Do You Paint Acrylic Light to Dark or Dark to Light?

For people who just start painting the question of what is the right way to paint dark and light areas of the painting can be crucial, but sometimes they are really confused to ask because this question can seem stupid for some academic painters.

Should I paint light to dark or dark to light with acrylic paints? With acrylics, you can paint both light to dark and dark to light (the easiest way). It depends on the area and idea but there is no strict rule to paint. Many artists paint mid-tones to light.

The answer is easy but still, there are a couple of nuances that can affect your choice. Which method produces the best results? Which method is the accepted method when using acrylics? Does it depend on the object you’re painting? It does, actually, and the questions are also important, I’ll cover them in the following paragraphs.

Table of content:

What does it mean “painting from dark to light” and what are other options?

The question Do you Paint Acrylic Light to Dark or Dark to Light? could be easily reformulated, the main goal is to know what colors to paint first: light or dark? This isn’t the pure curiosity of the beginners. In fact, it will affect the outcome and depends on what you’re willing to paint.

The origin of this phrase is in first paintings when artists didn’t paint on white canvas but on brown tone, which means dark, which made them go from dark to light to shape the objects and create perspectives, shadows, and highlights.

Nowadays, there are 3 approaches to painting acrylic:

  • dark to light – when we move from dark parts to light ones.
  • light to dark – when we move from light parts to darkest.
  • mid-tones to light – when we start with mid-tone parts and move towards lights, adding the darkest point and highlights in the end.

For acrylic painting, we will usually use only 1 and 3 ones, but there is one exception for 2 options too, which I’ll discuss in part 3 of the article.

Painting dark to light: When should I paint acrylic dark to light?

A solid approach is to start with dark color and gradually progress to the lights. Painting dark to light is the most recommended strategy for beginners and for experienced painters. This approach is almost mandatory for oil but acrylic is more flexible.

That approach is valuable for 4 reasons:

  1. The dark basic layers will create the illusion of depth. Think about objects, they all exist three dimensional and have shadows and highlights, at least. So this approach is literally telling us to paint from shadows (darker colors) to lights;
  2. It is an ideal way to see your object on the painting develop, which is absolutely vital for learning;
  3. It is easy to “control” how thick is your paint layers. You don’t have to mix white with dark color every time to get even the smallest variation. You just adjust the thickness of your paint;
  4. It’s not easy to put thin darks on top of thicker lights. It could be tricky and difficult for a beginner to paint a shadow into a lighter color without messing around.

You can still question if you should paint the whole painting or object dark and then gradually go lighter. You don’t have to. When you do a sketch you will immediately understand where is a dark part with shadows and where is a lighter area. You don’t have to add the darkest paint to the highlights areas.

Considering these reasons and your specific painting idea you can easily decide if it works or not.

Let’s see an example. Here is the famous work Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci painted dark to light. With red arrows, we can see highlights and darker areas with violet arrows. Light parts are all created by applying thicker, lighter color, over darker paint. Darker spots will always be thinner because we didn’t add and mix lighter paint.

acrylic painting dark to light
Studying acrylic painting dark to light: Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci.

I can recommend using dark to light approach as the easiest one, especially for sceneries (trees trunks, and foliage, for instance), for portraits. All depending on the background and colors of course!

Talking about painting dark to light means considering how thick is your layers. If it occurs that you've used too much paint and your acrylic painting cracked during drying, check my easy step-by-step guide how to fix cracking acrylic paintings.

Painting light to dark: When should I paint acrylic light to dark?

Painting light to dark is more likely to be used with watercolor because once you put dark colors using watercolor it’s almost impossible to undo. You should remember that watercolor is a transparent medium, so light colors won’t show up very well over dark colors. This is not the case with acrylic, first of all, acrylic is not transparent.

Here is a simple comparison of watercolor and acrylic. You can see that for watercolor this approach just doesn’t work and make a painting dirty. For acrylic, it’s the opposite – it doesn’t change a lot.

painting light to dark
Comparing watercolor and acrylic

The acrylic is basically the opposite of the watercolor, as we can see, but there is one exception:

When you are using acrylics like you would use watercolor, highly diluted with water, then you can use a watercolor technique and can paint light to dark. But be cautious: it might have trouble adhering to any less porous surface.

Why paint acrylic mid-tones to light?

While academic courses and artists suggest a dark to light approach, multiple artists share their experience in small talks and on forums. Most of them agree that there are NO strict rules. Here is one more approach that could work both for beginners or experienced artists – mid-tones* (neutral) to light.

Again, it means that we first paint all neutral or mid-tones colors and areas and then adding nuances.

Step-by-step mid-tones to light acrylic painting:

  1. First, paint the mid-tones (local color),
  2. Then add the darks (shadows),
  3. Finish with the lightest parts (highlights).
  4. * Put in the really darkest points and the highlights

This approach can seem sophisticated but it follows usually a very natural state of things: hair has darker roots, the skin has veins, lips have wrinkles but they all have mid or neutral tone in their base.

*Mid-toned colors - it is the middle of the tonal spectrum, they are neither dark nor light.

I recommend using the mid-tones to light approach when painting skin tones, lips, clothing, flowers (depending on the background and colors of course). Note that the acrylic paints dry quickly and you can paint over things. 


Conclusion

Painting — is a creative experiment. Try, try, and try again. Feel free to use either dark to light or light to dark option or even try the mid-tones to light one. The best method is the one that gives YOU the best results and the ideal way to find it out – experiment and take photos and notes for further analysis. Remember, that you are an Individual Artist and you can even create your own approach 😉

I will also leave this video here to give you even more ideas about painting acrylic from dark to light:

Does acrylic dry lighter or darker? Acrylics dry darker one tone than it was during the process. If it happens to you, you can try to avoid it by adding a touch of white to the mixture. The reason why it happens is in the binder quality: the cheaper the binder, the bigger the problem will be. Some brands try to overcome this problem now and artists’ reviews are quite optimistic.

Consider that sometimes acrylics still can dry lighter (it is not the case with Golden HB). It often happens when the paints dry matte. To avoid it try to use gloss varnish.

Can you paint white over black acrylic? You can paint white over black acrylic. Acrylic paints dry quickly and you can paint over layer when it dries (usually, around 20-30 minutes for acrylic paints). Don’t add too much water tho to not mess the black layer with newly added white paint.

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