Painting with Acrylics

by Marcia Burtt

updated 10/22/16

Here is a brief description of how I use acrylic paints.

Acrylics dry fast and thin, enabling me to continually repaint areas without losing freshness. When my first thin wash works, I can leave it alone and enjoy almost the brilliance of watercolor. If, as usually happens, I want to rework or adjust shapes, I am able to paint over the dry layer immediately.

I’ve been a landscape painter for over 30 years and am still crazy about acrylics. In order to adapt to the special requirements of painting on location, I’ve devised a simple paint-and-time-saving system for taking acrylics into the open air—and, in fact, I use this system in the studio.

Acrylic paint lends itself particularly well to working as I do, with a tendency to continuously assess and rework.

I begin by using a large brush–an inch and a half or two inches wide isn’t too big for a large canvas–to create large areas of color.

I skip drawing altogether, as I have found that I see and focus differently when using a tool that makes lines as opposed to a tool that creates planes of color. Even an excellent line drawing is doomed to be eradicated as I see the shapes differently with a brush in my hand.

Covering the canvas completely with large areas of color shows me whether the composition is workable and roughly sets values. At this stage I often work transparently, and since I begin with a white primed canvas or panel the transparent paint can produce vibrant clear effects.

Still using the large brush, I gradually refine colors and shapes, making sure the composition has the force I want. It’s hard to resist the pull to go straight to detail, but I’ve found that nothing ruins a painting so fast as getting out a small brush too early. Very few artists have the skill to keep all the values, shapes and colors balanced while working solely with a small brush. Acrylics tend to dry toward the middle tones—that is, the lights dry darker than they look when wet, and the darks dry somewhat lighter—so I’ve developed the habit of slightly exaggerating value relationships when I paint.

As my painting comes into focus, I shift to progressively smaller brushes. But if I see the painting going awry, I go back to a big brush and ruthlessly repaint.

I avoid putting in details because I believe each viewer needs to bring something to the work. Painting every blade of grass can turn a poem into a tract.