A comprehensive guide to acrylics

There are a variety of styles, brands, and price points for acrylic paints. If you’ve never ventured into this medium before, welcome! If your experience has only been with craft paints, there’s a wider world here for you to explore and enjoy. I’m excited to share with you my paint of choice!

Gesso, Paint, and Mediums

Gesso

“What is gesso?” might be the question I’ve seen come up more than any other question on both the Get Messy Facebook group and in the Slack chat room. Messians just starting out with acrylic paints pop in with this question because gesso is often white, so they are confused as to how exactly it is different from white acrylic paint.

Gesso is a surface primer. There are many surfaces, like metal, wood, and drywall, that you wouldn’t paint without first applying a primer to. For acrylic painting, gesso is that primer. It adheres to the surface (in most of our cases, some kind of paper) and provides a toothy underlayer for the paint to latch on to.

There are a vast number of brand options for gesso. Every company that makes acrylic paint provides a gesso specially formulated to work with their paints. Don’t worry about this, though, if you are just starting out. In almost all art journaling situations, a light coat of any gesso will prime your surface to take any kind of acrylic paint well enough.

gm-mistyg-acrylics101-01Standard gesso colors are white, clear, and black. Other colors are an option, but they are fairly rare, and if you are new to acrylics and want to experiment, grabbing one of the standard colors is your best bet. They provide a matte finish, which can be a neat effect all on its own. I will say that most people find clear gesso to be especially grainy. That can be annoying or useful depending on what look you are going for.

Also know that gesso isn’t a must. You can get by in most cases by adding an undercoat of white acrylic or by embracing the transparency of using paint only on your surface. For the Season of Music, I altered a coffee table book with high gloss photos in it. In many cases, I didn’t prime those photo pages before I painted on them. I LOVED the distressed look of the scratched paint I was able to achieve without gesso.

Acrylic Paint

I’ve organized these paints roughly in order of price and availability. You’ll be able to find Craft Paints and Soft Body paints in any craft store or discount store as well as in art stores and online. Heavy Body and High Flow are going to be available only in art stores and online. Heavy Body and High-Flow paints can also involve supplementary products like mediums that increases their overall costs.

Craft Paints

Typical brands are Americana, Apple Barrel, Delta Ceramcoat, Folk Art, and Martha Stewart. They most often come in 2oz (59 mL) squeeze bottles, which range from $1 to $5 depending on where you are in the world. High-use colors like black and white come in larger bottles. Three of my favorite colors of all time come from Delta Ceramcoat: Pale Yellow, Midnight Blue, and Gecko.

gm-mistyg-acrylics101-02

These paints are thin and the pigment and acrylic polymer emulsion tend to separate the longer they sit. Always shake them well before every use to recombine the ingredients and to extend the life of the whole bottle. Because of their thinness, craft acrylics can be transparent in an individual layer. This is especially true with lighter colors. This is a fabulous effect that allows for endless variations in layering. They have a tendency to run and pool if you get too much on your page, which may or may not be the effect you want. They typically dry quickly and come in EVERY SHADE know to the rainbow. Their extremely low price point make them ideal for hoarding/collecting many colors and brands. Craft acrylics are water-based, so they’re easy to clean up as long as you don’t let them dry completely. Usually you can even wash it out of fabric if you rinse it right away.

Craft paints are fantastic for large area coverage with a brush, palette knife, or credit card. You can use them with stencils, but I recommend that you use a sponge to dab them on because otherwise the paint is likely to slip under the stencil and cause splotching. I find that craft paints work well for gelli printing, but you do have to move fast because they dry fast. I’m currently using American Decor Chalky Finish paint for gelli prints and they are amazing! It produces a super matte finish that gives a high contrast in textures on journal spreads where you have glossy images as well.

While craft paints are considered by many to be too low quality to use for fine art purposes, they are the best plan for Messians just getting started with acrylics to test out and play with. They are ideal if you don’t want to spend time mixing colors, and they’re perfect if you’re working on a limited budget.

Soft Body

Typical brands are Artist’s Loft, Blick Artists’ Acrylic, Daler-Rowney System 3, Fine Touch, Holbein Acryla Artists’ Acrylics, Golden, Grumbacher Academy, Liquitex, Master’s Touch, and Winsor & Newton. Soft body acrylics come in a variety of sizes. There are both student grade and professional grade paints in this category. Both size and grade contribute to a wide degree of price variation.

gm-mistyg-acrylics101-03Because these paints are thicker than craft acrylics, they give you more control when painting with a brush. Soft body acrylics hold their shape better, allowing you either to create more texture in your finished piece or to smooth the paint out flat if you want. They dry more slowly, so allow for more manipulation of adding in color or altering with scratch marks or distressing with baby wipes. Student-quality paints can have lower pigment levels than their professional-grade counterparts, but for most of our uses, it won’t matter very much which you are using, and you likely won’t be able to tell a difference between the two.

Liquitex Basics are a great, economical way to test out this kind of paint. Golden is, well, the gold standard for acrylic paints. They provide excellent coverage and truly superior pigmentation, but you’ll pay dearly for that luxury. My favorite notion of an afterlife is an endless supply of Golden paints.

Heavy Body

The brands run to the high end and expensive: Da Vinci Artists’ Colors, Holbein Heavy Body Artist Acrylics, Golden, Liquitex, and Ranger Dina Wakley Media Heavy Body Acrylics.

These acrylics are creamy and heavy bodied, and the sensation of using these is often described as spreading soft butter. They will provide a truly opaque finish and will hold brush and palette strokes as well as scratch marks incredibly well. They can be used with stencils and a credit card scraper if you are careful and don’t jostle the stencil while you are applying the paint. This will give you an interesting dimensional effect from your stencil. I particularly like to use my fingers in heavy body paint. If you like the tactile experience of using your hands instead of a tool, this is the time and place to go all in. The paint will even hold your fingerprints!

A word of caution when using heavy bodied acrylics: they will make your journal fat if you leave all of that lovely, thick texture on your pages. If you don’t mind your book fanning open, layer up your heavy-bodied paint and enjoy! Smooshing (that’s a highly technical term for you) your book closed can also lead to your pages sticking together. A light dusting of baby powder can help with this, or you can finish off slightly tacky pages with a coat of varnish. I’ll cover varnish in the Acrylic Mediums section below.

 

High Flow

As with Heavy Body Acrylics, high flow acrylics puts us at the high end of the paint market. Golden stands nearly alone in this field. (These were airbrush colors that Golden repackaged for fine art usage in 2013.)

High flow is different from craft paints in that they have body in them even though they move quite fluidly. They are closer to the consistency of ink, so are great with nib writing and drawing. But counterintuitively, high flow acrylics will still hold marks as they dry. They are very opaque out of the bottle and retain their bright colors even when watered down. You can splash with them, make splatter and drip effects with them or use them as a stain. (Katie has some great examples of what high flow can do in her upcoming post on Thursday.)

If you are a craft supply junkie without a lot of budget constraints, go get a few high flow colors to play with. If you are more budget conscious, you can achieve similar effects by using lower cost paints and adding fluid medium to them, which I’ll cover in the next section.

Acrylic Mediums

As with gesso, every acrylic paint manufacturer has their own line of mediums geared to work perfectly with their paints. And again for most beginning users, it doesn’t much matter what brand you choose.

Gel Medium

I love Gel Medium. Seriously. Love. It. I would write it a sonnet if I thought it would care or, you know, if it could read. I am just that serious about my devotion to this art supply.

Gel Medium is, in essence, colorless acrylic paint. Why would you need that? For collage. It is the perfect way to adhere paper onto an existing acrylic layer and provide UV protection and a bit of water resistance while at the same time allowing the page to stay flexible. It lets you add more acrylic paint on top of your collage layer. It is, in essence, the glue that holds my universe together.

gm-mistyg-acrylics101-05It comes in a variety of consistencies that match up with soft body and heavy body paint and even thicker mediums(!!) and it comes in a variety of finishes: Matte, Semi-Gloss, and Gloss.

Katie has a super cool stamping tutorial in her post with gel medium so be sure to check that out.

Mod Podge is similar to gel medium in application and use as a collage adherent. However, I find Mod Podge stays tacky even after it’s dry, which is terrible for pages adhering to one another in your book. Nothing on any of their products say anything about UV protection. So because of these points, I don’t recommend Mod Podge at all, for really any reason. And yes, It’s possible I’m a tiny bit snobby on this point.

Modeling/Moulding Paste

gm-mistyg-acrylics101-06This medium often has clay or marble dust as an additive so can add a good deal of weight to your work, but nothing makes texture like it. You can mix it with an acrylic color or use it as is and paint over the top of it. It can be sanded down and distressed. It is excellent for use with stencils for creating high relief texture.

Fluid/Pouring Mediums

Fluid mediums increase the viscosity of paint. So you can essentially change a heavy- or a soft-bodied paint to the fluidity of a high flow paint without losing much color intensity. Fluid mediums will also increase drying time and allow you to really dig in and get messy.

gm-mistyg-acrylics101-07So instead of buying individual high-flow paints, for the price of a jar of fluid medium and a few discount store squirt bottles, you can mix your own high-flow-esque paint and experiment.

Cut your paint with water or fluid medium? Many, many people use water to cut their acrylics when they are painting. Depending on the situation, I do it too. If you are using craft acrylics, water is ok. However, water does cut down the properties in acrylic paint that help it adhere to surfaces. (It’s those pesky acrylic polymer emulsions again!) Just know that the technically correct way to thin acrylic paint is with a medium. So if your paint is peeling or flaking off of your surface and you don’t want it to, the way to fix that is with an undercoat of gesso and fluid medium mixed with your paint instead of water.

Varnish

Varnish helps seal the deal. (I’m so witty! That’s why you’re still reading, right?) It gives your final work a UV protective coating and gives your work a unified sheen if you’ve used a variety of matte or glossy products in your work. It cuts down on stickiness, which will help keep your pages from adhering together.

As I was researching this article, I ran across Liquitex’s Gloss Medium Varnish. It is adhesive, fluid medium, and varnish all in one! Seems like a bit of a wonder product, so of course, I’ll be checking it out!

gm-mistyg-acrylics101-08Varnish comes in aerosol spray or liquid that you apply with a brush. I’ve used both but slightly prefer spray varnish because it’s so quick and easy to apply a couple of coats. If you are using spray varnish, do it in a warmish, well-ventilated area. Inhaling varnish is terrible for your lungs.

Tools

Fingers

I used to think using just your fingers with paints was too infantile, that to be a “real artist” you had to use brushes. I’m older and wiser now and so I’ll share my wisdom with you. Use your fingers. Get messy. Be proud of the paint under your fingernails. It means you worked on art today. I find using my fingers endlessly therapeutic in a way that using a tool never quite matches.

Credit/Gift Card Scraper

gm-mistyg-acrylics101-09Grab one of these used up/expired cards and use it to push some paint around! This is a repurposed tool we all have hanging around our junk drawer. They are ideal for applying thin, even layers of paint. And when they get too glumpy (another highly technical term) to use, trash them and find a new one.

Brushes

I find brushes to be a deep matter of personal preference. This is a bigger deal than the sports team you root for or if you are team tea, team coffee, or team Diet Coke. (P.S. Diet Coke, FOREVAH.) Size, shape, and and even the number of brushes you use are going to be something that you have to experiment with and find out what works for you.

gm-mistyg-acrylics101-10With that being said, here’s a couple of basic tips for when you start with acrylics.

• Get synthetic hair brushes. These tend to be stiffer and so stand up to the weight of acrylic paint better. Acrylic paint is also harsh on natural fiber brushes and can ruin them over time.

• Start with a flat brush and a round brush. If you tend to work big, buy larger brushes to start out with. If you tend to work in tiny details, start with smaller brushes. Go browse at the art supply store and get a feel for the weight and size of the brushes. Trust yourself to know what will feel right in your hand. If this sounds a bit like the wand choosing the wizard from Harry Potter, you’re not wrong.

• Clean them when you are finished painting. The dirty water isn’t good for them and leaving them resting on the bottom of the cup, point down, is REALLY not good for them. Wash them with mild soap and water, shake them off, and then let them air dry. If you don’t clean them, plan on regularly replacing your brushes.

Palette Knives

gm-mistyg-acrylics101-11Palette knives are for thicker paints and mediums since the thinner the paint, the harder it is to keep on the knife. Knives come in all shapes and sizes, like brushes, so I recommend you buy a package of plastic ones to experiment with. I use the large wide flat ones to apply gel medium to large surfaces. You can use the more pointed ones for scratching effects or smoothing out patches of thick paint. If you’ve ever put frosting on a cake, using a palette knife on paint will feel eerily similar.

Brayer

gm-mistyg-acrylics101-12I got a few brayers to use with my gelli plate and quickly realized I LOVE the way paint looks when applied with a brayer. You can roll on large areas of paint and then quickly add in new layers. Because brayers smooth out the paint in such thin layers, you can achieve some interesting transparency and mixing effects with your paint. Do keep your brayers clean, though, because if paint dries on the roller, then the next time you use it you’ll have lumpy, irregular patches in your finished work.

Other tools

gm-mistyg-acrylics101-13Baby wipes, wadded up wax paper, rags, plastic bags, gelli plates, and stamps can all be used with different effects with acrylic paint. Don’t be afraid to test out seemingly odd tools with your paint. One of my favorite things to do is to paint on a piece of wax paper and then “pull a print” with another piece of wax paper. The printed wax paper will be a delightful artifact from the original.

Whoa! Are you still reading? Good for you! Remind me to buy you a coffee the next time we meet up! I used the Liquitex and Golden Artist Colors websites to research parts of this article and also this cool article on brushes. Let me know if you have questions regarding acrylic paints or wand choosing. Tag me on Insta (@misty.granade) with your acrylic paint experiments because I’m gonna wanna see those!

Misty

Misty is ever-so-slightly obsessed with paint, glue, and paper. Her interests range across a variety of arts and crafts such as contemporary visual art, mixed media, book binding, crochet, and yarn spinning. When she isn’t in her studio slinging paint or gluing things together, she is busy with her family and serving as President of the Board of Directors for Global Women.

47 Comments

  1. Divyam Bernstein

    Wow, Misty! This is an incredible tutorial. I am new to acrylics so this is invaluable. Thank you so much!

    • Misty Granade

      Yay! So glad it is helpful to you!

  2. julia Thomas

    Finally I know what the Americans mean when talking about “brayers” !!!! Haha! This was such an amazing amount of information Misty, I’m off to try every single one of your techniques…. even the brayer (roller) 😉

    • Misty Granade

      Julia, What do y’all call those things? Roller? The Wikipedia entry for brayer talks about why it’s called that.

  3. Katie Smith

    As I’ve said before- This post rocks!

    • Misty Granade

      Thanks, friend!!

  4. Sarah Mason

    Fantastic tutorial, Misty! I use acrylics all the time but I didn’t know half of this (eek!). You’ve given me a ton of knowledge and inspiration! <3

    • Misty Granade

      Yay! Glad it is useful to you!

  5. Sasha Zinevych

    What a fantastic read, Misty! I would pour myself some tea and eat cookies while reading it if it wasn’t amost midnight. 😀 Love how it’s so jam-packed with useful information and is still fun to read!

    • Misty Granade

      Thanks!!

  6. Melody Willoughby

    This is going such a great reference for me. Thanks misty.

    • Misty Granade

      I’m so glad.

  7. EmK Wright

    Whoa, Misty, you definitely put on your professor hat for this one! Jam packed for sure!! Thanks for the literal days of research you’ve saved us about anything acrylics. You ROCK!

    • Misty Granade

      My professor hat is never far away! 🙂

      • Misty Granade

        Or should I say my robes? To stay in theme with the Harry Potter references?

  8. Kelli CRESWELL

    Wow…I just learned so much! Thank you Misty!!

    • Misty Granade

      Yay! Thanks!

  9. Gilly Welch

    Amazing…I think you covered everything perfectly! I totally love my brayers as well…they’re great for so many different things. Thank you Misty.

    • Misty Granade

      #teambrayer or #teamroller if Jules is gonna join up!

  10. Thea marie østerholt

    So much good information and inspiration 😀

    • Misty Granade

      Thanks! 🙂

  11. Laura Rahuba

    This was soooo informative! And your photos are perfect – beautiful & balanced!

    • Misty Granade

      Aww, thanks, Laura! I worked really stinkin’ hard on those silly photos so I’m ridiculously pleased you enjoyed them.

  12. Lea

    So much great info Misty!
    Off to buy some gel medium – I’ve been using Mod Podge.

    • Misty Granade

      Ooh! Good!! I’m so glad you are leveling up in this way!!

  13. Julianna Stockton

    It never occurred to me to try out holding brushes in the store, wand-selection style. Makes total sense!!

    • Misty Granade

      I am a nerd. At my house, almost everything is a wand.

  14. Vanessa Oliver-lloyd

    I am absolutely full of reverence for you Misty. This is so good. Also big high five for being an anti Modge Podge! I am one too.

    • Misty Granade

      Mutual Admiration Society founding memeber, right here!! Also, Modge Podge is evil and must be purged.

      • Eleanor McComb

        Ahahaha Vanessa got me using gel medium from her class, before that I was just slapping pva on everything. lots of slow drying buckled pages!

  15. Eleanor McComb

    Misty you are hilarious. And I so wish I had everything in these photos!!

    • Misty Granade

      Thanks! I never think I’m funny so when some says I am it’s always a delight. My hoard (ahem! collection) is from many years of gathering. 😉

  16. Riet

    This is so so good! What a great read, Misty! I will kerp this bookmarked! Thanks for saving us a ton of researching!

    • Riet

      *keep

    • Misty Granade

      Thanks!!

  17. Jessica McMillan

    Such a thorough and great tutorial, Misty! I’m printing this out to keep as a guide when I’m working and I say, “What was gel medium for again?” Thank you!!

    • Misty Granade

      Yay!

  18. Romana

    So much great info here Misty. As an acrylic novice, this has been really helpful, thanks.

    • Misty Granade

      Thank you! Glad it is helpful!

  19. TC Larson

    This is so extensive and helpful, a fantastic resource for people who want to try stuff out but might not know where to start or be nervous to make purchases without knowing for certain the uses of different products. Love it (and your writing makes me smile)! Thanks!

    • Misty Granade

      Yes! That’s what I was shooting for! So happy you found it useful!

  20. Ashley Rodgers

    Misty!! This is insane. So much good information and many many helpful tips. Thanks for sharing your wealth of knowledge with us.

    • Misty Granade

      🙂 🙂 🙂

  21. Heidi Lilley

    I really learned a lot from this post, thanks so much for the good info Misty !

    • Misty Granade

      Yay! Thanks!

  22. eva

    Wow…what a great summary. Thank you so much.