25 Must-Know Acrylic Painting Techniques for Beginners

Acrylic Painting Techniques for Beginners

Acrylic painting is a versatile, fun to use and very performant medium. A beginner start to paint with wet brush on dry canvas, but there are so much to explore. Technically, I’ve learnt how these techniques are called after I tried them experimenting. Be curious, be creative and you will find your own techniques.

Among popular acrylic painting techniques I want to mention creative techniques and painting building techniques. Here is the full list:

  1. dry brushing
  2. watercolor imitation or washing
  3. stippling
  4. hatching
  5. flicking
  6. dabbing
  7. detailing
  8. wet-on-wet blending
  9. wet on dry
  10. painting with a palette knife
  11. glazing
  12. sgraffito
  13. expressive brushstrokes
  1. underpainting
  2. layering
  3. paint in blocks
  4. partially mixed colors
  5. family of colors
  6. flat color technique
  7. impasto
  8. stenciling
  9. painting with fingers
  10. misting
  11. acrylic pouring
  12. scrumbling

I’ve tried to briefly describe the principle of each technique and to illustrate it with a short video.

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25 ACRYLIC PAINTING TECHNIQUES

I love painting and creative process can be a real therapy. Using different tools, mediums, using my own fingers, I like to explore art. I hope this 25 techniques will inspire you too.

Dry brushing

Artist grade professional acrylic paint comes in heavy body, high viscosity form. Dry brushing means that you do not dilute paint with water, you do not wet your brush. You directly apply paint from your palette or tube with a dry brush on a dry surface.

Dry brushing creates uneven strokes, an interesting coverage with a bit of texture. It is a very simple technique. You can load the brush and make thick strokes, or load your brush with a little bit of paint and create transparent uneven lines and shades.

To succeed try different brushes before painting, if you want more uneven coverage, use older brushes.

You can always combine this technique with regular wet brushing and layering.


Washing or watercolor imitation

Acrylic paint is water based and water soluble that’s why a group of techniques include adding water to the paint, as basically acrylics are quite thick and heavy.

To create washing effect, or watercolor effects, dilute acrylic paint with water, about 50% water will give you needed effect, but the right amount will depend on paint brand and your preferences.

Acrylic paint washes are widely used as backgrounds.

Even if we can dilute acrylic paint and use it as watercolor, please remember, that acrylics are very fast-drying, especially when applied in thin layers, and they cannot be reopen after they dry – they become water-resistant. Comparing to watercolor, acrylic acting as watercolor is less forgiving.

To thin acrylics you can actually use not only water, as water may affect the overall quality of the paint and its permanence, but you can use other methods to thin acrylics, such as mediums – I made a simple guide and list of best thinners, feel free to use it.

Short demonstration on how to create washes with acrylics:


Stippling

Stippling is a painting technique when you create a pattern, a texture, using small dots. To make dots with acrylic paint you usually will use a brush, but in general you can use pen, sticks, or any other tools. You are free to apply one layer of dots, or to make a multilayer painting to show depth.

Stippling is similar but not the same as Pointillism. Pointillism tries to make illusion of blended colors by using dots of different colors.

You control the size of dots, they could be tiny, or quite big. The best use of this technique is landscape, especially trees.

It is fine to combine this technique with others or paint the whole piece using only stippling.

Stippling is also considered to be the case when you use a brush to dabb the color into the surface (not only making dots).


Hatching 

Hatching is a similar to stippling technique, but instead of dots you have lines. You create a pattern in 1 or multiple layers using lines of size and thickness of your preference.

For basic layers use darker colors and be consistent with brushstrokes, line should look similar.

Hatching is mostly used with pencils, but with acrylics this technique can be also used, for ex., to create background or shades, as hatching helps to paint dense, deep in color areas.


Flicking

Flicking, also called splattering, is a fun and easy to use technique:

  • you load your brush (I tried other sizes and shapes, and even foam brushes and toothbrush) with thinned paint. This will not work as you think with heavy body paint.
  • place it on top of your painting.
  • splatter by tapping the handle or flicking the brush or pulling the bristles (this works with toothbrush).

This technique is more common for abstract painting, especially to create interesting details and effects. But also widely used to paint stars or freckles.

Be careful and do not overdo – it can become messy and less artistic. Also keep in mind, that using this technique you absolutely need to protect floor or surface you paint on, as splatters can be everywhere!


Dabbing

Dabbing is another fun and easy to apply technique. You need a sponge or a piece of towel (paper towel, I even used old normal towel) dipped into the paint. The whole process is just loading paint and dabbing the surface.

Use stencils to dabb a shape, or use dabbing for painting backgrounds. It can be smooth or with texture, depending on how much paint you will use each time. This foamy wave was created with a sponge in several layers:


Detailing

Detailing is more of technical skill than creative technique – it is the way to create extremely detailed paintings using detail brush. This technique needs time to master, patience and delicacy, but the result is worth it!

The key to this technique is the right detail brush: use synthetic brushes for acrylic paint. Some brands offer sets of details brushes, for ex., this set of 10 brushes. If you prefer to buy brushes individually, look for liners, detail brushes, riggers, I love Princeton Velvetouch Series 3950.

To paint details you need to thin the acrylic paint to an inky consistency or use acrylic ink – it is important that the paint was homogenous, easy to flow and control.

Here is a video on detailing a tree:

Some tips for detailing with acrylics:

  • apply paint with light touch.
  • let the painting dry completely before you paint details. Paint details last.
  • depending on how it is more comfortable for you: use an easel or lay your painting horizontally.
  • keep a paper towel to erase mistakes immediately.

Wet-on-wet blending

Wet on wet is a basic technique for watercolor and blending technique for some oil paintings too. As acrylics are fast-drying wet-on-wet technique is not widely used.

Basically what you do: you apply the first color and while it is still open (acrylics stay wet for 10-20 min) you directly apply second color and blend them immediately on the surface to create a gradient.

If you are using this technique you may need to slow down the drying process, use on of these 15 methods to make acrylic paint dry slower, or simply spray the paint with a little bit of water.

Here is the demonstration of the technique:


Wet brush on dry canvas

Wet the brush on dry surface is the standard technique for painting. You have a jar with water, you wet the brush, and apply paint with wet brush.

You can also add water to the paint, mix it to the uniform consistency and apply in layers to the canvas. If you painting on canvas for the first time, use this step-by-step guide.


Painting with a Palette knife

Painting with a palette knife, as form of impasto technique, is used in abstract painting, portrait and landscape painting a lot.

Usually we use a palette knife to mix colors, but it is much more fun to paint with them. You can directly apply the paint in the surface and shape it using palette knives to create texture and thick layers. While for abstract painting is quite easy to use palette knife, if you’re aiming to paint a portrait using palette knives, you’ll need some time and practice.

You can apply paint using the blade or create lines using the edge of the knife, you can also scratch paint with a palette knife or just create a smooth coverage, like a cake.

These small paintings I created using a palette knife:


Glazing

Glazing means applying layers of glaze. Glaze is a thin, semi-transparent paint layer. Glaze is never used alone, glazing is a number of the thin layers that will create depth and modify the colors: each glaze will be applied once another is dried, so they will not blend. The effect is then different from mixing 2 colors.

  • Apply an underlying color
  • Apply several glazes
  • Enjoy!

To work with glazing, you need to thin the acrylic paint, as you need fluid and transparent layers. Use water or special thinners.

I will not call this technique an easy one, first – as it requires proper thinning, second you need to know color chart and color theory to understand how the color can interact.

Glazing with acrylics:


Sgraffito

Sgraffito is a painting technique when we scratch, as it comes from Italian sgraffire – “to scratch”.

This technique adds an interesting effect: from top layer scratches we see the layer below, ex. when we painting hairs, trees, water, abstract.

How to use scgraffito technique:

  • apply the layer that you want to be visible through scratches and let it dry.
  • apply the top layer
  • scratch the top layer while it is still wet (you have up to 30 min, if you need more use extenders or other slow-drying methods).

Here is a sgraffito workshop by Winsor & Newton:

To scratch you can use any tool you have at yours, or special silicone or rubber tools, or paint shapers.


Expressive brushstrokes

Sometimes we want to get rid pf visible brushstrokes, but it is, in fact, a whole technique – expressive brushstrokes. This technique reminds me oil painting with thick, visible, buttery brushstrokes creating volume, texture and depth.

For this technique, a good brush is the key to success. I reviewed 20+ brushes for acrylic painting here.

Here is an easy tutorial to paint a pear with brushstrokes:

There is even a book about brushstroke techniques – Brushstrokes: Acrylic: Effortless painting with minimal tools and materials.


Under-painting technique

Underpainting technique comes to us from a very old and academic tradition – you need to build a sketch, an underpainting, for your future painting.

Usually, an underpainting is made with a main color in contrast with the whole piece, some artists use brown-ish tones. Painting, you will normally cover the underpainting or leave it as shade or accents.

It is usually made in washes, quickly, as a simple, but quite detailed sketch of future work:


Layering

Layering is the most basic and necessary building painting technique for acrylics. It is simply means that you apply paint in thin layers, letting them dry in between (if you don’t have any other ideas and technique in mind).

With layers you’are mowing from dark to light colors, from background to details. It needs your full attention, patience and time (not as much as with oil, as acrylics are fast-drying).


Paint in blocks of color

Painting in blocks of color is a technique for beginners: you’re learning to work with different tones.

A 20-min video explaining painting in block in details:


Only partially mixed colors

Usually, we mix colors to achieve a tone we need on the palette or directly on the surface. Only partially mixed colors can create an amazing effect:

  • apply one color on the surface
  • apply another color or colors
  • start mixing them with palette knife, but just slightly mix them, not until they will form a new color,

OR

  • apply two or more colors next to each other on the surface
  • using dry brush or a palette knife go over the colors

Great technique mostly for abstract painting. I use it a lot, to be honest.


Paint with a family of tones

This can be an idea for a whole painting: you choose the main, primary, tone, then you mix different tones using Titanium white, for ex., and paint using only this group of colors.

It works very well with flowers – to create shades, depth, detail and delicate touch. It will also work for sceneries:

This technique require a lot of time for preparation, time for making swatches, practice (to know exactly how much to mix) and patience.


Flat color technique

Flat color technique means that you create even, solid, uninterrupted, and completely uniform in brushstroke, and color intensity area of a color. The edges are usually hard.

Perfect for backgrounds (if it fits your idea), and abstract art.

To work with flat colors, you need a good brush, master your brush techniques, use opaque and high-quality paint.

Do not thin paint too much for this technique, and if your paint is not opaque enough try to mix it with more opaque colors or try other methods to make acrylics mire opaque.

For me flat colors remind contemporary art, digital art and illustrations.


Acrylic impasto painting technique

Impasto technique needs heavy body paint or extra gel mediums to create thick, textured, original paintings, to create dimension. I mostly use impasto for abstract painting, but it can be easily used for any other style.

To work with impasto you need heavy body paint, impasto or gel medium or a modeling paste, and a palette knife.

As this technique suggests creating textures, you may need more open time than regular acrylic paint can offer. In this case use retarders. Do not use water with impasto technique.

Many famous artists loved impasto: Van Gogh,  Rembrandt van Rijn, Jackson Pollock, and others.

Here is an easy abstract impasto painting tutorial:

You can also create a basic impasto layer and than glaze it or paint it, once it is fully dried.


Stenciling

Stenciling implies using stencils – you can buy them or cut from paper or any other material (to reuse them). You can also use tapes to create needed shapes.

You can:

  • use stenciling to color an area
  • use different stencils in layers
  • use a stencil to create a painting inside it

For stenciling you do not need fluid paint, use soft body paint, brushes, sponges or spraying to color the areas.


Painting with fingers

Painting with fingers can be fun not only for kids, and it is the easiest and “cheapest” painting technique – you only need your fingers.

  • fingers and palm have unique texture and pattern
  • blending is very easy and smooth with fingers
  • you fingers can create dots, lines, combining fingers, you can use different colors at once – different colors on each finger, and so on, and so forth…

Always keep towels around and wear apron to protect yourself – acrylics are hard to wash off from clothes.

Sound creative, right? Have a look at this painting, created only using fingers:


Misting

Misting is a wet technique, when you paint and then mist painted areas while they are still wet or semi dry to create runny paint or work longer with paint.

Use an old spray bottle with wetting spray or water.

Rebecca Stern uses this technique a lot:


Acrylic Pouring

Acrylic pouring is a new art trend. It is quite easy and extremely free and creative process. You need fluid paint, floetrol, a hair dryer and a canvas to start.

Acrylic pouring is considered as abstract painting. The main process is pouring fluid acrylic colors on the surface and move the surface to make colors interact and create dynamic pattern. You can also create effect using a straw or a hairdryer.

Try a ready-to-use acrylic pouring sets to save money.

Arteza created an easy video tutorial for acrylic pouring:


Scumbling

Scumbling is a technique to create smoky effects and soft blends of color. The main goal of scumbling is to highlight bottom layer with a broken top layer. Usually we use white color for scumbling.

  • You need a dry brush or cloth
  • Rub small quantities of paint over a dry layer to expose the color underneath.

Thinned paint does not work for scumbling, try to use heavy body.