you paint using easel, cover the floor, if you use easel on table or paint on table horizontally, cover the table.

Some people used old newspaper to protect the surfaces, nowadays not even every house has some newspaper, so we can use trash bags. I take one big bag, cut it and tape it to the surface.

If your floor is tile, you will be able to remove paint from it, even if you accidentally dropped some on it, as tile does not soak acrylics.

  1. Dress up

For same reason (acrylic is hard to wash off from clothes), you need either to get dressed in some “painting” clothes or put on an apron.

It can be a fabric (denim or cotton) apron or disposable plastic aprons. You know yourself better, I do not wear apron as I am pretty careful and never happened to drop paint on myself, and I don’t want to spend extra money on it too.

  1. Prepare water

Water helps us:

  • to keep brushes clean and wet – this is why we need the 1st container or jar with water,
  • to clean brushes in between using different colors – this is why we need 2nd container or jar with water,
  • to keep canvas or paint dry slower and give us more time to work – this is why we need a spray bottle with water.

I’ve already mentioned that, in fact, excessive use of water will not only thin or slow down the dry time, but will destroy the paint composition: pigments and binder will no longer stick together as tight as it was and as it supposed to be.

What does that mean? It could possibly lead to cracking when the painting is dry, and affects how long can the painting last.

However, people still use tap water to paint. If you a beginner and you are practicing, don’t overthink this. Some professionals use distilled water instead of tap water to protect the paint, but still have an easy and cheap method to make it fluid and keep it from drying.

  1. Get a canvas and an easel

It is often recommended for beginners in acrylics to start painting with an easel. True, it makes life easier – when you start painting horizontally, it will be hard to create right proportion and perspectives. An easel helps you to fix the painting, keeps it vertically and can be adjusted to any size of canvases.

When I was painting oil, I always did it with an easel, seating in front of my painting.

If you consider buying an easel, I’d recommend to do it in art store, where you can touch it, check how comfortable is it for you. If you still are more of online shopping, try tabletop easels – they are cheaper, need less space and portable (in case). Blick tabletop easel is one of the cheapest option ($28.34):

Blick Studio Tabletop Easel - Natural and Black

It is also important to stand up, and back up – to see the whole painting, to compare it with reference, if you have one, to check the proportion.

Canvas – is an element of success in painting. Check the texture, the stretcher bars (if you buy large canvas, it should also have one or two stretcher bars across it), how the canvas is stretched (it should never be saggy or have any dentations), the priming. Always read some reviews before buying online.

Triple primed, 100% cotton canvas, with good-quality wooden stretcher bars – it is a great and wallet-friendly option for a beginner. I recommended Blick Premier Cotton Canvas, but you are free to choose from more than dozens of options here.

  1. Get paint

Acrylic paint is extremely easy to buy online and at art store. As we already discovered above, you need artist grade good quality paint form any of brand based on your budget.

Acrylics come in tubes and jars, mainly. I prefer tubes, but it is fully your preferences.

At this stage do not open and squeeze paint!

  1. Prepare brushes

All brushes should be clean and dry. A good brush has tight bristle which doesn’t leave hairs and strokes (until it was intentionally). As we know, we use synthetic brushes.

Based on your idea and feeling, prepare shapes and sizes. You can use this table to make sure you made the right choice, but ultimately, it is fully your experience.

  1. Get a printed reference

If you are a beginner, it may be easier for you to have a reference in front of you.

Where to find it? Well, my first paintings were my favorite photos from trips and of my cats, for ex. when I was kid. You can choose any photo, or find some inspiration on Pinterest, or even copy your favorite artist – why not, if you are learning?

Print it as big as your canvas is (if it is possible) or just the max size – A4. Print it in color, of course. Adjust it either on the easel next to you, or on the wall – the way that you can see it, compare your painting to it when you will back up.

Sometimes I found references in magazines, it can work too!

READY TO PAINT?!

PAINTING

  1. * Gesso

If you have pre-primed canvas and you like how smooth it is, skip this step.

If you do not have pre-primed canvas or you are not satisfied with how smooth it is, keep reading.

Gesso – is a primer for all surfaces. It makes the surface smooth and adhesive. Generally speaking, without gesso you will never have the same and expected results. Yes, artists can paint on raw (unprimed) canvas, when they know exactly what they are doing!

The best gesso I can recommend is Golden Acrylic Gesso – it is artist grade gesso, quite affordable (from $9.71 for 8oz). Another great option is Liquitex Gesso but it is slightly more expensive than Golden.

Priming a canvas is quite simple process, you can just follow the manufacturer instructions, or, if you are not so sure, read this full step-by-step guide about priming and gesso.

Let it dry and move on!

  1. Sketch

You have your reference in front of you, now take a pencil and create almost invisible sketch, just to locate all the objects and adjust it to the size of the canvas.

If you have a reference, but you are willing to add your details, this step is a must!

Another good practice both for beginners and professionals is to paint the whole idea on the paper or a canvas pad before actually painting it on big canvas. This way you can try technique, colors, effects, additional elements and see if it is going to work out or not. It is great for practicing and it means you will create better result on real canvas, but it takes time and patience.

  1. Mix paint

Color chart and mixing can be one of the most frustrating part in the beginning, but over time you will love to create colors on your own, as you can discover more nuances, you can find out that mixed colors can be even more opaque than purchased one.

Let’s talk about mixing colors. A handful thing is to buy a color chart to make it easier for few first times.

  • Get your paint, your reference, a palette knife and a palette or anything you use as it.
  • Always squeeze small amounts of paint because acrylics are fast drying and once they are dry to hard on you palette you won’t be able to undry it or reopen it.
  • Always mix color with a palette knife. Keep it clean and dry.
  • Make notes on how you’ve mixed colors, make patches – it will save you time in future.
  • DO NOT mix all colors at one time, they will dry. Work gradually!
Here are some “recipes” how to mix brown, grey, purple, orange, green colors:
  • Light brown: Gradually add white color to your brown.
  • Warm brown: brown + red and/or yellow color.
  • Cool brown: brown + some blue color.
  • Darker brown:  brown + dark blue.
  • Grey: a lot of blue color + a small amount of orange color + white color.
  • Purple: red + blue 1:1.
  • Reddish Orange:  yellow + red 1:2.
  • Yellowish orange: yellow + red 2:1.
  • Orange: yellow + red 1:1.
  • Green: yellow + blue.
  • Muted green color: yellow + blue+red

If you want to know more about mixing, check this post. Primary, complimentary colors – all about it here

  1. Paint Dark to light

When we paint with acrylic paint, we work from darker areas to lighter.

To learn why we do that and what are other options, check this post.

Look at your reference and identify what objects are farther and darker – this will be where you start. At first your painting will look not as you expected and it’s fine – it is called “ugly stage”. Be consistent, have patience and follow the direction from larger, darker objects to smaller, lighter and closer details. Highlight will come last!

Imagine mountains. You paint one, darker, main color first – it could be dark green or blue or even black, depends on your reference and vision. Then you start to create slopes and shades, but small rivers, small snow areas, rare trees will only come last. This painting I created from dark to light:

Don’t confuse acrylics with watercolor – they work completely in a different way!

While painting, don’t forget to paint sides too – they are part of the painting and if you will leave them blank, it can look unprofessional.

  1. Paint in layers

Painting acrylic means paint in layers. It seems easier just to apply one thick layer and let it dry, but it is not the best decision.

Thin layers are easy to paint, they dry fast. It is easier to cover a mistake and create more professional look to your painting than with a single layer.

Each layer should be dry when you start next one. Brushes should be clean and dry for each layer.

Imagine a cake mille-feuilles – Napoleon – this is your painting! It only tastes so good because we have so many layers of pastry and cream!

  1. Details

You’ve done all the process, all the layers are dried, now it is time to add final highlights and details.

On this step you can also experiment: sometimes artists add pencils or charcoal to create small details, lines or abstract figures.

  1. Let it Dry

You’re right, acrylic is fast-drying, but… In fact, there is, generally speaking, 2 stages of drying:

  • first stage is when the paint is dry to touch, which is 5-10-20 minutes depending on the brand. And this is what happens in between layers.
  • second stage is when the painting is fully dried or cured – when it is no longer sensitive to water or to be reopen (we can’t paint anymore).

So, after you finish painting, you will wait until the second stage is done – usually 24 hrs will be enough.

Why is it important? It is actually vital, because cracking and peeling of the paint occurs right because of unproper drying process. When there is any shifts in dry time or temperature, your painting can has cracks. Which is not nice, right?

One more thing about painting and drying – it has to be in good environment:

Humidity level: 40-50%
Temperature: 65-75F (18-24C)
Well-aired
No direct sunlight

Your painting is done! But the process is not, we still need to make sure it will last long enough.

PROTECTION

  1. Protective finish / varnish

An acrylic painting needs protection for some reasons:

  • it adores dust – it collects tons of it
  • it tends to fade or even yellow sometimes
  • you cannot touch or clean acrylic paint directly
  • it can last less without protective finishes

To protect acrylic paintings we should, first of all, store or showcase them in appropriate environment.

Second, we need to apply a special protection – the old way to do it is to apply a coat of varnish. It is a protective film, tricky to use, but durable. A varnish should be removed in 25-50 years and replaced by another coat of varnish.

If you decide to varnish your painting – be very careful and follow these guidelines. Painting should be fully cured before varnishing and you also will need an isolation coat! The best varnishes on the markets are Golden Polymer Varnish and Liquitex Varnish – both are in same price range, high-quality and well-known!

Another option is a protective finish like MinWax Polycrylic Protective Finish – high level of protection, easy to use, no need of an isolation coat, no yellowing over time.

Full protection process in 5 steps I described here.

  1. Framing

Framing is a very solid way to protect a painting, but framing with glass is not as popular today as it was years ago.

Nowadays artist do box framing (or ‘tray’ frame, ‘shadowbox’ frame or ‘floating’ frame). 

And instead of glass we use plexiglass, which is lighter, more transparent (glass sometimes has green or yellow tint) and less fragile.

Still, you don’t have to frame all your paintings if you don’t want to.

  1. Maintenance

Your painting is protected, dried and amaze everyone. Now you need to follow easy recommendations to help it las years:

  • clean it with feather duster or any other gentle tool. If you put your painting under the glass, clean the glass
  • If you left painting without glass, try not to touch it, our skin contains oil that can affect the protective finish over time
  • maintain the temperature, the humidity level, air flows.
  • if you used varnish, make notes what varnish was it and replace it when time comes.

It is so simple, right?!

MONETIZATION

  1. Potential sale

It may seem odd that I included this extra step here, but let’s be honest – being artist it can be not only your hobby!

Don’t underestimate yourself, just look at some cheapest acrylic painting for sale, and I know that average price for sell is about $1000 and up to $100 000!

There are huge amount of online galleries, but I like 2 of them – Artfinder and SaatchiArt. They are well known and trusted by buyers which is most important. These galleries have commission but they also have tons of visitors, so I think it is fair.

To apply you need to have at least some works, take great photo, write a motivational letter. The full list of requirements: for Artfinder on their official website, for Saatchi Art.

YOU DID IT! YOU STARTED PAINTING! I recommend you for your next step to look for this 51 Acrylic Painting Tips Every Beginner Should Know!