Acrylic Painting Lessons

Click Here For Acrylic Painting Lesson Three


As you continue your Acrylic Painting Lessons, you will develop your color mixing and brushwork skills. Lesson Two is all about learning how to paint light and shadow to create volume in simple geometric forms.

A note about your brushes and saving paint

Before you begin, however, a brief word about keeping your acrylic painting brushes in good condition. At the end of each painting session, always wash the brushes you have used with soap and water. If you just rinse your brushes, some acrylic paint can dry at the base of the bristles. The dried paint will stiffen the bristles and limit their expressiveness.

To clean your brush, scrub it into a bar of soap or, if you use dish detergent, pour several drops on the brush, then work it into the bristle, especially at the base, with your fingers.

If you have a large quantity of acrylic paint left over on your palette, you can save it by scraping it off the palette with knife and placing the paint on a piece of heavy duty aluminum foil. Carefully fold the foil flat, sort of like a sandwich with the paint in the middle. Fold up the edges and put the foil in your freezer. When you want to use it, just take the foil out--it takes a few minutes for the paint to thaw so that it is usable.

Shading Exercise One:

This is a drawing exercise that I've found helps beginning painting students with the concept and technique of shading. Once shading with pencil is achieved, it is easier for students to translate the shading skill to acrylic painting.

On a new page of your sketch book, with your drawing pencil draw a circle that measures about 4" across. Use a small plate or glass as a template, or use a compass. On another sketch book page, draw a pyramid, the sides of which are 4" and the base is 4".

All of these shapes can be divided in half. Don't draw a line dividing them, however, just visualize where the line might be.

Begin with shading a square:

With your drawing pencil, start shading the left side using short, quick little lines that go in many directions (see examples below.) Work toward making the left edge very dark and becoming lighter as you shade towards the middle (where a dividing line would be). Keep the shading even. Use the pencil lightly, building up the shading slowly. You are creating many dark, medium and light grays with these little lines--starting at the left and moving to the right. When you are finished, look carefully at the drawing. Does it look like a box with light shining on it on one side and shadow on the other?

Now shade a circle:

Start shading the left side, working from dark to light with the lightest shading just passing over the imaginary dividing line. Work slowly to achieve all the grays in between dark and light. Keep the transition soft and even. When you are finished, step back and look at the circle. Does it look like a round shape, maybe a ball, with light and shadow on it?

Now shade a pyramid:

Keep in mind the imaginary dividing line as you work. If you want, do this exercise over again. The more you know how to shade with a pencil, the easier color gradation with acrylic paints will be. An gradation exercise like this one is invaluable--this is why I have included it in Acrylic Painting Lessons for beginning painters.

Pencil shaded circle (example) gradation, shading, acrylic painting

gradation, shading, acrylic painting Pencil shaded pyramid (example)

Shading Exercise Two:

On your paper palette, squeeze out a quarter-size dab of white and a nickel-size dab of blue. You may have to replenish these depending on how much paint you use. Take up a some of the white paint with your small round brush. On a canvas board, make a white stripe approximately 1" wide and 3" long. Now, carefully take a very small amount of blue on your brush and blend the color on the palette. Paint another stripe with this color. Make it the same size and right next to the white stripe. Pick up another small amount of blue and make another stripe, blend on the palette and make another stripe. Repeat this again and again until you have several stripes going from white to bluer and bluer. Using thick applications of paint in doing the stripes will keep the paint from drying too fast. You will find that if your spend too much time doing this exercise or if you paint applications are too thin, the paint will dry and it will be very difficult to blend the colors together.

Clean your brush and wipe it as dry as possible. Now start from left to right, stroking the brush up and down at the edges of the stripes to blend the colors together. Blend each stripe and all of the edges, one into the other, until all are done. How did you do? Are the colors blended well?

Make another series of stripes, using white and another color of your choice. Practice this exercise until you can smoothly blend the edges of the stripes. This exercise is invaluable for painting light and shadow.

acrylic painting Painted gradation (example)

Shading Exercise Three:

On a canvas board, lightly draw circle again, approximately 5" across. On your paper palette, squeeze out a quarter-size dab of white and a quarter-size dab of another darker color (your choice!) This exercise is just like the pencil shading exercise you did except now you will be shading and highlighting with acrylic paint.

Start on the right of the circle with white. Add a very small amount of the darker color to make the very light shadow. Working towards the left, keep adding small amount of the darker color until, on the left, the circle is solid darker color.

Now blend the color areas together.

Wiping your brush periodically helps to blend the colors. Work quickly so that the paint doesn't dry. Stand back and look at the circle. Has it become an illuminated sphere? If not, try this exercise again until you achieve the effect.

When you have completed the blending, paint around the square using another color, covering the area completely. The entire canvas board should be painted, with no white showing. Now stand back again and look at your work. If you see a sphere illuminated with light floating in a background of solid color you can claim success!

Are you ready to proceed to Beginning Acrylic Painting Lesson Three? If so, go to the top of the page and click on the link.

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Notes on using a retardant with acrylic paints

Several students have inquired about using a retardant medium to keep their acrylic paints from drying so fast. Having not used a retardant, I can't really say how effective it is to do so. However, I have recommended this kind of medium to students who work slowly and carefully and I had reports that it has helped.

All in all, I think that acrylic paint is a product of our time. It was made to enable the artist to paint quickly, to rework quickly, to get results in a shorter period of time than oil paints allow.

Also, I think that mastering gradations in line with the drying times of acrylic paint is an invaluable skill for anyone learning the basic. Beginning painting students who have difficulty painting gradations often are handicapped by caution and anxiety. When the skill is practiced and learned, I find the difficulty has, for the most part, vanished.

Interesting facts about acrylic paints from Wikipedia

Oil paint has a higher pigment load because it is able to absorb substantially more pigment than acrylic because linseed oil has a smaller molecule than does acrylic. Oil provides a different (less clear) refractive index than acrylic dispersions, imparting a unique "look and feel" to the resultant paint film. Not all pigments in oil are available in acrylic.Prussian blue has been recently added to the acrylic colors. On the other hand there are no fluorescent oil paints like in acrylic.

Due to acrylic's more flexible nature and more consistent drying time between colors, the painter does not have to follow the "fat over lean" rule of oil painting, where more medium must be applied to each layer to avoid cracking. While canvas needs to be properly sized and primed before painting with oil (otherwise it will eventually rot the canvas), acrylic can be safely applied to raw canvas. The rapid drying of the paint tends to discourage the blending of color and use of wet-in-wet technique as in oil painting. While acrylic retarders can slow drying time to several hours, it remains a relatively fast-drying medium, and the addition of too much acrylic retarder can prevent the paint from ever drying properly.

Although the permanency of acrylics is sometimes debated by conservators, they appear more stable than oil paints. Oil paints fade in color and develop a yellow tint over time; they also begin to crack with age. Acrylic paints have only been around for fifty years, but within this time frame they have yet to alter in ways seen in oil paint. The changes seen in using oil paint is caused by the binder of the paint (linseed oil). Linseed oil dries as an inelastic film. As temperatures rise and fall, this film cracks. Acrylic paint is very elastic, which prevents cracking from occurring. Acrylic paint's binder is acrylic polymer emulsion; as this binder dries the paint remains flexible.

Watch my video on Painting Light and Dark With Acrylics