Acrylic Painting For Dummies


by Colette Pitcher




About the Author

Growing up in Colorado, Colette Pitcher always made art — even if at first folks weren’t convinced it was art. She majored in television communication at the University of Northern Colorado but had enough art credits to graduate a year early and did so. Her first job out of college was as a graphic designer for an engineering and architectural firm. Her next job was in New York City for a Fortune 500 company, and she later worked for a well-known children’s book author. While in New York, she lived at West Point and attained an MBA from the University of Long Island.

She returned to Colorado in 1986 and started Art Department for companies that didn’t have an art department in-house. In the 1990s, she founded the Showcase Art Center in Greeley, Colorado, and filled it with other like-minded businesses and art studios. Activities at the Showcase have included Project Ability, for developmentally disabled artists; a workshop for blind artists to use touch in 3-D artworks; and selling art from Mozambique to fund a kindergarten in that country. The Showcase presents art created by youth to encourage future artists and art by seniors to encourage lifelong creativity. It remains a great place to find art and supplies, framing, art-to-wear, piano lessons, art classes, and art studios.

Colette also sculpts. Her husband Gary, owner of Dragon Casting (a bronze art foundry), is also a creative resource for making the impossible come true daily. Together the couple has installed many monumental bronze public artworks. Colette is the author of Watercolor Painting For Dummies (Wiley) and on occasion writes for PaintWorks magazine. She also writes and conducts demonstrations for art material manufacturer conventions, including Loew-Cornell, Aamoco, Dynasty brushes, Duncan, Fredrix canvas, and Speedball. She is a Rotarian, a member of Greeley Art Association, a signature member of Colorado Watercolor Society, and an associate member of the National Sculpture Society.


This book is dedicated to my mother, Beth Irvine. I can never repay her for all she has done for me; heck, she made me what I am, literally. She encouraged, supported, taught, role-modeled, and guided me through life. I could ask for no more or any better.


Author’s Acknowledgments

I want to bless Wiley Publishing for allowing me to work with them again after working on Watercolor Painting For Dummies. What I thought was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity turned into another positive experience. Mike Baker knew better at this point and still asked me to write Acrylic Painting For Dummies. Thanks, Mike! My right-hand editor in Holland, Corbin Collins sped through from schedule to completion with nothing but nice comments (I am sure he bit his tongue on more than one occasion). Chrissy Guthrie completed the editing efficiently for the second book (she also knew better, and I am glad we got to work together again). Mary Morrison was the technical advisor. Mary also works for Golden Acrylics as a working artist. She was a blast to take workshops from in Denver and hear her enormous technical and chemical knowledge, besides enjoying her beautiful artistic creations. Megan Knoll was the copy editor and was amazing editing, organizing, and making everything its best for the reader. Clint Lahnen and his team were given just under 400 images to scan and prepare — a large job that was well done! I do love you all.

I have to thank my better-half husband for letting me type all night and weekend. Gary is always the support that an artist needs to really thrive. Whether it is ordering take-out, or keeping the distractions low, he was always doing what needed to be done. I owe you a vacation now!

Thanks to my co-workers who fielded phones and customers, cleaned, and kept the business moving forward while I typed: Carol, May, Linda, Robin, and Lesli.

Thanks to my painting girlfriends (get some of these if you don’t have some): Donna, Ann, Patty, Claudia, Suzie, Alaine, Delilah, Jean, Marcey, Cathy, Marilyn, and Norma.

The best part of art is sharing it, getting to know others, and growing together. Art competitions and the marketplace tend to put artists in a competitive mood. The longer I live, the more ridiculous this has become. We are all in this together, and together we can accomplish anything! Love one another.

Publisher’s Acknowledgments

We’re proud of this book; please send us your comments through our Dummies online registration form located at For other comments, please contact our Customer Care Department within the U.S. at 877-762-2974, outside the U.S. at 317-572-3993, or fax 317-572-4002.

Some of the people who helped bring this book to market include the following:

Acquisitions, Editorial, and Media Development

Senior Project Editor: Christina Guthrie

Acquisitions Editor: Mike Baker

Copy Editor: Megan Knoll

Assistant Editor: Erin Calligan Mooney

Editorial Program Coordinator: Joe Niesen

Technical Editor: Mary Morrison (

Editorial Manager: Christine Meloy Beck

Editorial Assistants: David Lutton, Jennette El Naggar

Art Coordinator: Alicia B. South

Cover Photos:

Cartoons: Rich Tennant (

Composition Services

Project Coordinator: Lynsey Stanford

Layout and Graphics: Carl Byers, Reuben W. Davis, Brent Savage, Christine Williams

Proofreaders: Melissa Cossell, Shannon Ramsey

Indexer: Glassman Indexing Services

Special Help: Clint Lahnen

Publishing and Editorial for Consumer Dummies

Diane Graves Steele, Vice President and Publisher, Consumer Dummies

Kristin Ferguson-Wagstaffe, Product Development Director, Consumer Dummies

Ensley Eikenburg, Associate Publisher, Travel

Kelly Regan, Editorial Director, Travel

Publishing for Technology Dummies

Andy Cummings, Vice President and Publisher, Dummies Technology/General User

Composition Services

Debbie Stailey, Director of Composition Services




About This Book

Conventions Used in This Book

What You’re Not to Read

Foolish Assumptions

How This Book Is Organized

Icons Used in This Book

Where to Go from Here

Part I : Getting Acquainted with Acrylics

Chapter 1: Acrylics Are Awesome!

What’s So Awesome About Acrylic Paint?

Nurturing and Growing the Acrylic Artist in You

Project: Painting Your Sketchbook

Chapter 2: Setting Up Supplies: Brushes, Surfaces, and Palettes

Brushing Up on Brushes

Maintaining Your Brushes

Picking and Prepping Common Paint Surfaces

Thinking Outside the Canvas: Alternate Acrylic Painting Surfaces

Purchasing Palettes and Other Handy Stuff

Chapter 3: All About Paints and Mediums

Getting to Know the Different Properties of Acrylic Paints

Different Types of Acrylic Paint

Additives, Mediums, Gels, and Pastes

Part II : Exploring Tricks and Techniques

Chapter 4: Basic Painting and Finishing Techniques

Setting Up Your Palette and Supplies

Getting a Grip on Your Brushes: Practicing Various Brush Strokes

The Best Basic Painting Techniques

Finishing with Finesse

Project: 30-Minute Artist Trading Card

Chapter 5: Building Your Repertoire with Quick Tricks and Techniques

Ready, Set, Experiment

Adding Stuff to Your Paint

Thinking Outside the Brush

Dripping, Spraying, and Spattering

Project: Combination Technique Abstract

Chapter 6: Drawn to Paint — Even if Your Drawing Skills Need Work

Making Thumbnail Sketches

Enlarging Sketches

Tracing Your Way to a Great Painting Sketch

Getting Your Drawing onto the Painting Surface

Blending with Paint

Project: Create a Still Life

Part III : Finding the Fun in Fundamentals

Chapter 7: Taking a Quick Color Tour

Looking at Popular Colors

Deciphering Paint Descriptions

Working the Color Wheel

Three Color Exercises

A Few More Color Plans

Chapter 8: Design of the Times: Design Elements and Principles

Elements of Design

The Principle of Balance

The Principle of Contrast

The Principles of Repetition, Alternation, and Variation

The Principle of Direction

The Principles of Emphasis and Subordination

Chapter 9: Putting the Pieces Together: Composition

First Things First: Intention and Placement

More Composition Guidelines

Check Yourself: Analyzing and Revamping Your Composition

Part IV : Acrylic’s Versatile Styles

Chapter 10: Letting It Flow: Creating a Watercolor-like Landscape

Born to Run: Thinning Acrylic to be Like Watercolor

The Sky’s the Limit: Painting Translucent Skies

Getting Edgy: Defining the Edges of Landscape Objects

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Layering Paint for Endless Possibilities

Project: Putting Together a Watercolor-like Landscape

Chapter 11: Laying It On Thick: Painting Like the Oil Masters

Getting Ready to Create an “Oil” Masterpiece

Trying Oil-Inspired Techniques

Project: Irresistible Husky Dog

Project: Fall Corn Still Life

Project: Son of Corn Painting (A Sequel)

Chapter 12: Thinking and Painting Abstractly

Cruising through Abstract Art Movements: An Overview

Finding Abstract Ideas in the Real World

Abstract Ways to Send a Message in Your Art

Handy Products and Techniques for Abstract Art

Planning Your Own Abstract Painting: A Few Questions to Consider

Project: Abstract Extravaganza

Part V : Projects for Different Surfaces

Chapter 13: Creating Collages and Transfers

What You Can Use in a Collage

Deciding What You Want Your Collage to Say

Preparing Your Background Surface

Layering Your Collage

Working with Images and Direct Transfers

Project: Southwestern Cliffs Collage

Chapter 14: Cool Projects for All Types of Surfaces

Wild About Wildcats: Painting on Wood and Clayboard

Grape Art: Painting Grapes on a Violin (Yes, Really)

Wall Art: Painting a Mural

Art to Wear and Carry: Painting Fabric and Other Materials

Rock On: Painting on Rocks and Stone

Heavy Metal: Painting on Steel

Odds and Ends: Faux Stained Glass, Bricks, and Candles

Part VI : The Part of Tens

Chapter 15: Ten (Plus One) Genres: Figuring Out What You Want to Paint



Water Scenes









Chapter 16: Ten Ways to Get the Creative Juices Flowing

Paint What You Know (And Know What You Paint)

Take a Class


Look Close to Home

Work in a Series

Buy New Art Supplies

Join a Club

Take Video Lessons

Buy or Borrow Books

Visit Galleries and Museums

: Further Reading


Welcome to Acrylic Painting For Dummies! You’re about to embark on a wonderful journey. Acrylic painting is a fun way to communicate through art, and I love to share the “gospel” of art with others. A real dedication to art changes your life — challenges you, inspires you, and is your companion for as long as you let it be.

Acrylic paints are a great painting choice. They’re easy to use and simple to clean up with soap and water, dry quickly, have no toxic fumes, allow you to make changes quickly, and offer many surprise tricks. This book is your ticket to exploring these and other aspects of acrylics.

About This Book

Given its title, you’re probably not surprised that this book is all about painting using acrylic paint — painting, as in you creating paintings. Although you may get an appreciation of the art of painting by reading this book, there’s no substitute for doing. You must paint yourself (that is, you must paint; whether you paint a self-portrait or paint on yourself is up to you). It can not only be one of the most satisfying activities you ever do, but it’s also the only way to truly appreciate others’ work. It can help you see art for the first time with a new appreciation of what you’re looking at.

So this book helps you do just that — actually paint. Most chapters offer at least one step-by-step project that incorporates the theory and the techniques introduced in that chapter. After duplicating the paintings, you can try the projects again with subjects of your choosing. Although I give you all the instructions to be successful in painting the exercise, you can also make your own choices at any point. Want to change the painting size, surface, or color? Do it. I encourage you to make the projects your own.

Along with all the painting projects, I also show you how to create interesting effects, compose a good picture, and use color to full advantage — all in an easy-to-access and easy-to-understand format. And I don’t use art speak — I just tell you in plain English how to plan, compose, design, and paint. That’s what you were hoping for when you picked up this book, isn’t it?

Conventions Used in This Book

When writing this book, I used a few conventions to make reading easier:

bullet Italicized text shows up to define words or terms being used for the first time in that chapter.

bullet “Acrylic paints” are often described as just “acrylics”.

bullet “Pigments,” “paint,” and “color” are often used to mean the same thing.

bullet Bold text indicates keywords in bulleted lists or the main instructions in a numbered list.

bullet The occasional Web site or e-mail address appears in monofont to help it stand out on the page.

What You’re Not to Read

Throughout the book, you’ll see sidebars that appear in separate boxes. The information in the sidebar may be interesting (and I hope it is), and you may want to read it (and I hope you do), but you don’t need to read it to understand the topic at hand — so you can skip it if you like (and fortunately, I’ll never know if you do). You may just want to flip through the book for the sidebars one day.

The Technical Stuff icons are a similar story — if you like the nuts-and-bolts and historical stuff, check out these interesting tidbits. If you just want to paint already, you can skip ’em.

Foolish Assumptions

The only assumption I make about you is that you’re interested in acrylic painting. I give you basic information about art in general and acrylics in particular, so you don’t need to know a thing about any art-related topic to benefit from this book. If you picked it up, you’re already smart enough.

How This Book Is Organized

I arranged this book into six parts that contain chapters with information related to a common theme.

Although the book reads and leads you logically in order from the beginning to the future of your art, you don’t have to read it in order. You can skip around to work on stuff that interests you. Techniques explained in different chapters are cross-referenced so that if you need some technical how-to information, you can turn to that chapter.

You can also use this book as a reference book. You can go to the table of contents or index, look up what you need, and go straight to the relevant page(s). In art you get a lot of information upfront, but you may not be ready for it until you experience that problem. So you may want to read information again after you have painted for a while. You may be painting along when you suddenly realize, “That’s what she meant!” Then you can go back to read a section or a chapter to cement the concept in your memory. You’ll have many aha moments in your painting career.

Part I: Getting Acquainted with Acrylics

If you’ve never painted, this part is the place to start. If you have painted, this section may be a good refresher and an explanation of the tools and techniques I use. Every artist has a different setup and approach. In these chapters I share mine and tell you what techniques and practices have worked well for me.

I know you can’t wait to get started, so Chapter 1 has a project right away. In Chapter 2, I cover the materials and products you can get in an art store and give you the information you need to ask intelligent questions when choosing your supplies. The world of acrylics includes many additives, mediums, and enhancers, and Chapter 3 sorts out all of those.

Part II: Exploring Tricks and Techniques

Reading this part’s chapters and practicing the projects in them gives you a firm grasp of fundamental acrylic skills. Chapter 4 describes basic acrylic techniques (and these skills are actually appropriate with almost any paint) and finishing needs. Chapter 5 launches into fun experimental techniques that yield interesting textures. Chapter 6 gives you a fast drawing course, including the drawing-transferring process you need throughout the book.

Part III: Finding the Fun in Fundamentals

Wonder why some paintings win awards? Hopefully, it’s because the artist uses strong design and composition (although sometimes I can’t figure out why they win, either — as the adage says, there’s no accounting for taste). Design and composition comprise core knowledge or fundamentals that give you the language to discuss art and improve your artistic planning and execution.

The chapters in this part show you how to mix and use color (Chapter 7) and how to use the rules of design (Chapter 8), and then I put it all together to help you make a strong composition (Chapter 9).

Part IV: Acrylic’s Versatile Styles

You can use acrylic to imitate several kinds of styles. Chapter 10 explores using acrylic paint like a watercolor: loose, liquid, and in layers. Chapter 11 uses the paint thick and generous like an oil painting, and Chapter 12 lets it all hang out by exploring abstract art.

Part V: Projects for Different Surfaces

Acrylic paint has special properties that allow you to use it as glue, so I explore the art of collage in Chapter 13. Many other kinds of paint have to be paired with certain surfaces, but not acrylic. You can use it on a variety of surfaces, so I discuss the versatile surfaces of decorative arts in Chapter 14.

Part VI: The Part of Tens

The chapters in this part are the icing on the cake. Chapter 15 suggests and describes subjects you may want to paint, and Chapter 16 gives you ideas for jump-starting your artistic passion.

Icons Used in This Book

Like any For Dummies book, I’ve tagged some information with icons to direct your attention to specific text. The icons I use include the following:

This icon tips you off to historical or particularly technical info that’s plenty interesting but not essential to the topic.

The text next to this icon shares a tidbit that helps make your art activity easier. Trust me, I’ve made every mistake already for you, and I want to save you some energy by not having to make the same unnecessary mistakes.

When you see this icon, get out your paints, brushes, and paper to either duplicate a small painting project or try a technique.

This icon gives you a heads-up to remember certain information that may be covered elsewhere but is important to keep in mind.

Nothing you can reasonably do in painting can hurt you (okay, don’t eat it), but you may want to avoid the things this icon points out just to preserve your artistic sensibilities and the beauty of your paintings.

Where to Go from Here

This is a For Dummies book, so you can start anywhere you like and jump around as you like. But if you’re a complete newcomer to art or painting, I suggest you turn to the chapters in Part I. If you want a refresher on art supplies, and what to buy, these chapters can help. If you want to jump right in and get your paints wet, turn to any of the chapters in Part II for painting techniques of all descriptions. Part III takes off with improvement and design skills. Part IV gives you plenty of projects to try some different styles. Part V pushes acrylics into new directions of collage and decorative arts.

You’re about to set sail on a journey that can last a lifetime. Painting can take you anywhere, show you anything, elevate your spirit, and calm your soul. Art provides a way to communicate when you can’t find the words. It’s a companion whenever you require one. Art will take you wherever you let it lead you, so welcome aboard!

And remember: You learn and discover most by doing. The best advice I can give you is to paint, paint, paint!

Part I

Getting Acquainted with Acrylics

In this part . . .

Amazing acrylics await you! These first chapters are all about the acrylic medium (another word for type of paint) and the brushes, surfaces, and additives that make acrylic work for every occasion. These three chapters offer a basic understanding of all the supplies you need, as well as the properties of acrylic paint and the plethora of paint choices you face. And, of course, they start you painting.